Parque Cora: A Graffiti Wonderland
By Carmen Poon
We have lived in a quiet colonia (neighbourhood) called Agua Clara since 2015. Shortly after we got settled, we went out for a walk, wanting to acquaint ourselves with our new environment. Within a few minutes walk of our new abode, we discovered an amazing treasure, Parque Cora.
The park had a walled entrance with a small building attached to it that apparently housed needy squatters, and perpetually smelled of urine. Beyond the squatters’ shack was an unkempt space that included two dirt and grass soccer fields, some worn playground equipment, badly in need of maintenance, and a basketball court. I know, it sounds very unappealing, worthy of a wrinkled nose: but the second I stepped into the park, my breath was taken away, because the walls of the park were covered in an absolutely captivating collection of street art. Both the west and east walls of the park were a wonderful hodgepodge of colour, styles and techniques that made this humble environment one of magnificent wonder. In fact, it was one of the inspirations for our Fat Bike Graffiti and Street Art tour and one of the major stops on said tour.
On the west wall a multicoloured dragon painted with rotund, sweeping strokes, stared out at you baring its teeth from large, round jaws, its lines evoking the grace and sagacity of a Chinese dragon. Beside the stately reptile, a whale flashed its flanks in a silent competition for attention. “Don’t look at him,” the whale’s posture seemed to say: “Check me out instead!”
Dwarfing the whale on its left side was a large hummingbird, seemingly unaware that it was unnaturally huge, and also contributing to its neighbour’s inferiority complex. It was fun to often see real hummingbirds flying near the mural, little blurs of colour bouncing and bobbing around their larger than life portrait.
The hummingbird was not the only showy animal in the park: the twins also demanded the spotlight. The twins were two huge anthropomorphized dogs that always delighted everyone who saw them. They were pugs and their large softball eyes would invariably catch the attention of everyone who entered. Without fail, my clients would turn, point, and laugh. One aimed his Saturday-morning-cartoon white gloved index finger at his brother a few feet away. While his sibling sat upright, resting his elbows on his knees, the epitome of a doggy intellectual. My tour of the park would always end with people animatedly taking pictures with these agents of canine cool. The twins often brought out the silly in people. They adored interacting with the art, and playing like kids.
Another piece on the same wall reminded me of the work of the surrealist Joan Miró. It consisted of large rounded, yellow shapes in hues of yellow, purple, pink, and brown that were precariously poised on long thin stilts, and looked remarkably like a broken bubblegum daddy longlegs.
The park didn’t just have image-based art, it also featured word based graffiti of all styles and shapes. I loved staring at the oddly shaped letters and trying to glean their meaning. Many were unintelligible, and I would usually be left with simply appreciating the aesthetic of the strange, personalized words, while their true meaning remained a delectable mystery to me. Others were more overt in their message like the “Gangsters” mural on the east wall of the park, which also had the epigram, “All we need is money” hanging just in the upper right of the work. My friends and I, (all of us preschool and elementary teachers), could not resist the opportunity to “find our inner gangster”. We all posed doing our best to look tough and streetwise… Let’s just say we had varying levels of success. Moving on…
The park was also the home of many engaging characters. Beside the bubblegum arachnid, resided the park’s happiest resident—the zombie. Painted in an uncharacteristic pastel palette of soft purples, blues and aquamarine, the zombie smiled at you through a soft mist, with rotting teeth, mottled flesh and hollow eyes. I loved him! He simultaneously attracted and repelled me. Yes, he was the undead, but he was apparently very happy with his lot in life (or undeadness), and was overjoyed to scare, disgust, and charm you all in the same glance.
On the west wall lived the complete opposite of the gregarious, extroverted zombie. Hiding behind a tree, the park’s shy Roman centurion gazed out at you. Only at certain times of the year were you able to see him clearly, his classic red-plumed helmet only just visible through the leaves. In fact, most of the year, you had to wade through tall grass to snap a picture of the elusive, chisel-faced soldier behind the tree. Near the Roman another subtle image was barely visible. It was slowly fading away, but there was no mistaking the homage to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. It had been partially painted over by a modern word-based piece, but there still remained a lone deteriorating figure with its head arched back in a gradually disappearing lament.
Further in the far south west corner of the park, another reserved character carefully looked out at the basketball court through a fictitious hole in the wall. This cheeky mural only showed the eyes and nose of a curious face. It was always entertaining to wonder what had grabbed the character’s attention. Was he peering at something just past your shoulder, or was he watching you?
Not every individual was as quiet and retiring. Under the shady protection of an awning, a sensual indigenous woman with a golden headdress examined you, with heavy eyelids. Looking like a sophisticated Mexican Sophia Loren, she leaned to the right appearing like she was dancing or just sashaying sexily into the park. She had full, pouty lips and the carriage of a woman who knew how desirable she was.
Another magnetic personality was the enigmatic king of the park. Painted by local artists Señor and Misael Iván López, this piece depicted a dark-skinned man with a shock of wild hair, dark glasses, and a crown. It was another favourite amongst my clientele, and for good reason. The king was regal, and had been painted with great skill. The artists appeared to definitely hold this person in high esteem. The mural featured warped and distinctive skulls, with large, idiosyncratic lettering. It had amazing texture and depth thanks to an extensive blend of images, letters, together with curved and wavy lines. Prominently located in the centre left of the image was the word “Samo”, but I was clueless regarding its meaning. Many customers asked me who the mystery man was. Was he the artist? And if not, who was this royalty that exuded such an aura of cool? I was unable to answer those questions until literally the last time I showed this mural to a tour group. I’ve never pretended to be an expert on graffiti and street art. I am just a fan who loves exploring on her bike and finding artistic treasure. Thus, I am always eager to expand my knowledge base learning from informed clients who ultimately enrich my tour.
