Overview: Ruben Rojas is a muralist, designer, poet and activist who was on a path to becoming an orthopedic surgeon, then left it behind for big money in the real estate game — and then lost everything.

In this conversation, we talk about that hero’s journey, the ups and downs, building up again from bankruptcy and, ultimately, becoming known throughout L.A. and far beyond as an artist who inspires others to live through love. We talk about love in the context of masculinity, strength and weakness. We talk about vulnerability and ego and what really matters. And we get into that personal practice of shifting from fear to love, so that we actually can and do act from a place of love and make the world a better place. Among other things.


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EP 110 SHOW NOTES, LINKS & TRANSCRIPT

Connect with Ruben Rojas:

Website: rubenrojas.com
Instagram: @rubenrojas
Twitter: @RubenRojas
Ruben Rojas on YouTube
Book: Live Through Love
Beautify Earth: beautifyearth.com
Lancaster State Prison “Forgive/Forgiven” mural project short-short (video)


Connect with Adam Williams / Humanitou:

Humanitou on Instagram: @humanitou
About Adam
Adam’s artwork: The Humanitou Shop
Humanitou on LinkedIn
Support the Humanitou Podcast
Subscribe: Humanitou Newsletter


Art Credits

Photographic portrait via Ruben Rojas
Episode cover illustration: Adam Williams


Intro/Outro Music

“Tupac Lives” by John Bartmann | freemusicarchive.org


TRANSCRIPT

Welcome to Humanitou. I’m Adam Williams, creator and host of this podcast series that explores all aspects of our humanness and creativity. 

Today, I’m talking with Ruben Rojas, a muralist, designer, poet and activist who works and spreads his #livethroughlove message throughout Los Angeles and far beyond.

It’s an honor to talk with Ruben, in part, because … I did a solo episode last season about some of my fears and discomforts with directly, openly expressing love, at least with people outside my family. 

You know, that’s as a man in a society that sometimes sees love as an expression of weakness by men. And in that solo episode, I mentioned how I really respect what Ruben does, especially as a man in that societal context, and how he’s a voice and proponent for love, and that maybe I’d have him on this podcast. 

Ruben Rojas, Beautify Earth | Humanitou PodcastWell, here we are. Ruben is here on the podcast. And we talk about what he does, which includes painting huge, beautiful, colorful murals centered around love, loving yourself, loving each other, and living through love.

But it took a hero’s journey for Ruben to come to this place. 

He is a former football player who loved science, found it easy even, and was on his way to becoming an orthopedic surgeon. That was his plan until he took a side road for a minute, got a taste of the cash he could make in real estate, and, naturally, he reevaluated his future.

So in his 20s, Ruben relatively quickly stacked up a seven-figure lifestyle — and then lost it all in the economic crash of 2008. Bankruptcy. Living with his mom again. Picking up the pieces. 

We talk about that journey in this conversation, and how Ruben eventually came to be a thriving artist, a poet who published his first book, titled Live Through Love, a few months ago, and co-founder of a nonprofit called Beautify Earth.

As always, we cover a lot of ground in these conversations, getting into all sorts of topics of humanness and creativity. 

So along the way, Ruben and I talk about love in the context of masculinity, strength and weakness. We talk about vulnerability and ego and what really matters. 

We get into that personal practice of shifting from fear to love, so that we actually can and do live through love … which, by the way, thanks to Ruben, I use as a personal mantra, as an artist, as a parent, as a human in the world. 

It has become part of my practice in moments when I feel agitated, to take a breath and consider what my next action will be, how it will be. Will it come from love … or something else?

Here’s my conversation with the artist Ruben Rojas.

[TRANSITION MUSIC]

Adam: 00:03:00 Ruben, welcome to Humanitou. 

Ruben: Thank you for having me, Adam. 

Adam: I know you are a super busy guy and I want to start off with what I has got to have just made you even busier. You had a baby boy, you and your wife Z had a baby boy only what? A month, month and a half ago.  

Ruben: A month yesterday.  

Adam: Okay, man. Congratulations. I have two sons myself. They’re now eight and 10 years old. Uh, you know, so I’ve been there. I understand it. And I want to ask you this, as an artist of love doing all this work that you do, how has your son Remmy — and I love his middle name, Love — Remmy Love, how has he lit up your life, your household, your work?

Ruben: 00:03:45 The easiest way to explain it is one. I don’t think it’s changed my work or changed my approach because that was all to make the world a better place, which would include my future son, potential daughter, whoever else is going to come in the mix. 

So I think it’s just going to continue pushing it and energizing it. But it’s the, one of my buddies said, and he doesn’t have a kid. He’s not a father or anything. He’s like, you know what you’re about to embark on a whole new, emotional experience that you have you’ve yet to experience. Like we felt everything up to this point, except for becoming a father being responsible for another human life. Right? So that right there is like, Whoa, like this little guy will only survive because his parents love and care for him.

Adam: 00:04:34 Right. You know, I think about in terms of the work thing, um, you know, like with what I’m doing with Humanitou, uh, you know, it is this podcast, but it’s also, I’m a visual artist, a poet writer, things like that. And now with kids, I’ve taken on this sort of different line of thought. 

And I wonder if it’s come to you that what you’re creating and especially with something so big and so significant and useful to the world as the idea of living through love is if you think about that in terms of, for lack of a better word legacy, like you’re one, okay. One you’re let me step back real quick. 

You’re raising Remming in a, an environment of love, not just as a parent, but as an artist who is saying to the world, love is hugely important. And to everything going forward, he’s going to know that you, um, man, this is who you are. You’re a man of love who thought this was important in the world. You’re leaving him something already.

Ruben: I like that. I like how you worded that.  

Adam: Do you feel it that way? Have you considered, okay, this has maybe a little bit more impact because there, this is who I’m showing him. I am,  

Ruben: 00:05:45    You know, the one thing my wife and I always says like, we’re, we’re trying to be the best humans we can be for each other, for our son. You know, we want to be better humans, better parents, all that’s going to translate to him. We don’t want to change how we are, what we are, because now there’s a baby. We just want to emphasize and become better. 

