After touring the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, one of the Caribbean’s most elegant museums, I descend the steps to its outdoor sculpture garden. I have its treasures to myself — the serene pond, lush woodland and abstract sculptures dotting its winding trail. That is, until I encounter a man in the shadows quietly swooshing paint across a wall.
Edging closer, I realize this is no vandal defacing the park with graffiti. Gerardo Cloquell is painting a visual fable in which a robed woman rides a flying stallion.
In San Juan, the forces of a once-underground art movement now work in broad daylight, rejuvenating urban blocks while catapulting the city into the global art spotlight.
Cloquell (street name ESCO) is among muralists who’ve helped transform the Santurce district into an arts mecca. Clean lines and sensual brushstrokes undergird his fantasies. Cloquell’s also an illustrator; one of his posters promotes the museum’s “Arte Jangueo” social hours; others celebrate baseball. Soon I realize why his work feels familiar. He created a 2012 Art Basel mural I’d admired in Miami’s Wynwood district, a lyrical black and white portrayal of a girl leaning against a swan.
Cloquell is painting this new mural for the Santurce es Ley festival, for which building walls serve as canvases. But that’s not the only time you’ll see muralists perched on ladders and scaffolds around town.
San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, is known for its colorful historic district, balmy beaches, rum and rich criollo cuisine. But a free outdoor spectacle has emerged in the arts district in Santurce. It’s just a 15-minute walk or quick bike or cab ride from the popular Condado beachfront area. You’ll even spot street art along the way. For example, the Condado Avenue/RH Todd Avenue underpass displays a wonderful pair of murals depicting native Caribbean Taíno peoples playing batay, a ceremonial ball game.
A parking lot wall downtown displays a towering trio of murals from the Los Muros Hablen (“The Walls Talk”) festival. They flag the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico, a century-old school building holding a trove of visionary regional art.
The mural with the tentacles was painted by La Pandilla, a San Juan duo lauded at Miami’s Art Basel exhibitions. They painted the serpent-elephant-hippo-dolphin-human hybrid and the Wood Tavern alligator, fish and bird fantasy figures whose gawkers included Kanye West.
“As you walk around this area, you’ll see many murals by our local artists,” says the museum’s receptionist, flipping open a loose-leaf binder bulging with pictures of every imaginable, and beyond imaginable, style of street art.
The free advice paid off. Wandering along De Diego Avenue, I find not only works by La Pandilla, but also, up on a ladder, one-half of the duo. Alexis Diaz is applying fine lines of black to complete a grinning calavera — skull — wearing a straw hat that’s topped with a village skyline and a mountain landscape. He calls the mural La Perla.
A few feet away is a stunning figure by La Pandilla’s other half, JUFE. A magenta-hued creature floats across the building walls. Meticulously drawn in Chinese ink are figures-within-the-figure. I see koalas, birds, a whale, possibly a manatee.
Diaz describes an easy walk to find street murals scattered along Ponce de Leon and other avenues in this bustling part of town. At the intersection of Fernandez Juncos Avenue and Calle Del Parque, I spot the loudly colored art-wrapped walls of La Respuesta, a club that by night features (even louder) music, art exhibitions and occasional live-painting parties.
Gritty, narrow Calle Del Parque holds a gold mine of street art. The styles span low-brow to almost classical; the statements from political to comical to, perhaps, schizophrenic. Some scenes feature otherworldly characters engaged in wild dramas. In others, symbols reflect Puerto Rico’s tapestry of Spanish, African and Taíno (native Caribbean) heritage. Entering a parking lot to view several sprawling murals, I find three men selling paintings under a shade tree. Had one fit into my backpack, I would have bought the surrealistic village market scene.
It’s clear why some cities have begun embracing street artists. Instead of slap-dash spray-painting under cover of night, they can spend daylight hours perfecting their work. Their large-scale expressions revitalize urban neighborhoods without a toll on public funds.
Santurce’s artscape offers more than murals. A sprightly red metal silhouette, Marche de las Siluetas, edges a sidewalk near Condado Lagoon. Plaza Ventana al Mar, Condado’s showcase beachfront park, displays Niña con Tucán (Girl with Toucan), a stunning sculpture by Ángel Botello, dubbed “the Caribbean Gauguin.” Childhood joy is captured in a bronze in Parque Antonia Quinones between Condado and downtown. Huge screen prints spruce up high-rise buildings.
Here, businesses support their local artists. Storefronts serve as open-air canvases, restaurants display works by homegrown talent and hotels commission original-art decor. The San Juan Marriott Resort recently turned its Red Coral Lounge into a quasi-gallery with vibrant paintings and Neftali Maldonado’s reef-like wall carved from wood. The resort's guests can borrow bicycles to explore more of the art-infused city.
Explorers will find intriguing works at galleries such as C787 Studios, Espacio 1414 and Petrus. And even the art-averse will find intrigue in the arts district’s anchors. The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico showcases avant-garde and activist creations, while the lures of Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico include masterworks by Francisco Oller, Ramón Frade and Rafael Tufiño, posters doubling as keen historical snapshots and mixed-media marvels such as Pepón Osorio’s re-imagined barbershop rife with nostalgia, chauvinism and humor.
For seekers of fresh sights, Santurce offers a jackpot indoors and outside, day and night.