My Own Way: JC Rivera Interview

Words by Megan Zink
Photos by Megan Zink

Chicago muralist and artist JC Rivera has a pretty incredible story. He moved to the United States from Puerto Rico not knowing any English in the name of education and learned by watching Seinfeld episodes in his downtime while working on his sketches. After landing in Chicago, he eventually began painting murals around the city and developing his well-loved Bear Champ character. Now he’s working with the likes of American Express and Sun Bum and taking his art in many different directions – even into 3D toy production.

I had the opportunity to sit down with JC for a Q&A and learn about his passion for art, his creative process and what drives him to evolve in the ever-changing industry.

So a lot of people know about your artwork, but tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into the creative field.

I was always drawing and into sketching – ever since I was little. My brothers were artists; my dad was too. They are still, but as a hobby. I was drawing everything – cartoons, anything. But what I wanted to go to school for, art… my dad said, ‘you’re just gonna end up teaching.’ And they were paying for it, so I was gonna do whatever they wanted. At that moment, computer science was the thing – so I went to school for computer science instead. But it just wasn’t for me so I dropped out and did retail.

During that time I got a MacBook from a pawnshop… and that’s pretty much how I got back into art. I had Photoshop so I started playing with that again, and designing logos for fun. People would post them online and ask me to create logos for them for fun, and so I did, and got more and more into design. When I got to Chicago (after living in Orlando), a company hit me up there to do illustrations for them with t-shirts and other items. I helped them a lot, doing paintings on the side, and created the bear. And then I stopped working with them and just tried to push the bear character and work on my branding.

I read you didn’t speak any English when you moved here. Just out of curiosity, how did you learn? Because your English is awesome.

I moved to the US through the Disney College program. And they said to me, ‘oh, you’re selected!’ And I was like, ‘I don’t speak any English, but f$*% it, let’s go!’. When I got here, I was in an apartment complex with people from Korea and Brazil and everyone spoke a different language. But I wanted to learn. It was rough in the beginning. When I quit the program and was doing retail, on my days off I would sketch and have Seinfeld on in the background and learn conversation until I picked it up. So that’s why I have this tattoo – this is George Costanza.

So with your sketching and painting – how did you decide you wanted to go so large-scale with your painting – onto walls?

I used to tag a little bit – but painting a wall… one of my friends, who I met online because I needed markers, had friends who were in a graffiti crew. And they asked if I wanted to paint with them so I did, but I didn’t have anything but my bear character. And so the first two times I painted, it wasn’t that big. Getting used to the spray can, the proportions – it was a struggle. But that’s kind of how it started. And then I painted that summer. I probably painted 4 a day – not full murals, just little pieces and stuff. I got a lot of practice.

(Photo: Dillon Goodson)

Do you have a favorite neighborhood to paint in?

Logan Square, Wicker Park – Little Village – it was really rough in Little Village when I used to paint.

Favorite neighborhoods because they’re welcome to it? Or the vibe of the neighborhood?

Everything. I’d go paint and everyone would come out and some people would be like, ‘hey man, I like that a lot!’. Every neighborhood in Chicago is pretty cool about it. The only, only neighborhood where the people were rough toward me, was Old Town. They’d say things like, ‘take that to Wicker Park.’ Or ‘that’s too bright for us.” Usually everyone’s pretty chill.

Do you have a favorite food neighborhood?

Let’s see – everywhere. Logan Square, Wicker Park – and here, West Loop. Lonesome Rose in Logan Square is one of my favorites. They’re the same owners as Parson’s.

Again, doing research – I love the names of all your characters. Where did the inspiration for some of those come from? I know a lot about the bear, Bear Champ, but the other ones, they’re so unique.

Pretty much from drawing it or looking at it after making it. I used to do toy shows and customized toys and they were like, ‘hey, we need a title.’ And I would just look at it and give it a name. I have a character I was thinking about again today, called Building Boy – it’s a boy with a torso of a building. Johnny Hancock was from when I moved to Chicago – I saw the building and I got inspired to make a toy out of it.

And Rotofuji – I came to Chicago and went to their store and talked to Kirby, the owner, and said, ‘hey, how can I produce this toy?’ And he told me, to be honest, it was a lot of money – like $15,000. And I didn’t have that kind of money. So he told me to produce them myself, and I did and brought them to him. He gave me my first opportunity to have something in a store. It was really cool to do that – to produce something myself. I made the mold, pouring and everything – I even made the packaging, I designed everything from scratch. And then he would sell them.

Do any of the characters influence the other characters? Or are they usually one-offs?

Yeah, they do – but right now it’s been really hard to get the characters to go along with the bear. But a lot of people always ask me, ‘do you want to do anything else? Do you only do the bear?’ Even turning the bear into a female character is really hard. I’ve done it a couple of times but it feels… not natural. People don’t realize how hard it is, just to come up with something different. But I’ll probably do something by accident one day and it’ll work out.

