August 10, 2001

Local Graphic Artist Tells It Like It Is

By Yvette tenBerge

Restaurants and small businesses call out to passersby as they stroll up Fifth Avenue in downtown San Diego, and although the competition for attention is stiff, there is one graphic design shop window that never fails to stop them in mid stride.

Whether it is the poster-sized pictures and quotations that highlight the latest of President Bush's "assaults" on the English language or the shiny bumper stickers that poke fun at San Diego's not-too-distant decision to fund a high-priced ballpark, the neatly arranged displays at 1837 Fifth Avenue offer a glimpse into the mind of the shop's owner, Joel Mielke.

Mr. Mielke has run Mielke Design, a graphic design and screenprinting business, since 1993, but it is not just the exceptional quality of his work that has garnered him attention. Ask any of those who have known or worked with Mr. Mielke, and they cannot help but go into detail about the social or political causes to which this self-described "graphic artist, activist and amateur propagandist" unselfishly devotes his energy.

Mr. Mielke sits in Lilo's Restaurant on Sixth Avenue, one of the businesses for whom he does design work. He points to the etched-look lettering on the window and quickly explains the mechanics behind its creation before taking a sip of his coffee. In a matter of minutes, he has summed up his take on a variety of topics. He offers his two cents as to why San Diego is "sort-of mentally stunted" and "hideously anti-intellectual," gives his opinion on bilingual education and, then, rates George W. Bush's brain power before getting to the events that turned this "conservative Chulavisteño" into the outspoken activist that he is today.

"It started with this guy, Edward Daner, who taught a social science class out of Grossmont College. He completely turned my head around. Before that, I was this Republican-conservative person - a typical San Diegan," says Mr. Mielke, whose own voice is a cross between an old movie actor and someone who grew up on the east coast. He smiles at the idea that he is more "left-wing now" than he was when he was a "young radical."

Joel Mielke holding up one of his favorite bumper stickers.

Nick Stamon, Treasurer of the International Museum of Human Rights at San Diego, has been an active member of the Hillcrest chapter of Amnesty International for over 30 years. He first came into contact with Mr. Mielke 15 years ago when he joined the group dedicated to freeing prisoners of conscience.

"Joel is a terrific backer of human rights projects and events. He does a lot of pro-bono work to benefit social causes. Organizations say, `I need a flier,' and Joel rarely says no. A favorite quote of mine that people use is: `Ask Joel,'" says Mr. Stamon, who hired Mr. Mielke to design the fliers and brochures for the recently opened Museum of Human Rights.

In a politically sleepy city like San Diego, it is rare to find someone as liberal, sharp-witted and vocal as Mr. Mielke. Although he is full of pithy quips and he easily jumps from George W. Bush impersonations to Ronald Reagan impersonations, those who know him are quick to spill the beans: Joel Mielke's passion for social justice runs deep.

Mr. Stamon offers up one of his favorite examples of Mr. Mielke's dedication. In 1990 a young woman and her two children came to San Diego from Morelos, Mexico in search of help. Her husband, José Ramón, was labeled "disappeared" after being kidnapped by plain-clothed, state judicial police. Mr. Mielke and his ex-wife took the family into their home during both of their visits to the United States, and Mr. Mielke was one of the people responsible for convincing the Mexican Consulate to hear her case.

Mr. Stamon sums up what he believes to be Mr. Mielke's biggest strength. "Yes, Joel is extremely imaginative in graphics, and he does terrific work, but there is a core humanity that burgeons out so that people are actually inspired to be supportive of the kinds of things that concern him."

Mr. Mielke's concern began in force in the early 1980s when he attended his first protest at the Ebony Motel in Logan Heights. "So, there I was at this demonstration at the Ebony Motel on 32nd Avenue and E Street. The INS had rented the place so that they could keep these Central Americans there while they were being processed for immigration. They had put barbed wire up and everything, and I was thinking, `Why don't they do this in La Jolla or La Mesa?'" says Mr. Mielke.

He goes on to explain the injustice surrounding the now infamous Ebony Motel situation. As he sees it, the INS was sending Central Americans back without properly giving them a chance to explore their legal options. Specifically, they were violating the rights of those eligible to stay in the United States as refugees.

"I got to this demonstration, and there were just 12 people there, and two or three of them were nuns holding up signs. I was so embarrassed, and television cameras showed up. I had never been to a demonstration, and I just imagined that hundreds of people would be there so that I could blend in. Until that point, I didn't know that San Diegans were so apathetic," says Mr. Mielke, who credits Ronald Reagan's "hideous foreign policies" with starting him along this path of activism. "I knew that if I expected other people to show up, I had better be there, myself."

Mr. Mielke admits that there are times when potential customers have been turned off by his brand of outspoken politics, "The other day, some guy came in here from the Tail Hook Club, a Naval pilot club. They are this really right-wing bunch of people. He didn't come back, so I don't think he liked my stuff," says Mr. Mielke, who classifies the majority of his customers as small businesses. "They are a pretty diverse bunch of customers. Some of them are pretty conservative, but they all put up with my stuff."

Mr. Mielke regularly designs and produces small items like business cards, medium-sized items such as brochures and directionals (maps you would find in hotel lobbies), and much larger signs like banners. For the past few years, he has designed and produced all of Little Italy's banners and produced the banners for Old Town.

The thing that most excites Mr. Mielke, though, is the work that he does with artists. He discusses the recent work he did with Insite2000, a collaborative project of 27 nonprofit and public cultural institutions in Mexico and the United States.

"It was a lot of fun because it turns San Diego and Tijuana temporarily into one town. Basically, the installation has to be in San Diego or Tijuana. When I was growing up, I was right on the border, but it was as if Tijuana didn't exist for us or for the Mexicans living here. It was so grossly insignificant in our minds," says Mr. Mielke. "Now, it's just too huge to ignore, but if we could ignore, it we still would. We sure try."

One of the artistic portions of the installation in which he participated consisted of mounting stainless steel panels onto sections of the United States and Mexico sides of the border fence. He mounted the words of a mirror installation piece created by artist Valeska Soares in etched-look vinyl letters.

"I hired my friend Mario to do the Mexican side while I did the U.S. side. We just passed ladders and material through the fence. The English translation was supposed to read right on the American side and the Spanish translation would show through the American side backwards. On the Mexican side the Spanish translation read right and the English translation came through backwards. It was really beautifully done," says Mr. Mielke.

Michael Golino was the Project Director for Insite2000 and the person responsible for the "realization of the artists' work." He has known Mr. Mielke for over 10 years and hired him for the project because he is a "true craftsman in his trade." He comments on what he believes to be the community's impression of Mr. Mielke.

"Joel is seen as someone who is not afraid to speak, and that makes him seem crazy, dangerous, courageous and radical. Most people see Joel as a force of nature in terms of political issues. For a lot of people, this makes them uneasy, but I think a lot more applaud his outspokenness," says Mr. Golino. "If people don't know Joel, they certainly know his anti-ballpark bumper sticker... `Stadium? Thanks, got one... a library I could use.' Having said that, I get the feeling that a lot of people know Joel."

Joel Mielke can be reached at(619)236-8400.

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