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Interviews

A Street Artist Comes of Age

Rubén Sánchez reimagines neighborhoods with his Cubism-meets-surrealism-meets tribal art paintings.


Raised up six stories in the air thanks to a rickety blue crane balancing on rocky, muddy ground, Rubén Sánchez tried to figure out what was the most challenging part of spray painting this particular mural — one that was to grace the entire side of a concrete building in Russeifa, Jordan’s fourth-largest city. 

Was it the two-day sandstorm that swept through the city, nearly blinding Sánchez? Or maybe it was the unexpected street flooding that followed, loosening the grip the crane legs had on the uneven ground? Or it could have been the birds-eye elevation that felt magnified by the tight working conditions — Sánchez stood in a bucket large enough for just him, protected from falling overboard by two thin rebar wires. “At first, it was terrible,” recalls Sánchez. “The bucket was sagging and I was thinking, If I fall here, I’m dead.”

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The process behind creating a six-story mural; Sánchez positioned in the rickety blue crane.

While dreadful, none of these matched Sánchez’s biggest problem — the bathroom was a long way down in the achingly slow crane that took forever to inch back to Earth.

Yeah, that constantly disrupted what might be Sánchez’s most important project to date — a massive mural depicting a woman oppressed by the walls of her house trying to take down the walls and metaphorically open herself to the world, created in a Cubism meets tribal art meets surrealism style brightened by splashes of Mediterranean colors. (The project was supported by AptArt, an organization that commissions artists to make art to bring awareness to world issues.)

“The challenge is a big ingredient in me creating something.”

In the same way that a champion athlete uses setbacks to push them to greater heights, Sánchez embraces hardships like these. “The challenge is a big ingredient in me creating something,” he says. The end result in Jordan was about more than Sánchez’s own artistic evolution, though. It impacts a community. “The mural is huge, shocking with the colors, and unexpected in the area,” says Sánchez. “While I don’t think it will big time change women having equal rights there, maybe it will start a conversation about it.” Using art as a spark for greater good is a surprising twist in the life of Sánchez, a former misfit who dropped out of high school to lead a wandering life of skateboarding and graffiti throughout his native country Spain.

The turning point came in November 2012 when he began the one-year art residency program Tashkeel in Dubai established by Lateefa bint Maktoum, the niece of Dubai’s former ruler. (Sánchez ironically got the residency thanks to a little illegal graffiti handiwork he did on the side of a train car in Spain.) During the residency, Sánchez’s sole requirement was to create any and all art that he wanted. The intent was to present his favorite pieces to the public at the end of the year, along with teaching art workshops to those living in Dubai. In return, he received a salary, room, and board. Initially intending to stay only until the end of 2013, Sánchez got along with bint Maktoum so well that he stayed on in Dubai through late last year.

Now that Sánchez has returned to Europe, he discusses how his time in Dubai influenced his style and opened up his way of thinking, the way it helped him evolve from a designer for brands to a full-time artist, and why he is adamant about creating with his hands in this digital-centric world.

How did you get connected with the art residency in Dubai?

I went on a surf trip in Spain with a few friends and one of my friend’s friends was working for Princess Lateefa bint Maktoum in Dubai. Anywhere I go, I take my spray paint cans with me. So while we were on this trip, I saw this train car and left the group to go paint it. The car of the train was horizontal, and I painted a guy levitating that followed the shape of the car.

The next day, we stopped to take some pictures and my friend’s friend asked if I had painted the image the night before while everyone else had been having drinks. I said “yeah” and he said he needed to tell his boss about me. I didn’t really know who his boss was. A few weeks later I got an email from the Princess inviting me there for the guest artist program Tashkeel. The program brings in artists to help try and bring in a multi-cultural touch to the culture and teach workshops to the community. I was like, “Let’s do it!”

You had your girlfriend and a good life in Spain. How did you make the choice to separate from that?   