So that’s one thought process, but this whole thing of legacy, I know, I know a lot of people get wrapped up in legacy and like, what’s my legacy? What I’m going to leave behind? I honestly, I look at what I’m doing, like, yeah, that could leave a heck of a legacy, but I haven’t thought about it or approached it or building it for that. 

I just, I don’t think that’s ever been my, my drive. It’s like my fitness, my fitness is for me to be healthy for me to play with my grandkids one day, you know, at 75, be able to, you know, if the walking dead happens, survive and not be, you know, an invalid. 

A by-product of that is, you know, being in shape, having abs, being strong. But my reason for fitness isn’t to have abs and looks, it’s to be healthy, fit and longevity. So I guess that’s kind of how I look at things.  

Adam: 00:07:04 I think legacy is such a big word. And I almost said, in fact, I might have said, “for lack of a better word.” Here’s this word legacy people have, you know, and artists that I talk with have this different sort of reaction to it. 

Some people, um, it’s just too daunting or it’s too egoic, or for me, I don’t think I look ahead in the sense of what am I leaving the world as every step I take being part of this package, but it’s like, well, uh, you know, I kinda take this approach as a dad, I don’t know. I don’t know why. I don’t know if this is just morbid or what, but it’s like, well, man, what if I disappear tomorrow? What if something happens to me? I want my sons to know something that I’ve been trying to do some good in the world. 

So, um, I don’t know. I need to come up with a better word than legacy, I think. Do you have one, anything popped in mind of what really matters?

Ruben: 00:07:52 I think legacy is the right word, but you, you nailed it where you’re like, if you’re coming from an egoic place, right. From the ego. So I guess to me, it’s like, I don’t think about it that way. Cause I’m trying to not come from ego as much as possible. 

Although ego is good. There’s a lot of good for the ego and it protects us and protects, you know, who we are, but I think we’ve put all this weight on big egotistic and self-centered and selfish and used it that way. So that it’s, it’s kind of like a buzz taboo word.  

Adam: 00:08:25 If we let that drive the boat, right. Let that take over and, and be you how we make our decisions. Yeah. 

Um, you know, so I, I don’t know if you recall that we exchanged messages that first time was a number of months ago and it was after I had done a solo episode and it was about my fear of love, not love in terms of, I love my wife, I love my sons, but love in terms of how I express it in the world. 

And you know, I don’t think I’m alone in this, but as a man in society, when men are told collectively, we have this view, be tough, be hard, be stoic, be angry if you’ve got to show an emotion, but love? Be soft with everyone? You know you’re walking down the street and there’s some guy who’s trying to, you know, hold up that egoic front toward me, and “I’m tough. You don’t look me in the eye. You don’t want to do that.” 

You know, how do you show that guy love? And I’m just wondering how you got to where you are with this living through love message and these huge murals you put all over LA and the country and even beyond, internationally, have you always had that sense of vulnerability and softness with love?

Ruben: 00:09:35 So yes, it’s always been there. I’m very sensitive. It’s funny because my wife will say, Oh, everyone knows how to egg you on because you’re sensitive. But you know, I’m also a tough guy and I played football and, like, don’t cry and this and that, I think there’s a balance. 

You know, the easiest thing to do is puff your chest and act tough. The hardest thing to do is take a breath and say, look, “What’s the misunderstanding? Let’s talk through this and figure it out now.” Is that soft? That’s not soft. It’s just coming from love instead of coming from fear. Fear is, “Let’s go! I’m gonna kick your ass.” 

Love is like, hold on, hold on. Like, why? Let’s talk about this. So it’s, I think the issue is that we’re saying we’re being soft, but we’re not. The strongest place you could come from is being vulnerable. Right? 

00:10:28 So like my wife and I watch “This Is Us” every weekend and there’s weeks where I’ve cried like a baby, but even in me, I’m still hiding the fact that I’m crying. Why don’t I just let it out? And the pain of hiding it or that, that thing in your throat, you like, it hurts or wherever people get it, I should have just let it out. And that would have been fine. 

And we look at each other and we laugh and then we both started crying, but it’s harder to hide it than to just let it out. But it’s also harder to let it out and just be free. But once you commit to it, you’re like, Oh, that wasn’t that hard. It’s, it’s just society. Society is tough. 

You know, you grew up in America and you’re like, you’re measured by the size of your house, the type of car you have, what you wear instead of, like, by the experiences, that you travel, that you have a family that is absolutely in love with each other. And you know, it’s just, it is what it is. There’s no right or wrong. It’s just, I hope everyone’s happy.  

Adam: 00:11:32  I’m trying to think, I don’t even know where some of these things got put into me. How did they get so rigid? You know, because I still, uh, I don’t even know what it would take. And, um, and I’m unhappy about that, actually. 

I wish that I would just allow myself because there has been such a wall that I’ve put up there. I mean, my wife and I have been together almost 20 years and, um, I’m not sure she has seen tears from me maybe once, you know, and my, one of my sons only has once. And the reason for that was our other son had been taken to the hospital in an ambulance. And I was just stressed the hell out to the point of, “okay, now I know they’re telling me everything’s going to be okay.” And I let it go a little bit.

Ruben: 00:12:19  I’ll tell you, let me tell you on my wedding day, the minute I started walking down the aisle, I was crying like a baby. And then, because I was crying, it’s funny, ‘cause then the audience was telling me all my friends were like, I just looked at you and I just started sobbing and, grown men. 

My big Scottish friend Willie. We always circulate his phone. He’s six foot five, 275. And he’s just balling. Like we were just, and I was bawling the whole time and it’s just, I was so overwhelmed. Like I couldn’t even have hidden that. So I had to let it go and I wasn’t embarrassed. And I wasn’t any, like I’m crying in front of my family, her family, everybody. It was just the thing to do. And my wife was the one trying to fight it. ’Cause she cries for everything. And she’s like, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.  

