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Spray-can artists: flamboyant street painters with a hot, new, high-speed technique attract tourists like moths to a flame

Spray-can artists: flamboyant street painters with a hot, new, high-speed technique attract tourists like moths to a flame – Behind The Scenes

Max Hunn

One of the most interesting facets of cruising is discovering the unusual. We’ve a penchant for wandering off from normal tourists paths when in a new port looking for something different. And we’ve had many unusual experiences. However, one of the most unusual was our discovery of spray-can art.

We were visiting San Miguel, the only town on the island of Cozumel off the Yucatan coast of Mexico. Meandering around the town square, we noticed a group of people gathered around a man seated on the edge of the street. It didn’t look like an accident, so we joined the crowd. The center of interest was a collection of unusual paintings with vibrant colors, and an artist busy creating more scenes.

Suddenly he picked up a lighter and a can of spray paint and swept a flaming torch above the painting he was working on. The crowd gave him more room in a hurry. Then he picked up a can of spray paint and swept across the partial painting, changed to another can, and then to another.

Five minutes later he completed the painting with a few strokes of a fine brush. Basically, the artwork had been created by spraying paint, not by using a brush and paint.

As we watched, some Spanish-speaking tourists ringed him, asking questions, which the artist politely answered. I don’t know whether they were technical questions or concerned prices–my knowledge of Spanish is meager, so I never learned the subjects of the questions.

“Wish I could interview him,” I murmured to Bea as he quickly resumed creating another painting. We watched him complete another piece of sidewalk art in 10 minutes, and then we strolled away.

Several years later we were on a cruise that stopped at Costa Maya, the newest cruise port on the Yucatan peninsula. Because we wanted to take the maximum number of pictures to illustrate our story assignment, we separated. Bea took off in the direction of the amphitheater, while I sauntered down the row of stores on one side of the plaza. There were photo opportunities everywhere.

Suddenly I saw a spray-can artist at work under a canvas canopy shielding him from the torrid sun. I stopped to watch. He was good. Just as good as the artist we had watched in San Miguel.

“What do you think?” a man Standing beside me said in perfect English. I looked at him. As I was about to answer, he spoke in perfect Spanish to the artist, who nodded. I turned and said, “Are you a native? Your English is excellent.”

He laughed. “Thanks, I’m a native but comfortable in both languages.” He paused and said something in Spanish to the artist, who made a modification in the painting. I sensed he wasn’t just a casual on-looker.

I was curious, and sensed a chance for a possible article. We continued chatting as the artist finished the painting. I learned he was a member of a team–interpreter, agent, and bookkeeper–and his name was Duane LeBaron.

I already knew we would return to Costa Maya because we realized we couldn’t get good photo coverage in a one-day stop. I asked if I could interview the artist with his assistance when we came back. I promised to confirm by air mail our time of arrival. As it turned out, my mail hadn’t arrived by the time I returned.

Duane introduced me to Gilberto Corral and Eliana Di Vito, two spray-can artists. In the next 10 minutes, I watched and learned it was possible to create a spray-can masterpiece in record time. I was thankful for a high-speed/film-advance camera.

The painters’ secret is using templates. When I saw the base template, I knew the subject was going to be El Castillo, the famous temple pyramid at Chichen Itza, a recognizable Mayan landmark. By using templates to mask off certain areas, it’s possible to work in a variety of colors, and spray without worrying about color overlaps.

The artists use acrylic enamel, which dries fast when heat is applied. The painting is completely dry in 10 minutes. An artist will use a brush for certain detailed areas too small to be covered with a template, but 90 percent of the paint is applied from spray cans.

According to Gilberto, the spray-can art had been developed some 20 years ago in Mexico City by street artists who wanted to create faster than possible with the brush method. Now independent artists–there’s no artists’ union–operate in tourist areas, particularly around big hotels, and sometimes even in hotel lobbies with permission. Each artist is independent, and develops his or her ability by practice. There are no art schools. It takes an artist some two or three years to develop a technique.

There’s no standard size to the paintings. They paint pictures from 4X5 to 16X20 inches in size, on wood, pressed wood, or in some cases canvas. The artist sells his work while painting in public, as crowds inevitably gather when he sets up shop. People are fascinated by spray painting. Surprisingly, prices are reasonable–$10 to $20 U.S.

Be alert, as you may encounter a spray-can artist anywhere in Mexico. They’ve even been spotted stateside in tourist meccas like Las Vegas and New Orleans. It’s fascinating to watch them work, and the results definitely make unusual souvenirs.

COPYRIGHT 2003 World Publishing, Co. (Illinois)

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group