It wasn’t hard to make the decision, to be honest, because we weren’t having the best times in Spain due to the recession. Of course, it’s not easy to leave your loved ones, but my then-girlfriend, now wife and family told me I had to do it. It wasn’t the best way to have a relationship, but my girlfriend and I saw each other every few months. Sometimes I felt sad, but it was exciting to have this new life.

What was the residency like?

Before I went to Dubai I had a lot of limitations with my tools and workspace. In Dubai, they had a big room just for wood work and another big room just for graphic design and another big room just for fine art. I spent 95 percent of my waking hours there. I did so much work that first year that I started getting commissions from people around Dubai. I painted the first public mural in the United Arab Emirates. It took our Tashkeel studio five months to get the okay from the municipality to be able to paint that out in the public, for the community. That brought a lot of commissions from hotels and restaurants. It was sad to break up the arrangement at that point so we just continued one more year.

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Sánchez having all kinds of fun on the streets of Dubai.

In what ways did Dubai influence your style?

Not Dubai, but the Middle East as a whole. When I drove to the studio, which is kind of in the middle of the desert, I’d see camels and there would be gazelles jumping in front of my car. And I started painting these animals, because my life now had camels and gazelles. And my colors became more warm, more orangey, more yellows.

It sounds like you had free reign to create, but were there any restrictions on what you could make?

I had the restriction that I couldn’t paint nudes, and a restriction isn’t good for an artist. It’s about trying to keep the authenticity to your work, so that it and you have credibility. When I am asked to do a collaboration now, my first condition is that I have total freedom in my design and will do whatever I want. If I have vague guidelines that gives me a lot of room to play with, then I am okay with that, unless someone has a really crazy psychedelic idea, which I’m into. If I think too much about the trends, I will lose my identity.

If I think too much about the trends, I will lose my artistic identity.

What was your craziest commission request from someone in Dubai?

A collector of mine from Barcelona came to visit me and we were on a camel farm and the collector’s wife was playing with a small camel and all of a sudden the camel started jumping on her and the wife was freaking out, screaming, “It wants to kill me!” Afterwards the collector asked if I would paint that scene. Then he decided he didn’t want a painting — he wanted a sculpture. So I made him a big steel sculpture of a camel following his wife. A lot of people also asked me to paint the Dubai skyline, and I ended up rejecting about 90 percent of the proposals because I couldn’t paint another skyline for someone’s office.

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The desert landscape had a big influence on Sánchez’s style while in Dubai.

What is your thought on places hiring outside artists to make street art and graffiti for their cities?

You can’t import street art and graffiti. Dubai is trying to do it, but it doesn’t work like that. You can’t create a subculture. It has to create itself. But it’s cool that Dubai is supporting street artists and bringing people from all over the world to make street art. But that doesn’t make you an edgy city. There needs to be a natural, organic evolution. In the same way that graffiti started in New York and Philadelphia in the 1970s, to what it is now and the street art that came out from that… it takes years. But I am very grateful to Dubai. It has been good to me.

What is the role of street art in a community?

Street art should improve the environment, because it’s art. As the name says, it should be beautiful and in the street. That is why I get pissed when I see these corporations and brands doing “street art” in a club. First of all, it’s inside. Second of all, you’ll take it down tomorrow.

It is more difficult for me to start on a piece of white paper than it is to start on a used envelope.

When you turned down a commission, did you ever think twice about the money you were leaving on the table? 

I felt sure about my decisions when I made them. But then afterwards I would think twice, about how every project that I reject is money I don’t get. But I am sure that my decisions will take my art to the right direction.

How so?

When you switch from working with brands to art, and your income comes primarily from your art, you have to be very delicate when you work with brands, because it’s a totally different point of view. There was a transition right around Dubai when I went from designer/illustrator to an artist, and where I was still being contacted by brands to do this or that. I still had the mentality of a designer, and I was like, yes I’ll work with brands. But, if I could go back now, I would take back a lot of those collaborations. 

Why?

You have to be a bit selective in order to take care of your work. If I took every project that came into my inbox, I would be disrespecting my work, because some of those projects are really lame. My art now is very intimate and it’s hard to see that in a brand, especially one that I’m not attached to. A lot of the collaborations won’t take me anywhere artistically.