Adam: I love that. I mean, that’s love, you know, and, and so I want to talk about, then, some of those shaping things. What was your household like as you were growing up then? I mean, did, did your dad cry? Did he say “son, I love you.” Um, did he live through love, and your mom too, but again, as I think about the masculinity aspect of this —  

Ruben: 00:13:35  You know, um, there’s so much, we’re the sum of every experience, right? And at some point you get to choose and decide who you’re going to be and how you’re going to be. So my dad showed us love. He showed us affection, right? He gave us kisses. He hugged us. So he was there in that capacity. There’s many things that, you know, he wasn’t there for, but there was no, I could never say there was a lack of affection in our family. 

So we knew that affection was a thing and it was okay. Like I kiss my son all the time and I’m going to kiss him until he says, “oh, dad no!”  And you know, I, I kiss my wife all the time. There’s to me, there’s no PDA. My mom, they told us they loved us all the time. We are a Colombian family. So there’s still some machismo, some Latin in there. 

And you know, that little, that Latin get mad and fired up and angry. And, you know, so I dunno, some of that obviously plays into this, but at the same time, I remember very vividly that as a kid, I used to be an over-sharer. So I would just like tell everyone everything. And then I remember one time, pretty vividly. I got in trouble. Like, you can’t be saying everything. You can’t be oversharing. And at the moment, I didn’t understand. And I get it now, but it was so stuck in my head that then I became the total opposite. Then I just totally became the opposite.  

00:15:08 But as far as always being sensitive and always about live through love and the early blogging days, I would blog about my fitness and my diet. And I would start writing things about like, self-actualization stuff like life now it’s up to you, you’re the author. All of these things way before emotional intelligence was a thing. 

And at some point that went away and then had to find it again, you know? And I did the work again to find it again, but it’s, so it’s kind of always been there. And I think it’s in most of us, if we allow it to be, it’s not unnatural. 

I think when we listen to a lot of society or what’s right, that can be unnatural, right? Sometimes people are like, well, you just met  this person. How are you moving in already? It’s so fast and too soon, according to who so fast and too soon, according to who, your timeline, society’s timeline.

00:16:06 You go on a date for the first time with a girl. Oh, I got to wait three days before I call, like, why? Cause you seem needy or, or whatever the case is, maybe you liked it, liked your date that much, like, why wouldn’t you instantly call and be like, “yeah, this was awesome. Let’s do it again.” 

Like, those are just two examples that I give, because this is pretty common that people can relate to that. Right? But that’s other people putting that on you. So I think it really becomes, when does that stop mattering and, trust me, like, there’s like these three fears that most people could kind of fall under. 

You either have a fear of failure or a fear of success, or a fear of what people think of you, and what people think of you is really real. That’s the one I have to always get past like, “Oh, what’s someone going to think,” but I got to stop worrying about that. You know, once you start succeeding, you’re going to get haters. 

But if you care about every hater, you’re not going to be able to address it, fix it, but don’t let it affect you so hard and so deeply that, you know, it’s crippling. So move on and push it aside. And it’s hard. So I’m always working through those little things.

Adam: What gets you fired up? What gets that Latin fire stoked these days?  

Ruben: 00:17:21 You know, it just, I don’t even know how to word it. Just, you know, the being late, if you’re late, like that’s disrespectful to me. Like I’m always early and this is going to be a challenge with a kid now. ’Cause we’ve been late a few times. I’m like, we need a plan. 

It’s a whole new learning curve. And my wife’s the same way. Like we are punctual people. So you want to fire me up or have me say some comments. I’m like, “dude, you’re supposed to meet at 10. It’s 10:15. I’ve been since 9:50, that 10 minutes I wash out. That’s not on you. But like I came to be on time and now you’re disrespecting my time and I’ve got things to do.” So that’s the thing that fires me up. Um, you know, the lack of common sense, just stupid little things.

It’s really little stuff, nothing crazy major. But I do catch myself now, like for example, if someone cuts me off on the freeway before I’d be like really aghhhh, and then just realizing like, you know what, what is this person going through right now? Did they actually cut me off on purpose? Are they trying to get somewhere and they’re running late? I have nothing to do with their experience. So why am I assuming that that was an attack on me?

So now it’s like, okay, hold on. They didn’t do that on purpose. You know, it takes a minute. It’s not instant. It’s like, ah, they gotta get home, hope you get there safe. And then the funny thing is you’re always just chilling and you end up passing them and you’re just like, why was all that necessary? But anyway, so those are just some examples.

Adam: 00:19:00 You know, we’re going to have to talk again in some years as your son gets older, maybe as you have more kids and we’re gonna find out and check in about what fires you up. How’s the late thing going, you know? Because it’s a constant thing, um, to kind of keep perspective on those things.

And honestly, uh, you know, today, especially knowing that I was going to talk with you, you know, this live through love message, and as a dad, that is my biggest challenge. That’s what fires me up more often than other things at this point, because you feel like, you know, I’ve told you this and this and this and this, and I keep trying to teach them, and we’re not getting there and it can be frustrating. But, um, so that’ll be funny. Let’s talk again in five years, if not sooner and see how it’s going, right?

00:19:44 You know, you mentioned that societal thing of big house, fancy car, the whole nine, and I know you’ve got that in your background actually, um, that that’s not you taking a shot at people who live that way, but rather this is part of your journey.

So let’s step back a bit, you know, you, weren’t always the artist with the live through love message. You haven’t been doing that part for 20 years all over the walls, but you were doing some other things. And I can’t even imagin,e I’ve heard you say, you know, you switched out from studying science and headed on an orthopedic surgeon path to real estate and making bank that I can’t imagine personally making. 

So, I mean, yeah, let’s get into that. What are the highlights here for people, the audience to understand where you’re coming from?

Ruben: 00:20:27 Yeah. So everything’s from experience and, don’t get me wrong, the big house is nice. The big cars are nice. All of that is nice. But in this case, what I’m really referring to is using that to make you whole, to prove who you are, to define who you are. 

