The art and soul of Juano Diaz

Juano Diaz
Juano Diaz (Image: Markus Bidaux/Attitude; Design: Richard Burn/Attitude)

For the artist and now PEUGEOT Attitude Pride Awards winner Juano Diaz, life has come full circle. Born in Glasgow in 1977, his childhood, he tells Attitude, was “wracked in chaos and poverty”. His mother was a sex worker and an alcoholic. “One of my earliest memories is when she took me to a dam, a local beauty spot where people went swimming. She and her partner, Ronnie, were drunk, and he drowned in front of us. I was four years old.” Juano remembers his mother screaming, and Ronnie being pulled out of the water. “I don’t know why I wasn’t separated from her then,” he wonders aloud.

He was eventually taken into care, but life in a children’s home wasn’t that different from the “hell” he had endured beforehand. At the underfunded and poorly staffed home, Juano was subjected to both physical and sexual abuse. “All I wanted was my mum,” he says. Thankfully, there was some light in the darkness when one of the staff, Sister Pauline, introduced him to art. He was in care for two years before being adopted, aged seven, and never saw Sister Pauline again.

Adjusting to this new life in a little mining village in Lanarkshire, near Glasgow, with a Romany-Gypsy father and a Catholic mother, was both confusing and wonderful as he recalls a “completely different culture from what I was used to”. Juano’s experience was nothing like the often-negative portrayals of gypsy communities. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t tough, however.

Juano knew he was gay. He fought against his father, who wanted him in the boxing ring three times a week and to raise him in the scrap yard. It was “very much if we get him in there young, it will make a man out of him”.

“Art’s the one thing that keeps me from going crazy”

There was little in the way of art or culture to inspire Juano. Being gay was completely incongruous with the community. Again, Juano found solace in the arms of a matriarch, this time his adoptive grandmother, whose house he describes as a wondrous place “of magic, songs and stories”.

Even so, Juano felt robbed of his identity. He connects this sense of identity and of coming to terms with his sexuality with his art. From a young age, he would draw his mother’s face repeatedly, remembering her high cheekbones and eyes. From there, his passion for and skill in portraiture developed. He would escape the school bullies and go to Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery, where he’d enjoy the incredible art. The Christ of Saint John of the Cross by Salvador Dalí, with its “out of this world” perspective, was a favourite. Juano recalls that being forbidden from going to London to study fashion illustration was “heartbreaking” — but things were about to get worse.

The death of his adoptive mother in a car accident when he was 18 “flipped everything on its head”. Juano felt he had to give everything up for the sake of his family. But after he was caught in bed with a man, he was thrown out.

“The idea that a child would go through that level of suffering I find very difficult”

Afterwards, he found his birth mother, broken from years of alcoholism, in Glasgow. While it gave him the long-missing pieces of the puzzle as to who he was, she was later killed by her partner. All the while, Juano was creating art. “It’s the one thing that keeps me from going crazy,” he says. His work was eventually noticed by the French duo Pierre et Gilles, who would become mentors and friends. Juano moved to Paris, honed his craft, and made contacts. He worked for Thierry Mugler, American filmmaker James Bidgood, and became friends with Grace Jones, the ‘art godmother’ to his son.

Through all of this, Juano has never forgotten where he’s from. His art — which combines paint and digital and has depicted the likes of Madonna, Grace Jones, and more — has always been a response to the experiences he’s endured. He professes to not liking “dark art”, instead wanting to “celebrate things that are beautiful”.

Pride Awards 2024 Juano Diaz
Pride Awards winner Juano Diaz (Image: Markus Bidaux)

He found writing his memoir, Slum Boy, published earlier this year, therapeutic but challenging. “The idea that a child would go through that level of suffering I find very difficult,” he reflects.

Thankfully, “life is good” now. He has a partner, David, and an adopted son. “Finally, after all this time, I have a family that is my own. I feel like a normal person.” He loves being a dad and watching his son ride a bike or learn to swim. Winning a PEUGEOT Attitude Award “feels like a dream.” He wants his story to show that despite having “a rough start”, life can get better. “It’s not for me, it’s for my mum, it’s for my son, it’s for my partner, and all the people in the world that are still in these situations.”

This feature appears in Issue 359 of Attitude magazine, which is available to order online here and alongside 15 years of back issues on the free Attitude app.

Joel Kim Booster on the cover of Attitude Issue 359
Joel Kim Booster on the cover of Attitude Issue 359 (Image: Attitude)

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