When Los Lobos recorded "La Pistola y El Corazon," its all-acoustic collection of gritty Mexican tunes, the band briefly considered an album cover that would have featured them in a south-of-the-border setting, their traditional folk instruments in hand.
But such predictability has never suited the East Los Angeles rockers. Instead, they turned to a childhood friend who had painted a haunting portrait of two embracing skeletons, one a macho-type with his heart exposed, the other his bride, gripping a gun.
"The painting says so much about the intensity of the music," said George Yepes, who conceived the image last summer after listening to a demo of the album. "The thickness of the paint, the richness, the rough strokes--the guy choosing between the love of this woman and his crazy life--that's the power of the music."
Since its release last fall, "La Pistola" has been a pleasant surprise for Warner Bros. Records, which has sold about 150,000 copies in the United States. And for the 33-year-old Yepes, a part-time muralist and full-time accountant, the cover has inspired nearly as much praise as the music has earned the band.
"George is a great talent," said Jeri Heiden, vice president and art director for Warner Bros. "When I saw the painting, I was blown away. It's very dark . . . kind of eerie and scary and a lot like life."
The album cover also drew raves from the East Los Angeles College Campus News.
"The cover alone is about the best description that can be given of the album," wrote entertainment editor Jimmy Alvarado. "Rough and simplistic, while detailed, lush and ultimately beautiful at the same time."
Painted in thick strokes of red, black and white during a 15-hour all-night frenzy, Yepes' cover uses the ghostly calavera (skull) imagery found in Day of the Dead crafts. Like the album's title song, which translates as "The Pistol and the Heart," it speaks of the tension between love and liberty, the two skeletons at once parting and uniting, both newlyweds and corpses at the same time.
"It is a perfect marriage between the musical and the visual," said Louie Perez, Los Lobos' drummer, who grew up next door to Yepes. "George's painting directs you to the heart of the whole record. It has the same tough image as the music itself."
Such praise has allowed Yepes, a small man with curly black hair and a toothy smile, to shed his businessman's suit for painterly garb more than usual.
In March, his paintings appeared in the "Errata" show at SPARC gallery in Venice, which invited local Latino artists to display works not included in the "Hispanic Art in the United States" exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
In addition, the United Farm Workers union, which asked him to do a triptych for Cesar Chavez's 62nd birthday on March 31, will be reproducing one of Yepes' paintings for an anti-pesticide poster.
"I know it's ironic: financial planner by day, painter by night," said Yepes, who has worked on 28 murals throughout Los Angeles over the last decade, including the 85-foot-tall Olympic scene on the Victor Clothing building downtown. "But that way I don't have to worry about money and I have the freedom to paint whatever I want."
All of which is a far cry from Yepes' early days in a rough corner of East L.A., where his mother and four siblings struggled to make it on the modest salary she earned soldering transistors to circuit boards in a nearby factory.
Under the watchful eyes of the Catholic brothers at Salesian High School, Yepes was elected student body president and went on to Cal State Los Angeles, where he graduated with a degree in business administration.
Soon after, he opened his own firm, Yepes Financial Services, and, in 1986, moved to a large three-bedroom house in Hacienda Heights.
Still, he said, he enjoys maintaining ties with East L.A., hanging out with Los Lobos and finding artistic inspiration in the traditions of the old neighborhood.
"If you stay out in Hacienda Heights all the time, you can lose it," he said. "You have to keep going back to your roots."