So yeah, I was studying to be, uh, I was wanting to be an orthopedic surgeon, so I’ve got a degree in exercise science, kinesiology, and a bunch of other stuff. Took a lot of schooling. And then one day a buddy’s like, “Come try out loans and real estate.” And that first month I’m like, “Whoa, that’s a lot of money.” This is the peak, the heyday, right. Uh, and then the next month it was more and it was more, so I didn’t even think about going on to med school because there was another conversation in my head.  

Like, I might be half a million dollars in debt, you know, and all fat, this, that, all these things, missing out on so much life. And did I really, truly love that or did it, was I doing it because it was easy? It was easy to me. I’m not going to lie. Like science was easy. I really enjoyed it. I liked it. I liked dissecting things, but, you know, I was always an artist as a kid, my whole life I’ve been painting and drawing and doing all these things, but no one says go become one. 

So, you know, circle back here we are. So, you know, couple of years of real estate do the whole thing, gone through all of it. I saw people get arrested. I saw the fraud, I’ve seen it all. 2008 comes, crashes. I lose everything, but I also strategically did it, what I would call the right way.  

00:22:10 Meaning, you know, my mom raised us and my dad raised us, like your credit is everything. So make your payments on time. Do all your things, pay all your debts. So the house that I bought, I had to sell it, you know, for way less than what I paid for, sold it short sale, then moved on my merry way. Lost about 500 K on that. 

Um, never missed a payment. It was never late. It wasn’t foreclosed. I just had to go through the process of short sale. Um, finally I got rid of everything, got rid of the boats, got rid of the stuff, got rid of it, sold it all, right? It wasn’t like it was seized or I lost, I just sold everything. 

Finally, the only thing I was really left with was, was business debt, a lot of credit card debt and things like that from just the business. It wasn’t like I had hundreds of TVs and all this stuff. So, you know, I go into court, file for bankruptcy and the attorney, the judge’s like, “yeah, everything looks great. You’re doing the right thing. We’re going to discharge this.” 

And I go on with my merry way and you know, for the next year, like, what am I going to do to start rebuilding? You have no credit. Like you can only pay with cash or debit cards. It’s really a different ball game. But what I realized was like, where’s everyone at? Where did everything go? And why was I defining myself by all these things? I’m still me. You know, I still have relationships, a girlfriend at the time, a girl that cared for me, like, so let’s say, why did I need all these things to define who I was to kind of cover whatever I was avoiding inside of me.

00:23:47 And it doesn’t mean I addressed it at that moment. So a year of floundering around, a couple of people were like, “Hey, get into financial services.” So, um, I go to work at Mass Mutual. You know, I get certified, um, again, my insurance licenses, securities licenses, you name it and start doing really well, you know, right out the gates.

Five years into it, I’m like, wait a minute. I’m in the same type of business where the carrot is money, but what else am I providing? Yes, the work is good. Life insurance is good for people, disability’s good for people, saving. And retirement is good for people. I was able to deliver some claims within my career and saw the benefits of it. It was like, it wasn’t fulfilling me besides, like, okay, well, if I do this much, I make this much. And I’m like, I’m back in it again. I’m back in. 

I didn’t care at that point to have all these things anymore, you know, diamond encrusted watches and different things that I had in my early twenties. And a buddy of mine said, “Hey, let’s grab some coffee.” He had just done this emotional intelligence workshop. It’s starting to get, uh, early popular again. 

And I went to this, course right place, right time. Because at that moment I was waking up depressed. I was waking up not wanting to go to work, not wanting to get out of bed, questioning everything, like, this can’t be the rest of my life. I’m miserable. I’m in, like, my early thirties. I’m like, what is happening? Like, this is not cool. I can’t imagine. 

And then like, you know, the GM would be like, “dude, you got skills, you got talent. You could be one of the best of the best. You’ve proven it.” And I’m like, okay, but I don’t care. I don’t want that paycheck. And then I’m miserable. And then maybe I’m divorced. And my kids resent me because I’m like, well, I gave you all this. Miserable. So I’m showing up like a terrible miserable asshole. Like, what does it mean? 

Adam: 00:25:46  And you started seeing that it’s not what you want, right? ’Cause people come at you with, “Hey, you got this talent, you’ve got this degree, this whatever.” Right? I’ve experienced that myself. It’s like, well, wait, that’s not what I want. That’s not how I wanna use that degree. That’s not how I want to use my heart and talents in the world. 

What about if we go back before that, that year that, you know, you’d lost everything. And I think it sounds like to me, I don’t want to overblow this, sensationalize, whatever, but it sounds like to me, you had a seven figure kind of life going on and then lose all that. That’s gotta be a big blow to that ego, to that sense of whatever you thought was you and was the world. 

What was that low point for you after that crash? And before you could start kind of building upward again?

Ruben: 00:26:34 Great question. I mean, it got low, you know. Luckily I was able to move back into my mom’s condo with my brother. So that was good. And I kept the vehicle. So that was about it. But yeah, there’s a point of like, I used to not worry about money and now I’m like, I can’t scrape two pennies together. It was crazy. 

And I’m like, it’s not like thought I was going to be on the street. Obviously I had my family, but I’m also not someone that is going to ask for something, and they also need everything they’re making for their situations. So that low got really low, you know? And then there are some good people that stepped up and, you know, like my girlfriend would pay for a lot of things, you know?

So that was really cool at the time. But that proved to me that that was more about, like, love in a relationship than what it was and what it could have been. But I didn’t even, even at that time, I wasn’t thinking I was depressed or anything. It took me years later, and I don’t toy around with the word depression. Like I’m not saying it was like clinically diagnosed or anything like that. 

I just know there was stuff there and that we all go through it, and we all go through roles that we can take ourselves out of. Right? So this isn’t, I’m not talking about what is a major disease that people suffer from, but it was definitely, it was definitely a bout, of, of this, you know, you wake up terrified at night, you know, just thinking of terrible situations and like I could actually say I can’t do that. I can’t go do that.