I know you’ve given interviews where you talk about how you are constantly having to create – but it can be really hard, especially when you are under a deadline. So do you have any tips or tricks?

I miss so many deadlines because of that. But I have to feel it, though. If I miss the deadline – I’ll be like, ‘hey, I just can’t do it – I don’t feel creative. I just don’t feel like I’m going to produce something good.” And I miss opportunities, yes, but that’s just something I have to be. Even if I’m not happy, I can do any job; there are so many jobs where I wasn’t happy, but I just did it, because I had to do it. But now I can say if I’m not gonna be happy, I’m not gonna do it. I need to feel inspired. I like to have that flow.

(Photo: Dillon Goodson)

I get it – and good for you, also. I don’t think a lot of people really listen to themselves, especially when everyone’s producing something for someone else. I’ve struggled with that a lot – even looking at other people’s creative work – and it’s really hard to listen to your inner voice. So that’s really commendable.

When you’re creating something, (for a commission for example), how do you stay true to what you want to create? Has there ever been a problem of people being like, ‘nah, we don’t really want that.’?

Oh yeah, that happens all the time. Especially when they’re companies – they want their branding and name on it – and I’m like, I’m not gonna do that. And either they’ll be like, okay, and pick somebody else. Or they’re cool with it. My first paid gig – with American Express for the Shop Small campaign – they said to do whatever, but just add the campaign hashtag. And a lot of companies started getting into that – they’ll let you do whatever, and just hashtag the campaign. I think it’s cool; I think it’s tacky as hell to have their logo in it. I’ll do it if it fits, but if it doesn’t, I wont.

Again, it’s awesome that you have the integrity to do that. It’s really hard to own your own creative process sometimes – especially when you’re working with brands.

I was surprised to learn that you created toys – taking your work from a 2D to 3D surface and working with clay – was that kind of what you were always doing, along with drawing and painting? Or did that come after?

That was after. I researched it online, went to different stores. I was like, oh man, I’d like to see a drawing turn into this. It wasn’t even the bear, I wanted to see a drawing turn into a toy. I started collecting a few things in Orlando, and when I got to Chicago, I googled how to make the molds and everything, and I just figured it out, with Kirby’s help, how to make them. It’s really cool to do the whole process yourself, to make a mold – you see the resin, and you pull the plastic and it becomes something and you’re just like, whoa.

So you make the mold yourself?

Yeah, so you take a piece of clay and shape it – the figure – and then you put another layer of soft clay around it and make some holes. And then you use silicon rubber on both sides, and when it’s cured, you cut it and it opens and you have it. I want to do it again – I haven’t done it for a while.

I’d also read you want to take Bear Champ to a TV show – is that something you’re working on?

Yeah, eventually – when I meet the right people. I know when I meet the right people, it’s gonna happen within months. But not yet.

That’s awesome though – listening to you say things like, ‘it just wasn’t the right fit, or they weren’t the right people.’ I admire that so much. I’ve been learning that not everything has to happen all at the same time. And learning patience is really hard. Did you always have that?

No – and I saw so many artists doing that. And I was like, ‘whoa, what are they doing that I’m not doing?’ I still see some people doing stuff that I have started doing, and then they’ll do even bigger stuff. And I’ll say to myself, ‘I’ll get there.’ I don’t even get jealous or anything, I just say, ‘I’ll get there – I’m on my own path. I’ll figure it out my own way.’ I’ll get a lot of emails; artists will ask me for advice – what’s my formula? And I’m like, ‘I have my own way, you have your way. Even if I tell you step by step what I did, it’s not gonna work for you.’ Because everybody goes through different things. It was my fight, it was my struggle, it was my everything. That person’s is different.

But yeah, you just have to be patient. A lot of artists will paint a couple of murals and think they’re on top and quit their job, but be like, oh man – I haven’t gotten anything else. And that’s the thing. It’s easy to get a couple of murals, it’s easy to start, but the hardest part is to keep going. And every year, be like, ‘can I survive one more year?’ And have that balance. A lot of people don’t have that balance. You gotta be patient. You gotta keep hustling. You gotta keep meeting people and keep out there.

About JC:

JC is an artist based out of Chicago. He’s been illustrating, painting and doing anything and everything art for the past 9 years. His work has been featured in many places including magazines, galleries (such as Chicago’s Galerie F) throughout the world and multiple online websites. You can see more of JC’s work around Chicago, at and or on his Instagram at @jcrivera.

Some photos provided courtesy of photographer Dillon Goodson (as noted above) – you can see more of his work at or on his Instagram at @dillongoodson.

About Megan:

Megan Zink is a writer and photographer with a passion for storytelling and education based in Chicago balancing her passions with a full time job in content marketing. Like lightning, she tries never to strike the same place twice and strives to make the most of every single one of her vacation days. She hopes to inspire others to create and pursue their passion projects on her website, Moderately Excited, through photo travel guides and inspirational interviews. You can also follow along with her adventures at @moderatelyexcited!

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