During your time in the Middle East, you traveled to the Zaatari Refugee Camp on the border of Jordan and Syria. What did you do there? 

I went there to paint messages about things like proper hygiene, coexistence, and respect. We would have the kids from the refugee camp join in with the painting. On one wall, I made these house figures that were shaking hands with the words “mi casa es tu casa” written in Arabic. Most of the kids had never painted anything before and they would write messages like “I want my dad back.” It was really sad. But even though these refugee families didn’t have anything, if they had a piece of cheese or a small piece of falafel, they would share it with you. Overall, it was an amazing experience.

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At the Zaatari Refugee Camp, Sánchez asked locals to join him in creating this “mi casa es tu casa” piece on a concrete wall.

It was hard because when we painted people threw stones at us.

Did you ever feel in danger?

It was hard because sometimes when we painted, people would throw stones at us because they didn’t want us there. When we arrived at the camp, we spoke to the officials who oversee the camp and they were like, “The camp is more or less under control as long as you keep close to the checkpoints. But if you do get lost, run as fast as you can to the closest checkpoint.”

What sparked your initial interest in graffiti?

High school was very messy. I’ve always been a bad student. Teachers would say that I was talented but that I got distracted easily and was always fooling around. Then I started getting more serious about skateboarding and graffiti and quit school at 16. When I realized that I would never be a pro skater, I focused on my art. And I took all that frustration and focused it in a creative way. The purest and the realist graffiti comes from your anger that needs to be expressed. (Editor’s note: The line between “street art” and “graffiti” is blurry, but a general difference is that graffiti is illegal and primarily uses letters, whereas street art is sanctioned and can take any form.)

How did you parlay your passion and creativity into a career in design?

In the mid 1990s, I was working as a stock boy at a supermarket and I was looking for new jobs, and I saw a lot of them were looking for the skill “HTML designer” — this was the beginning of the internet. My sister was studying HTML in school and was playing with Photoshop. I thought that was cool, so I started making stuff with Photoshop and using her tutorials to learn HTML. There was a big demand for web designers in 1996 and 1997, because of the web boom. I gave up graffiti to pay my bills and joined a design agency in Barcelona. I worked in different graphic design and advertising agencies and did street art for fun. The turning point in my career was Dubai.

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Sánchez takes time out from creating art to act a little funky.

What is your starting point for making your art?    

It is more difficult for me to start on a piece of white paper than it is to start on a used envelope. I will always choose a used envelope, because it’s not so serious. I will start sketching on it and it’s not scary. If you give me a white canvas or a corner of wood, I will take the wood since it has more. I take that philosophy into the street. You can give me a plain white wall or the side of a rotten building, and I will take the rotten building, because it has a life before, something to tell you. And it’s less intimidating creatively. It’s already a mess so I can’t mess it up more. I will give it a second life.

Where does one learn the rules of painting in the street?

You used to learn those in the street, but now you can Google “How to be a street artist.” You have to learn that you shouldn’t tag on top of another tag. That is why a lot of graffiti artists get pissed with street artists, because some street artists get out of design school and then they paint over graffiti and say something like, “it’s just letters.” In London now, they’re trying to protect the street art of Banksy, meanwhile all the rest of graffiti artists are like, “You’re protecting him but fining us?”

What is next for you?

Right now I need to sit down in the studio and spend time with my wife. I want to explore volume, like sculpture, working with wood blocks, something that can go in the middle of the gallery, not the walls. The other thing I want to explore is interactive walls, like mechanical works. In the same way that a bicycle works, I might have a handle that someone can move by hand and have a horse with wings so when you move the handle, the horse wings will move. It’s something I’m still developing. I’m also spending time on introspection. In order to evolve, an artist needs to stop, think, and look back at their work, to know their own evolution and see where it is all taking you.

 

Matt McCue

Matt McCue is the Editor-in-Chief of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him @mattmccuewriter or email him at mccue@adobe.com. 

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