Adam: 00:28:16 I’m sure being in your twenties somehow impacted something of this experience. I mean, you weren’t married yet. You didn’t have your son yet. When we’re in our twenties, uh, you know, that mindset that we’re in, I’m guessing, correct me if I’m wrong, but when you came into that kind of career initially with real estate, that kind of money, that kind of flow in your life, I’ve heard you talk about with other people, uh, you know, other podcasts conversations you’ve had, you were out at clubs, like, you were living big. 

Was there any sense in your mind anything could happen to that? Or was it just always, “Oh, this is a forever trajectory upward, you know”?

Ruben: 00:28:54 I didn’t think, well, part of everything is I always, like, take personal responsibility. Like, like if I’m in charge of my life, I can’t get mad for anything except for what I can try to control or solve or react and create solutions to. So I didn’t think like it’s never, it’s never going to end. My mom told me that all the time, but I didn’t think like this is going on forever and continue. 

I actually saved half of every paycheck. So like 50% of everything went into accounts. That’s what helped me float for many years. Um, like right when it started to oh-nine, right? ’07, ’08, ’09, that would let me float through that and be able to pay everyone back and get rid of everything and pay the house on time. So I used all my savings, so it wasn’t like I was making it and burning it. I literally was still saving half a check, Countrywide money market account earning 4% back then, boom, maxed out the account, open another one, open another one. Right? 

So that was good on that end, but I didn’t think one way or the other, um, I was definitely living in the moment, but in my twenties, I’m like, I’m a different person. I have different wants and different needs.

Adam: 00:30:15 Well, you were thinking ahead in the sense of saving. It sounds like you had a head for finances, which you later would get into, but then that wasn’t the thing as a career that was sustaining you emotionally and spiritually and all that sort of stuff. 

So I’m wondering, you said art was always there. I’m wondering about that. If we use the word “calling” like that voice that’s inside that kind of, at least for me, and I think for plenty of others at times, at some point it starts to feel like it’s nagging, like, “man, this thing, this idea keeps coming back to me.”

Is that what happened for you in terms of art and the muralist that you now are in this career, in the life that you now have? Was that a voice in you kind of nagging saying, “there’s something else for you”?

Ruben: 00:31:00 There always felt like there was something else, whether it was that specifically, I don’t know. ’Cause that also was at that moment, right place, right time, culmination of multiple things. Did I always draw? Yes. I doodled on all my stuff. I’d have drawing pads. I would paint canvases and things like that, but I never looked at it as, like, I’m going to have an art practice, right? 

You know, I didn’t, I just didn’t. It was again, no one said, “Hey, you can go do that.” I have no idea what that looked like. Um, and then I met my buddy Evan in this workshop, and then, at the end of the workshop, of designing the design for the hoodie. And he’s like, “we got to get that on a wall.” 

That’s what led to the first mural. And I’ve always been a fan of street art, murals. Wherever I traveled to go to Vancouver and all these places that have great street art and graffiti. And I would take photographs of this. Like, one of the things I was always doing was photography. So while I was doing that, never would have thought, “Oh, hey, I’m going to paint that. And I’m going to put my name on that wall.” 

Now that I’m doing it, now I think of it like, wow, this is super cool, what I get to do and how I get to do it. But I think a lot of it is following that voice. A lot of it is seeing where it’s going to take you. Does it tell you what it is? No. You just got to keep moving forward. As long as you keep moving forward, eventually you’ll figure it out.

Adam: 00:32:24 About that figuring it out part, right? Like nobody has– There’s nothing I can ask you right now. And nothing you can say in response that will tell every listener out there, this is exactly the blueprint, this is your roadmap. 

But is there a little more grain to how to know maybe where we’re going, where we keep pushing forward, we’re trying this and that? How did you, anyway, come to recognize “man, this is it. I’m seeing the picture become more and more clear”?

Ruben: 00:32:52 So, I guess let’s take it as a side-hustle experiment. So I was in finance full-time painting murals, you know, out there two, three in the morning, painting and then go home. I lived in Woodland Hills at the time and I was paining in Santa Monica. So imagine packing up at two, three, and driving to Woodland Hills, getting an hour or two  of sleep, getting up again and being in the office at 8:00 AM with an hour and a half of traffic, if you know what the 101 to the 405, for those that do know, and then back at it again. 

But for the next few years I would paint a mural here and there. We started building this organization called Beautify Earth and I still was doing finance. And what really, I think, solidified for me is how happy it made me, how I didn’t care about anything besides just putting up more work, and then how people started reacting and responding to it.  

00:33:50 And I don’t mean, “Oh, that’s really cool and awesome.” I mean, like, this is how it affects me, here’s my vulnerable share, and this is how I want to go show up in the world because of that mural. 

And I’m like, “Whoa, now we’re affecting people,” and people, once you can grab people’s attention, and if you can affect people, people are what actually changes the world, not a single person. But if a single person could inspire people that affect change inside of them, then they can change the world. And we all change the world collectively. 

So that’s how I started looking at this. Like, okay, if I paint this wall, 40,000 people see it every single day. You know, start doing some basics, okay. Let’s say 10 people saw, it landed and pick up something. And those 10 people that each touch one other person, those 10 people would become 20, just very small numbers. Those 20 become 40 so on and so forth all the way. So you start growing, growing and growing. So that’s what I started seeing.

Adam: 00:34:55 It’s a ripple effect. And, and you know, like I tell my sons, that energy, whatever it is, if it’s negative, if it’s positive, that’s what ripples. So when we think about, and we talk about that even just in the space of our own household, right? If one of us, whoever it is, if I’m in the one who’s in a bad mood, that negativity is what ripples. 

But if I turn around and paint a mural of love on the wall, like you do, yeah, the ripple effect that that carries is, I mean, it’s just, it’s not even measurable. 

What were some of those early murals when people were reacting? Like what were some of the phrases and the things that you were calling out where they’re like, “that touches me so deeply, so helpfully,” whatever the case was.

