Lunch with Lydia

Lunch with Lydia: Street artist Daniel Fila

To get from his house in West Perrine to DASH, the design, art and architecture high school in the Design District, street artist Daniel Fila took a school bus to a Metrobus, a Metrobus to the Metrorail, the Metrorail to another Metrobus.

That trip from South Dade to Miami’s urban core, the morning skies lightening and the landscapes morphing, bombarded Fila with all of the city’s brash colors and intoxicating rhythms. And it cemented his sense of identity, an American kid who could only be from this corner of America.

“I’m definitely 305,” says the softspoken Fila, who goes by Krave and whose audacious, often soulful murals dot Wynwood, the Design District, Little Havana and beyond. The Sunbather, on a wall at the end of a grassy lot on Biscayne Boulevard and 37th Street, which depicts a bronzed woman lying face down in teeny bikini bottoms that show off a notable posterior, is featured in the Miami-set flick Pain & Gain starring Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Fila, 33, didn’t get just how 305 he was until he graduated from DASH and started attending art school at Columbus College in Ohio.

“I was really depressed that first year,” he says over a Cuban sandwich at Calle Ocho’s El Exquisito, one of his favorite joints in Little Havana, where he keeps his studio.

“There was no sun. I’d go outside in my thin jacket and slip on ice and I was just hating it. I was missing that warmth of Miami. The warmth of the people,” says Fila, born to Anglo parents and brimming with Miami mojo.

“For one thing, I dance. The guys in Ohio didn’t dance. When I was growing up in Miami, I was by no means the hot guy. But in Ohio, it turned out I had flavor. I had edge. Before I moved to Ohio, I didn’t know that I knew how to talk to girls. But it turned out I did.”

A crush

However, there was this one girl in art school named Erin Wozniak. Krave had a crush, but he left it alone because he was dating someone else. After graduation and back in Miami, he painted a mural, in the same spot where The Sunbather is now, of a 13-foot-tall nude, her blond hair in a bun, her epic backside to the viewer. Titled Erin, it was his ode to the art school girl who got away.

But almost as soon as it went up, right before Art Basel 2003, a few folks complained that the piece was too risqué. They went to architect Chad Oppenheim, who vowed that the piece, at the back of his property, would stay up. But within months, an anonymous party pooper painted white over the whole thing.

By Art Basel 2005, Fila had returned to the wall, this time painting Erin from the front, as if she had just turned around and noticed she was being watched. He painted the real Erin’s face on the buxom, broad-hipped figure. And the real Erin — well, she wasn’t exactly amused.

In the work, Fila had referenced Wozniak’s own feminist-themed self-portrait. Reached by Miami New Times in 2006, she fired off an email: “What Daniel Fila has done is taken my artwork — not a photo, but my artwork, and directly copied it, publicly presenting it as his own. He has also defamed my work by pasting it onto a grossly over-sexualized naked figure. …”

This wasn’t the first time that Fila had painted a female figure with an ample bottom. In fact, female figures with ample bottoms are something of a signature for the artist, who exalts in Latin Miami’s sense of beauty. Erin wasn’t Latin. “But she had a booty,” Fila says.

“I love my women, but they’re actually a small part of what I do. I do paintings on canvases, sculptures, site-specific installations. I like the booty girls, but I don’t want to go out like Botero. Much respect, but that’s not me.”

Fila didn’t miss a beat after the real-life Erin dissed his mural. He changed it again, this time putting Shakira’s face on the figure. Later, after he met the woman who would become his wife, he changed it again.

Was it biologist Tiara Thanawastien, whom he married this spring, who asked him to alter the mural?

“My wife is kind of shy and she actually doesn’t like me painting her all the time,” Fila says. “You would think it would please her that I keep painting her, but she feels like I’m putting her on blast.”

Ladies in White

Fila even managed to bring Tiara into the mural he painted in Little Havana (on Southwest 15th Avenue between Seventh and Eighth streets) in tribute to the Damas de Blanco, the Ladies in White who peaceably march in Cuba to bring attention to the plight of their jailed dissident sons, husbands and other relatives.

“My wife is from Thailand, so even my Ladies in White look a little Asian,” says Fila. He says he was moved by the bravery of the demonstrators, who are often harassed, beaten, arrested.

“I have always despised Fidel Castro. He has affected so many people in Miami. He has affected me. I was so inspired reading about the Ladies in White. And I was so repulsed by the fact that they were being brutalized. These women are angels. They’re the best answer to everything that happens in Cuba.”

Fila had worked in a Wynwood studio for several years but was wooed to Little Havana by urban developer Bill Fuller, a Cuban American who with partners is revitalizing chunks of the downtown/Brickell/Little Havana area.

“I worked on getting Daniel to Little Havana for five years, and I consider it a major coup that he’s now part of the neighborhood,” says Fuller, whose holdings include the historic Tower Hotel at 1450 SW Seventh St. — currently under renovation — and the property at 729 Southwest First Ave. that houses the popular bar Blackbird Ordinary. Fuller and partners are also working to help add fuel to the ’hood’s developing art scene.

“Daniel is 100 percent Miami. He’s passionate about the city and he’s making his mark here. He represents a younger generation that embraces Miami’s multiculturalism and doesn’t create divisions based on language or ethnicity. This is a new Miami generation that is completely unique and only now starting to come into its own,” Fuller says.

Fila, meanwhile, is focused on further developing his art. His first works he threw onto the walls of abandoned buildings, dodging cops and traveling with a crew that included DASH alum Daniel Arsham, whose career as a New York-based artist is on the rise.

“Back then, there was a stigma to doing graffiti, but now every business wants to pay you put paint on their wall,” says Fila, who with Miami artist Claudio Picasso painted a mural for the lobby of South Beach’s glam SLS Hotel in 2012. “I’m happy about where I am now, but I miss the old days on the streets. You’d walk into an abandoned warehouse with your paint cans and there were brilliant colors floor to ceiling. It was like a thousand other artists had been there before you. It was magic. For me it was way better than Disney World.”

Except that as a high school kid, Fila sometimes got beat up by bigger guys on the scene.

“But in a way I’m kind of glad for those beatdowns, because they made me tougher. They make it easier now to deal with the clients who don’t want to pay. They don’t actually try to punch your face, but what some of them try to get away with is almost worse.”

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