Jan. 13 2015 06:03 PM

Tijuana's Paola Villaseñor pictures the side of humanity most folks try to ignore

Paola Villasenor
Photo by Jorge Ledezma

Street artist Paola Villaseñor, better known by her nickname, PANCA, shocked her Mexican-immigrant parents when, at age 18, she moved from her suburban home in Chula Vista to the urban center of Tijuana.

"It just seemed like a place where interesting things were happening," PANCA explains.

"I obviously would see a lot of odd and crazy things daily," says PANCA, who's since moved to the more peaceful and polished oceanfront neighborhood Playas de Tijuana. "I lived about a block away from the actual border fence and very, very close to the Tijuana River. I would always see a lot of really desperate deportees who end up living down there by the river…. It was super-influential to see all that."
She didn't just move to Tijuana—a city widely viewed as dangerous by outsiders who've been afraid of the collateral damage inflicted by drug-war violence—she settled in Zona Norte, the city's red-light district, notorious for its prostitution and strip clubs.

Almost all of PANCA's canvas paintings and large murals feature somewhat grotesque characters. Thematically, she focuses on the decay of humanity. Her distinctive, neon-colored work covers countless bars, restaurants and alleyways in Tijuana and, more recently, locales outside the city, such as a large wall inside San Diego Art Institute in Balboa Park.

 The city that PANCA's chosen as her home directly influences much of the exotic imagery in her work. "Como la Flor," her piece that's featured on the cover of this week's CityBeat, includes the Tijuana hillside El Cerro Colorado in the background. She says the painting is a reflection of how Tijuana callously spreads itself out anywhere it possibly can.

PANCA often gets asked why she doesn't show more beauty in her work.

"For me, art is not supposed to be beautiful, but real," she answers.

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