Ruben: 00:35:42 So the first mural, on the top left, it says, “Who will you be?” And on the right, huge wall, is a silhouette of me, like this. And it has just all these powerful words: grateful, leader, responsible, worthy, love, joy, thankful, just name it, all kinds of words all over this wall. 

And that was talking into my experience of waking up, feeling that I’m depressed and this and my that. And I’m like, “okay, who will I be? So I’m feeling this way, but if I change and I’m like, you know what, I’m going to be grateful because I woke up today. I’m going to take responsibility for my life. And you know what? I am worthy of being happy”. So you can start picking and choosing how you wanted that wall to affect you. But a lot of this in my work is me talking to myself.

00:36:31 And if we’re mirrors to each other, that’s going to help us collectively. So it’s not like I’m putting up random things. Like, they all mean something special. They all mean something different. The next mural was, “Anything can happen. Anything can be.” It’s about living in possibility at any given moment. 

Anything can happen at any given moment. Anything can be. It could be positive, it could be negative, but there’s a possibility of either. So live in possibility. Now, theres a girl blowing a dandelion, and it’s about making a wish. So making a wish is that you can either hope or you can make a wish and be active about it. 

Um, so making a wish is as simple as if I just make a wish. I just make a wish. But if I make a wish and act upon it, now you’re taking action instead of just wishful thinking. So then that dandelion became birds and birds flying away, birds symbolize the word freedom. They symbolize action and you have to take action to fly. So that was kind of, that was the second mural.

Adam: 00:37:35 I want to ask you about the aspirational aspects of your work. ’Cause I’m thinking about, you know, there’s the part where you said, you’re talking to yourself, whether that’s to be grateful or if it’s about love, living through love, that kind of thing. But then also, even though you’re years into this work, right, you’re still human. You’re still flawed. We all are. We still have that full package. 

And I’m just thinking, well, people who recognize you as a live through love guy, you know, if you go to the grocery store, we have some of that fire come up. ’Cause I don’t know what, you know, somebody cut in line, whatever it is, right?

Do you feel pressure that you always have to be full love a hundred percent all the time instead of that full human, you know, that people publicly know you as?

Ruben: 00:38:14 You know, um, I always take this compliment very deeply, and my wife and I get it a lot when they meet us, they’re like, “wow, you’re actually what you’re putting out on social media. You’re like everything you post and share together. Like, that’s who you are when you’re out and about. And we get to meet you and that’s really refreshing.” 

And because I’ve met people and I’m like, I know people, I’m like, you’re not that, like, and I know you as this not that, there’s an incongruency there. And I think it’s wrong. Um, having a human moment is a different thing. And it probably would be fantastic to catch a human moment and catch the shift, right? Because the whole practice is we can shift out of funks and things quicker. That’s the matter of practicing and taking reps. 

But, but no, I mean, I catch myself, like, I’m the love guy. I can’t be this person. I drive a car wrapped in “love.” Do you think I could go running around driving like a giant a-hole? And I think of it all the time. Like my car says “love,” like drive– not even though I drive super chill, but now I think it’s now really to keep practicing. You keep practicing and you keep practicing. 

But I do, I get frustrated with people, but I think it’s different. It’s more like, you know, you said you were going to do something, you’re not doing it. And I get a little snippy. I mean, that’s normal, but I don’t think I would, I don’t think it’s anything super crazy where, for lack of a better example, it’ll be on TMZ that I was doing something crazy, right? Um, but it is definitely a very conscious effort and it just makes this practice better, I guess.

Adam: 00:40:08 So in that way, I think it sounds like the murals and things that you paint, and not just murals, um, you know, the clothing design and all these ways that you have “love” on everything. I mean, it’s your lane and that’s what keeps being repeated. And like it’s a reminder to you as much as anything you’re putting it out to the world, but it continues to be.  

Ruben: 00:40:27 A hundred percent. 

Adam: Let’s talk about that other side from love. Um, again, I heard you on another conversation refer to maybe judgment could be the opposite. I’ve heard of fear as the opposite, you know. I’m thinking about connection and that what we have then on the opposite, along with maybe judgment, maybe, um, that fear is disconnection. 

And of course we see a lot of that in society right now, too. And just, I know fear and love is that kind of duality that you look at. And I’m curious for your take there on what we’re seeing and, and maybe what you’re afraid of. And again, how you turn that to love and what that practice is.  

Ruben: 00:41:09 You know, it’s more like I feel sadness and I feel bad for when you see people that don’t think they have an opportunity or a choice, or you see people that are just, they’re just angry and they need a hug. 

You know, I was painting this house and this woman walked up straight to my face, cursed every word at me, F-you this F-you that, yada yada yada, posting middle fingers and all kinds of stuff. But she wasn’t mad at me. I just happened to be the cherry on top of the whole thing happening. Right? 

But this was how she reacts, you know, she has a hat on in a profile photo that says “bitch” in giant capital letters. So I’m assuming she is being what she’s saying. She is, but why? I don’t know why and how you go about trying to solve problems. 

Let’s just look at the whole last year, a lot of people are just sad, angry, frustrated, and mad, and they don’t know how to deal with things to the point of, they’re just angry and violent, and like anger and violence as Martin Luther King Jr said, it’s not going to solve the problem, love is. But again, it’s just so hard to come from love. It’s very easy to be angry, right? It’s super simple.

Adam: 00:42:34 It’s like that’s what people expect from us, too, is especially again, I’ll go back to the gendered idea in society, but yes, we’re all expected to react angrily, um, violently, aggressively to somebody cutting us off in traffic or to whatever it is, somebody coming up and being aggressive in our face. Well, of course, you’re supposed to react negatively to them as well. And yeah, that effort to take a breath, step back and then approach it. It’s tough.  

Ruben: 00:43:05 Yeah. So like, I just let her do her thing, but I could have easily gone F me? No, F you. And we could have just did that, but what would it have solved? 

Adam: Nothing. It would’ve just escalated. 