As I mentioned, el Parque Cora was very run down. Except for the wonderful artistic landscape on its walls, it was sorely in need of some tender loving care. It finally happened with a beautiful restoration that included new exercise equipment, a running track, new playground equipment, and a facelift for the old playground and basketball nets. Leafy, swaying plants and gleaming, new garbage cans lined smooth bisecting pathways begging to be trod on by rubber soled footwear. While the new exercise equipment called to the neighbourhood residents like sirens. It was lovely; unfortunately, the change didn’t just include the exercise area and the playground. Eventually, the final phase involved painting over every single mural in the park except for the king.
I know that street art doesn’t last forever. In fact, many people have written about how this aspect of street art contributes to its appeal. Unlike artistic works in a climate controlled museum they don’t strive for immortality. On the contrary, they are just as mortal as everyone reading this sentence. Some murals remain for years. Others barely survive a few days. Enjoy us while we last, they warn us. Like you, we have an expiration date. For me, one mural on the east wall by the basketball court clearly demonstrated the impermanence of street art. From the first day I set foot in Parque Cora, it had been in decline, faded and worn by hands, back packs, bouncing basket balls, sun, humidity, and rain, but I still loved it. It depicted a small house on a hill and a skull, with the name, Colima, hanging in the sky . A rainbow of colourful raindrops cascaded over the entire scene. The mural was two thirds gone, but the fat, colourful drops pouring down on the house, and the disappearing skull hinted at a stunning piece of art. If I closed my eyes, I could almost feel my feet getting wet in the tinted precipitation.
I knew eventually it would be painted over. Its time was nearly up, but I never anticipated it being ended in such an ugly way. One day, I rode into the park with some customers to find that all the art in the park except for one had been painted over in a cold, antiseptic, flat, grey paint. I felt like someone had hit me square in the chest. I knew that it couldn’t last, but I was shocked that it had not been replaced by more art, but rather, its antithesis. Where was the beautiful, daring work of a new artist, or of the same artist, reclaiming the space with a new delight for the eyes? I nearly started cussing as I explained to my customers all the art that had been lost except for one piece—the king. Within about two weeks, he too was painted over.
The last time I brought a tour group to the park to see its one surviving citizen was bittersweet. As often was the case someone asked me who he was. I replied that I did not know, but that I enjoyed his mystery. Luckily for me, I had a very knowledgeable customer who said: “I think it is a famous graffiti artist named Basquiat.” He then proceeded to do a ten second internet search on his phone and produced a variety of photos of a dark-skinned man with unruly, tousled hair and sunglasses. I looked up at our mysterious king and back to the photos that were skimming across the small, rectangular screen that we were both sheltering from the sunlight. The resemblance was undeniable. This was a portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) a famous New York artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent. He had been part of a graffiti duo called “Samo”, which was the name in the centre left of the work. That night I went online and did a rudimentary internet search about his life. It was so satisfying to finally be able to learn about this amazingly talented man. His secret identity had finally been revealed, and for me, the portrait acquired a new level of meaning. The portrait wasn’t just cool: it was also a homage to a great artist, not unlike the disappearing Guernica.
About a week later, the portrait of Basquiat was given a wash of grey paint. And a week after that, he too was painted over completely with the same lifeless, colour that covered the rest of the park’s walls. He slowly faded from view as the whole park donned a conservative grey suit.
Although visual art is inanimate, it is born out of emotion, expression and creativity. For this reason, we make emotional connections to it. With street art this attachment is reinforced because it lives along side us in our daily lives. We pass by it in our regular commutes. We see it as we enter our workplace. It’s there in the park where we eat our lunch or play soccer with our kids. And when it draws its last breath disappearing from our personal horizon, we miss it. I know that I mourned the marvellous artistic expression that used to live in Parque Cora. I adored how it transformed an otherwise plain space into one of magic. It was a wonderland where a vibrant multi-coloured rain fell on the landscape with a menagerie of animals and fantastic creatures roaming its borders. It was also a realm populated by an unforgettable collection of characters. Where a shy soldier, a cheerful zombie, and a voluptuous femme fatale were neighbours, and the secretive king who discreetly reigned over it all, only revealed his true identity in his final days.
Shortly after the park was completely dressed in grey, I messaged some artists that I know through a Facebook page called Puerto Vallarta Street Art, squawking about boring walls, disappearing art, and gaping voids of creativity. (I’ve been known to be a bit of a drama queen.) They soothed my angst assuring me that there will be a graffiti art festival held in my beloved park on April 13th and 14th of this year. This knowledge eased my sense of loss and sparked new curiosity. Once again Parque Cora is going to become a kingdom of enchantment. Although I am still sad at the loss of old friends, I wonder what new world will envelop me.
Describing visual art in written form is tremendously difficult, because it never seems to do the work justice, no matter if the work is complex or simple. For this reason, I have included some photos of the art that I talked about in the scrolling photo gallery attached to this article. I wish I had taken more, but these should give you a taste of what was there. All the pictures shown here were taken by Clarence and me.
The Graffiti Fest does have a Facebook page. If you are interested here is the link for the event: https://www.facebook.com/events/puerto-vallarta-jalisco/graffiti-fest-2019/2309129539333311/
The basic information that I found about Jean-Michel Basquiat’s life (1960-1988) comes from the official Basquiat website. Here is the link: http://basquiat.com/