The fence surrounding J Raymond Mireles’ house in Logan Heights isn’t there just to keep people out. In fact, the photographer is using his fence – a symbol of privacy and security – as an experimental public art project meant to bring people together.

Mireles recently mounted seven large-scale photographs he took on a new wooden fence that wraps around his home on Imperial Avenue. The nearly four-by-five-foot portraits feature the faces of people who live and work in his neighborhood.

Next to the stretches of barren chain-link, corrugated steel and concrete fences common in the neighborhood, Mireles’ art installation is striking. The sidewalk’s been morphed into a makeshift outdoor art gallery – people often linger in front of the oversized faces trying to figure out why they’re there.

“I was really nervous at first,” Mireles said. “I put a couple photos up and was like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ But the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. There’s almost a feeling of protectiveness over the work.”

Inside his home, Mireles thumbed through a stack of the rest of the large-scale prints he’s preparing to frame and mount on the fence.

“This is Chris,” he said, pointing to a photo of a young man. “He’s always around here. The New Name Club is right across the street. It’s a social club and all day long you’ll hear the slap of dominoes on the table and these guys who go there – they’re so funny – you think they’re about to get in a full-on fight, but it’s just such trash-talking. It’s just fun.”

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Mireles flipped through a few more photos, then stopped at the portrait of a smartly dressed older man in a fedora.

“This guy I photographed at the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which is a little further down the way,” he said. “One of the things that got me started on the project is that when I went out to the VFW and there’s all these guys and they’re all dressed up and looking super-fly and I was like, wow, I’ve entered a whole other world that I had no idea existed.”

Mireles is white. Most of his neighbors in Logan Heights are black or Latino. So far, his fence features a patchwork of black and brown faces (he’s yet to meet a white neighbor who’s agreed to a photo shoot).

Before he moved to the neighborhood a few years ago, the longtime local said he rarely saw or interacted with non-white people. He said he thinks the majority of white San Diegans don’t interact much with people of other ethnicities either. He wants that to change and he thinks his public art project can help – or at least get people talking about race relations in San Diego.

Photo courtesy of J Raymond Mireles
Photo courtesy of J Raymond Mireles
A public art installation in Logan Heights by John Raymond Mireles

“I came to Logan Heights and I found wow, there’s actually black people and they have a whole culture here,” he said. “But if you lived in the world that I’ve traditionally lived in, you’d have no idea. They’re almost invisible. I thought, OK, well, this is something I can do my part in. I can communicate. I can share this reality.”

Mireles will soon fill the rest of his fence with photos of his neighbors. Then, at 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10, he’ll hold an opening reception at his house (2747 Imperial Ave.) with food, drinks and live music. He’s inviting his neighbors and working to get people from outside the neighborhood to come, too.

“It’s using art as a form of integration,” he said. “And I want to do it in a way that isn’t too preachy or forced.”

Kevin Bernardino works at an auto shop a block away from Mireles’ home. He’s one of the subjects in the photos – the young and tattooed guy with a grease-covered hand held up to his forehead.

“It’s a good image because, with the face tattoos, I look kind of scary,” Bernardino said of Mireles’ photo of him. “But then you can see that I’m a hard-working man now. You can tell I wasn’t on the right path but now I’m trying to get it together.”

The other images try to tell similar stories. Mireles wanted to cast a positive light on his neighbors.

“Someone looked at my work and said, ‘You know, you’re making heroes of these people,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly it,” he said. “I use the same lighting and the same equipment that Annie Leibovitz would use to photograph a portrait of a movie star.”

A few days after he hung the first photos, he said a man in a wheelchair came up to him loaded with questions and one criticism. He said the man wanted him to add a few white faces to the fence.

“I think that’s great,” Mireles said. “I’m making a statement and people are responding to that statement. When people just walk by and they don’t have an opinion and they don’t care, well, you know, then what’s the point of that? I told him, ‘Hey, if you want a white face, then let me photograph you.’”

Mireles said he thinks of his fence project as the first phase of a much larger DIY public art project. He’d like to eventually gain access to other property owners’ walls and fences in Logan Heights and mount more large-scale photos of people in the neighborhood.

“Ideally, what I would love, is people to be able to walk or bike down Imperial Avenue and this becomes just one big gallery,” he said. “And that’s one of the great things about this neighborhood is I can do this here. I couldn’t get away with it in Little Italy. I might have been able to do it 20 years ago in North Park, but you can’t do it now.”

    This article relates to: Arts/Culture, Public Art, Southeastern San Diego

    Written by Kinsee Morlan

    Kinsee Morlan is the Engagement Editor at Voice of San Diego and author of the Culture Report. She works to expand our reach and helps community members write op-eds. She also manages VOSD’s podcasts and covers the arts, culture, land use and entrepreneurs. Contact her directly at Follow her on Facebook or Twitter. Subscribe to her podcast.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    I agree with the comment that there should also be women in the photo mix unless, of course, they're uncomfortable with being portrayed here. 

    Surely, copies of each photo are given to each person portrayed. What a great opportunity to have a wonderful portrait to pass down in a family! 

    hockeysuit subscriber

    Great work John, and thanks for the story Kinsee!

    Gayle Falkenthal APR
    Gayle Falkenthal APR subscriber

    Most inspiring story I've read in months. Mr. Mireles figured out how to use his unique skills and talents to personally address an issue instead of passively hoping someone else would, as far too many people do. The mural is beautiful as are all the individuals. 

    Mr. Mireles, it takes a talented photographer to create such impressive portraits. VOSD, you need to hire this guy - I would love to see his work illustrating your articles!

    Marjorie Wahlsten
    Marjorie Wahlsten subscribermember

    If I lived in Logan Heights, he could certainly photograph me.  (I am white). They are beautiful images and I love public art!!  Congratulations Mr. Mireles.

    John Mireles
    John Mireles

    So nice to wake up to my name in the Morning Report and read the supportive comments. One thing the report mentions is that no white neighbors have agreed to be photographed. That's true only to the extent that I have close to zero non-Hispanic white neighbors. It's not that non-minorities are saying no to me and my camera; there's just few to be found in this neighborhood. (I want to say none, but I know someone will correct me.)

    I'd also like to add that though I'm "white" by skin color, I'm actually Hispanic. Not only is my name of Spanish origin, both of my parents are native Spanish speakers. Not sure how that matters, but it's funny for me to see myself described as white when much of my family history is decidedly nonwhite.

    My hat's off to Jennifer for calling me "young," but even flattery will not help you get my face on the fence! 

    Kenneth Malbrough
    Kenneth Malbrough subscribermember

    Wonderful neighborhood idea, excellent work Mr. Mireles! Thanks for the article Kinsee.

    sjagitator subscriber

    Gorgeous!  More women please :-)

    Jennifer Spencer
    Jennifer Spencer subscriber

    I hope that Mireles also adds his own portrait to the exhibition.  After all, he is a member of the community. It may help his encourage his white neighbors to participate.

    Jennifer Spencer
    Jennifer Spencer subscriber

    This is a great idea!  It is another example of how art can help solve problems.  Public art can be a difficult art form for many artists.  But, when they look deeply into a community, get to know the residents and their issues, it can become a way for one's art to help solve or bridge problems in a community. 

    My hat is off to this young photographer who has used his head and....his heart to try and solve a problem of bringing residents of diverse backgrounds together.

    TJ Apple
    TJ Apple subscribermember

    Wonderful expression . . . 

    sandiegosteven subscribermember

    Love this piece and the project.