Ruben: I just didn’t engage. I’m just like, okay. Like the one thing I said is, like, when she started coming, like, “are you talking to me?” Like, you know, I don’t experience this. Like, this is, like, next level anger. Uh, and I just didn’t engage. I haven’t engaged in any of it. None of her stuff. ’Cause it’s just going to feel that kind of energy. And that’s not what’s going to help her help anyone. Right? It’s like when people started getting into political conversations, like, are you red? Are you blue? Are you Trump? Or are you Biden? Like you just, it’s just doesn’t go.  

00:43:56 They’re not sound, valid conversations. When they come from fear and anger, you can’t have just civilized discourse. That’s just like, “nah, let’s just not talk about it.” But it’s not about avoidance, let’s just not talk about it. Like, I’ve seen friends not be friends anymore because of all the things happening last year, friends don’t become friends because like, “well, I don’t believe in wearing a mask.” “Well, I do. So wear a mask.” “I’m not going to wear a mask.” “Okay. We’re not friends.”

You know? Oh, I’m Republican. You’re Democrat. Okay. Well, I’m voting Republican doesn’t mean I’m a Trumper. Well, I’m a Democrat and it doesn’t mean I’m for Biden. I’m like, what’s going on here? Like, “well, now we’re not friends.” 

Like, you started seeing all these things or people that stayed silent through BLM. “Well, I don’t have anything constructive to say, so I’ll be silent.” That’s one way. And then someone will say, “well, now you’re being complicit because you’re being silent. So that means you’re with the bad side.” I’m like, does it though? Maybe they don’t, you know– There’s just so much.

Adam: 00:44:58 Yeah. Things are cut up into it’s either/or, you know. It’s me or you, us or them, whatever. It’s, it’s just so black and white when we put it into that sort of tribalized perspective, and life is not that. Life is not that. And there’s just so much we all have in common, that common ground. And we’ve not gotten to that. 

But if we go back then to what your work is with love, I think it’s pretty fair to believe that every one of these people, regardless of what they believe, also believes that they have love. They give love, they receive love. There are people who love them in their lives. You know, these aren’t isolated sorts of moments. 

And I think your reminders on these walls and on the sweatshirts, the hoodies, the jewelry, everything that you’re doing, um, and the ripple effect again.

00:45:49 I want to bring up one or two examples of other love murals. One is Kobe Bryant, because I used to be a basketball player. When I saw the news of him dying, him and his daughter and seven other people in that helicopter crash last year, you know, I don’t react this way to many celebrities, many people I’ve never met dying, but that was a gut punch. 

And you did a mural with a silhouette of him and his daughter, filled in with “love.” Like you do a lot of your murals. Was he a particular, um, model or person or somebody in your life?

Ruben: 00:46:29 So just like you, yeah, I don’t get the celebrity thing or, you know, there’s a few people, I look up to. Like, The Rock. I want to work out with that guy, like, be friends, drink some tequila. But Kobe was another guy. You know, when I painted two COVID murals and it was something I had to do. I just wanted to do it. I had to do it. 

You know, when Nipsey Hussle died in LA, Nipsey Hussle murals went up all over the place and people were like, “Hey, go paint a Nipsey mural.” I’m like, well, I don’t have a connection to Nipsey. I’m not just going to paint a mural, right? There’s nothing there. But, like, Kobe, I saw from like day one to his whole career. 

You see someone make a mistake, right? That mistake that still people chastise him for, and see him evolve and become a man and become a father. And all he started becoming post-basketball career. But you just saw that. I mean, that guy worked hard. And I would say, like, that’s living through love. Like, you evolved, you became better. You strived to reach more. 

You know, I got to see him train, ’cause I played football at College of the Canyons. He would go up there and he would train by himself hitting 400 meter sprints on the track and stuff. So it was just really cool. So I’ve always been, obviously, born and raised in L.A., a Laker fan and all those things add to the mix. But like, there was just something about him. 

And then when he died, you saw his reach. It was a world of sadness. It wasn’t just like, okay, L.A. or the U.S., like, there was Kobe murals going around the world and the Philippines. And like, you name it. It is crazy. It was insane. I think what LeBron actually even said, like, you know, “I thought I was famous. And then I went to China with Kobe and it was like a whole other level.”

Adam: 00:48:25 There was something about him right? And like you said, so he had a 20 year career and he was only a few years into the next chapter. And he was doing amazing things. I mean, he’s a basketball player and he won, his short film won an Oscar. Right? Is it, I mean, it’s so, yeah, his impact and ripple. 

The other project I want to ask you about has to do with the Lancaster State Prison. And I’m curious about, if you can tell me, I mean, how did you get into that? Or what was your motivation? How did the project with, uh, some of the guys who were incarcerated in the prison, who I think were part of this project, right? Just tell me, you know, some of the heart behind that one.

Ruben: 00:49:08 Yeah. So that, that was a really cool project. And how that came about was my neighbor. He also trains at my gym. He’s like, “Hey, I volunteer with this organization at the prison. And sometimes we bring people up to talk to the guys. Would you ever be interested?” I’m like, “yeah, let’s go.” 

So we did a day and I hadn’t, I didn’t even know him that well, yet, we got in the car and for like an hour and a half driving all the way up to Lancaster, ’dcuse we’re in Santa Monica, each way. And then we had a good day, did a tour, talked to the guys and this group of guys, they were all murderers. They all killed the human being. And they’ve been in there anywhere from 35 years, I think, to 12-ish years. But they were, they’ve done the work. Like you could tell, you start hearing their stories and, can you forgive someone that’s done the unforgivable? These are the questions that came about.

00:50:09 And that mural says “Forgive/Forgiven.” And the whole theme about it is how you have to forgive yourself before you can even ask for forgiveness. If I ask you to forgive me, but I haven’t forgiven myself, what’s the point? That’s not going to land. Right? And vice versa. Right? 

