Allison Torneros is only 5’1”, but her artwork spans spaces as large as 90 feet. The petite muralist, a graduate of UCLA’s Design Media Arts program who goes by the name Hueman, stands out as a rare woman in the male-dominated genre of street art. Her works include a Staples Center canvas commemoration of Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game in 2006 and a 90-foot mural covering an outdoor wall in San Francisco. Torneros’ style is a mixture of abstract, dreamlike color and sharp, bold lines — which she thinks of as the bones holding together the muscles and organs of a piece — and her work includes smaller gallery paintings as well as giant murals. The 29-year-old sat down to discuss her career at the downtown Los Angeles artists’ collective she shares with a dozen other people and a couple of cats.
Growing up in the East Bay in Northern California, what was that “aha” moment when you knew you wanted to be an artist?
I didn’t really have an aha moment because the whole time, even through college, I thought I wanted to be a lot of different things — everything else besides an artist. I wanted to be an architect. I wanted to get into psychology. But in kindergarten, I found out I could draw. It was Christmastime and our teachers had us draw Santa, or a snowman or Rudolph. And they had pictures on the chalkboard, and you’d pick one and try to copy it for a Christmas card for your parents. I drew Rudolph and everyone was like, “Whoa! It looks just like Rudolph.” My teachers were freaking out, and they put it in the school newsletter. … I ended up going to UCLA for Design Media Arts, because at that time I thought I wanted to get into either special effects or motion graphics or something that had to do with digital media. I always thought, “Who makes money as an artist?” But I’ve drawn and painted my whole life.
How did you end up choosing UCLA?
Well, first, it’s the reputation. It’s UCLA. But it’s also close enough to my family in the Bay. I can just visit whenever I want. And it was the only UC that offered a program like that at the time. I remember that [this], specifically, was huge, and it was a small program so I felt like there was probably a bit of a community. But I also wanted a university. I wanted that typical college experience.
What did you learn at UCLA that has been helpful to you over the years?
I genuinely liked a lot of the classes I took. And I have so many more interests outside of art — the women’s studies classes I was taking and the psychology classes, anthropology. I feel like all of those contributed to my art. I feel like if I went to art school, it would be more about the craft and the skill. I’m self-taught.
When you’re creating a big piece, what is your process? How do you begin?
By throwing around paint. I just create this abstract piece. So I pick my colors and I just kind of go for it. Everything I do is pretty much improvised, with the exception of the Kobe piece — I mean, I improvised that, but I knew what I was going to do. But everything starts with just this abstract layer. So I’m throwing it around, and I always create these cloudy shapes, and when I’m done creating the abstract I see these little faces. You know when you’re looking at clouds or a Rorschach inkblot, you look at it and you think, “Well, that looks like a bunny”? That’s what I do. So I’m responding and reacting to my own work. It’s like a conversation I’m having with myself.
Why do you prefer to work outdoors?
I just like being around people and being outside. As a kid, I loved playing outside. There’s a part of me that loves being indoors and being a geek behind my computer or reading a book, and then there’s the other side of me that loves to party and hang out. … And I’m using my whole body to paint. I’m not just sitting in my tiny studio, doodling. You actually get a workout. If I haven’t painted a mural in a long time, I’m super sore the next day.
Not a lot of women do what you do. Why has street art been such a predominantly male thing?
Graffiti started as a rebellion. You’re breaking the law and that’s such a guy thing to do, and it’s very ego-driven because with graffiti, it’s been about getting your name up everywhere.
You’re literally marking your territory.
Exactly. That’s a very masculine thing to do, and women don’t feel the need to do that. And I don’t feel the need to do it. My focus is just putting my artwork up and having people see it. But street art has transformed over the last 20 years. It’s more about the artwork now and less about getting your name out there and doing tags. It’s about transforming spaces and buildings and environments.
What finally gave you the confidence to enter this world?
There was a lot going on in my life. For a good part of 2010, I was depressed. I was in a really bad relationship. I was really naïve in trusting the wrong people. In 2010, I think I made maybe three pieces of art, total. And I didn’t realize this at the time, but I think I was just so anxious to create art because I was behind my computer so much. So here I am, sad about my relationship and these weird friendships, people taking advantage of me. But I kept repeating this mantra to myself: “I am human, not a robot.” As I started making those changes, it gave me more and more confidence and I was like, [expletive] what anyone else thinks, I’m gonna paint a wall. … When I started painting on walls, I literally felt more human. It gave me this euphoria, just to be able to step back and look at something like, “Wow, I made that.”