The art of recovery

Former crab fisherman opens caricature business downtown

Posted: Thursday, May 21, 2009

Gabriel Trujillo, an artist and former crab fisherman, turned to the bottle when a couple of his friends died in a fishing accident in 2004.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"All these tragic things happened and I started drinking really heavy," he said.

Now with 3 years of sobriety under his belt, the 36 year old has turned his focus to art and his fledgling family. This week Trujillo opened Juneau Caricatures downtown at 225 Front Street, and he plans to spend the summer drawing exaggerated cartoon portraits of tourists and locals alike.

"I'm doing art for a living now, and that's pretty cool," he said. "I can't really beat it. I'm not tired after work - only my wrist gets a little tired. But compared to fishing and what I've been doing, it's awesome."

Trujillo moved to Anchorage from San Diego in the early 1990s in the middle of winter with no idea of how he'd make a living. On his second day in Alaska he went to the Anchorage Job Center, and the following day he was flown to Dutch Harbor to work in a cannery for the opilio crab season.

"They give you this tour, 'OK you're going to be cracking crab for 18 hours straight,' and I was just like, 'Wow,'" he said. "So I walked out on the docks and there were all the boats and I saw everyone getting ready."

Trujillo met a man walking down the docks - who would later become his best friend - and asked him how he could get a job on one of the crab boats. The man took him to his captain, who just happened to be one man short for the season.

"They were like, 'OK, we'll take you.' Next thing I knew I was headed out to sea, you know, and this was like three days in Alaska," he said. "From there I did opilio and brown crab ... and just kept on fishing."

After his friends died in 2004, Trujillo spent some time fishing for lobster on the East Coast before finding himself in Ketchikan. He began drinking more and more.

"I just let it get the best of me," he said. "I ended up in a bunch of trouble. When you mix prescription pills with alcohol it doesn't really do a good job. So I ended up getting into a little bit of trouble and that was the wake up call."

Trujillo decided to clean up his life and entered rehab. An artist since childhood, he said diving back into drawing aided his recovery.

"It's pretty much all I do now," he said. "Once you take the whole bar scene and all of that out of your life, ... what do you do now? How do you hang out? It was all new."

Trujillo went to Savannah College of Art and Design when he was younger and spent four summers working for SeaWorld in San Diego, where he learned how to draw caricatures. Last year, his girlfriend got pregnant and he decided he wanted to have a job where he could spend time with her and their son.

"Art has definitely kept me totally grounded," he said.

Trujillo said he has had tremendous support from his family, local businesses and even from counselors at Gastineau Human Services and Rainforest Recovery. He said he has been getting a lot of good feedback his first couple of days open, and sees a lot of potential for the business in the future.

Portraits begin at $25 and he has discounts for locals, and even bigger discounts for fishermen, miners and oil workers. And instead of caricatures of people riding Shamu like he used to draw at SeaWorld, Trujillo has a number of Alaska-themed backgrounds including a crab boat, a gold miner and one with a bear. He also has a wall at his spot in the Miners' Mercantile Mall where he hangs his own original artwork.

Trujillo, who worked for years in one of the world's most deadly professions, said it's been a little bit scary starting a small business and putting everything on the line.

"You're putting yourself out there, so it's a little bit nerve wracking, you know what I mean, being out in the public basically saying 'I'm an artist and this is what I do,'" he said. "That's a little bit tough for me."

But the challenge and the road to recovery has been an inspiring journey, he said.

"They're the best years of my life, I tell you. When you're drinking you think, 'Oh this is so fun, it's the greatest time ever.' But it's really not," he said. "You have to really want to change your life, and that's what it comes down to. Having a kid and wanting to do all this inspired me even more. It just keeps growing every day, for my kid's sake. It's awesome."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or

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