If they’re trying to get forgiveness from the parents of their victims, but they haven’t forgiven themselves for the crime against their child, Right? There’s two things going on here, two dynamics. So we toured around, checked out their arts center and I’m like, “dude, these walls, like, it’d be kinda cool to pop a mural in here”. And then a couple of months later, same guy, same neighbor, said, “dude, someone heard you.” 

And we got approval to paint the mural. 

Adam: Oh wow.

Ruben: 00:50:54 He’s a producer. So he did a lot of the legwork. We got permits, we got the insurance, got all this stuff to go in there and film it. So a lot of red tape and we just put up that mural, you know, and went in and sketched it out. And the next day we all went in and they all helped me paint it. 

And it says forgive and casts a shadow that says forgiven. And then the G is big in the center. It’s there to this day and they were talking about how it’s changed the yard. It’s changed the guards. They all see it. It’s on their cell block. And then like the pull-up bars over there. And it’s just there. So it’s super cool.

Adam: 00:51:34 Did you get a sense of what that was meaning to these guys who were involved in the project? Like, even while you were doing it? If not, I mean, I don’t know if you got letters after the fact or anything, but what that day, I mean, what did the message mean to them?

Ruben: 00:51:48 The thought or the theme of it came about from my conversations with them, from my first visit, like the men in there. So when they’re like,” Hey, you know, we can paint a mural.” I’m like, this is what it’s going to be on. Like, I already knew that I wanted it to be on that, uh, on that topic ’cause we talked about a lot of that and the self-love. And, like, we had some deep, deep conversations. 

It was a pretty powerful day. And then after they painted it, they, I mean, they loved it. They loved it. And I got a stack of letters like this I still have saved, like, a month later. There’s no experience like it, you know? And that’s just one of those things you just do and it happens, and it just fills you up. You know, there’s a documentary video somewhere I’ve posted it before, so you can check it out.

Adam: 00:52:39 I think I did find a link either on or through your site, um, something embedded. So, uh, I’ll be including links to your site, to your social media, all that stuff, the show notes on the website. So we’ll get people there and I want them, you know, whoever’s interested to be able to take a look. 

I want to ask you about another project separate from the murals. You published a poetry book. I think that was in December, right? That was called, is called Live Through Love. Tell me about that book and what your, well, first of all, you’re, like I started off with this thing, you are an incredibly busy guy, creativity flowing in all these directions. I don’t even know how you had the time to fit poetry into this and publishing a book. 

But tell us about that book and what of you is in that, like, what does that book mean to, to put that out?

Ruben: 00:53:29 So the book is called Live Through Love. Um, and it’s a poetry, a self-love, like, journal style book. So you literally start from page one and go through it, the whole thing. And it’s just a journey, and it’s just my works and my poems over the time. 

And the way the poems came about is, you know, 2016 ish, 2017 ish — May 2016, ’cause it was early in my relationship with my wife — um, I would start reading them to her and she’s like, “you know, I follow this guy, RM Drake, he publishes everything on Amazon. Like, you should do that and I’d buy these books in a second.” 

So I started a whole Instagram account under @ben and that was just my poetry. It was just white with black text. It started growing and got a lot of following over time. And at some point I just stopped publishing because like doing that and running multiple social media accounts, it’s just, it got a little hectic, but I kept writing.  

I still have, like, 300 poems I haven’t even released, but a lot of it is, like, I’m in my car and I listen to a good beat and I’ll just rip out a freestyle and I’m like, “Oh, I gotta write that down.” But they all have a little thing. They’re all about self love. And they’re all about, you know, that kind of a journey, you know, listen to that voice deep inside your heart, talking different things like that. 

And last year, I have a friend, she published it. Um, I just sat down and it took a journal similar size of that. And I’m not, I mean, I basically sat down and just wrote it straight through in one day. I took that and I just mailed it to her, “Hey, this is what I want to create into a book.” And then she opened this. She’s like, I love it. Let’s do it. 

Uh, and then we got with a graphic designer to help design it, put it together. There’s like nine versions of the book before we landed on the way we landed with it. And yeah, there you have it. You know, that’s the long and short story of the book. I was just doing it and getting it out there.

Adam: 00:55:44 Now we’re back to action, taking that action, leaping in and doing it. And I think that what we have here is a theme, one of energy, positivity, and also you have taken risks and have positive expectations, the possibilities of the reward. 

I assume and trust that on your joy and happiness scale, where are you now compared to, you know, those years ago?  

Ruben: 00:56:11 Oh man, I’m clearly a 10 on a scale of one to 10, you know. There’s people that live for the weekend and I’m happy to say, like, I don’t live for the weekend anymore. ’Cause I used to be one of those 

To me is every day is just another day. It’s just another day to move forward. And again, I’ll preface that doesn’t mean I don’t have bad days and it doesn’t mean there’s not days where I just sit on the couch and watch Netflix all day, but I’ve been able to. I have that opportunity where I could do that almost guilt-free. 

Of course, there’s the overachiever in me is like, oh, I can be doing like, you know, but you have to have those days, you have to have the down days, um, to like recenter and refocus. 

Well, yeah, I mean, I wouldn’t do it any other way. The whole journey led me to this. So I have no regrets on all the things that I had to go through either.

Adam: 00:57:05 I’m glad we had this opportunity to talk and thanks so much for everything that you know, you’ve just brought to this hour and shared with us from your story. And I’m going to keep reading and watching, and I love your work, man. Thanks for being here. Ruben: Thank you.

[TRANSITION MUSIC]

OUTRO

That was my conversation with muralist, designer, poet and activist Ruben Rojas.

You can learn more about Ruben and references made throughout this conversation in the show notes published with relevant links and an episode transcript on the website, at humanitou.com. You also can connect with Ruben and his work at rubenrojas.com.

If you appreciate what you’ve just listened to today, consider rating and reviewing the Humanitou Podcast on your podcast player, and spreading the word on your social media pages, and by word of mouth with your family and friends.

Together, we can build a more creative, compassionate and thoughtful world.

I’m Adam Williams, creator and host of the Humanitou Podcast. 

Thanks for being here.

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Humanitou