Once you know the story of an artist, his biography becomes hopelessly entangled with his work. It's hard to look at a Van Gogh, for example, without imbuing his work with a sense of violence and disease. So it's understandable that anyone familiar with the life of Juan Marante (aka Tocayo), the artist whose work is featured on the cover of this week's CityBeat, may be tempted to read a few things into his images.
Tocayo was born in 1976 in Havana, Cuba, where he and his family lived under Castro's communist rule. They fled the country in the exodus of 1980, when, under the auspices of President Jimmy Carter, Cubans were granted a brief window of political asylum in the U.S.
Tocayo and his family immigrated to Miami and, along with tens of thousands of dispossessed Cubans, began the arduous task of climbing the social and economic strata. His parents worked tirelessly at low-income jobs while Tocayo was looked after by neighbors in the tight-knit Cuban community. Eventually, he was able to put himself through school, earning a degree in advertising and marketing.
Tocayo came to San Diego in 2001, lured by the surf and skateboarding culture, and began working a series of dead-end jobs. He'd been nurturing a passion for drawing since childhood, decorating his own boards and sketching profusely, but hadn't ever really considered the possibility of being an artist. After spending time at a marketing firm, happy but unfulfilled, Tocayo decided to go back to school to study graphic design—a move that led to quick commercial success with companies like Rip Curl and Reef.
Once establishing himself commercially, Tocayo began to focus on a body of private work. And it's in these paintings—colorful compositions on canvas and wood—that you may be tempted to read in a degree of struggle or strife. Tocayo draws heavily from Mexican and Cuban cultures, as well as from music (mostly jazz) and has forayed into subjects like civil rights. But his work actually seems to be more about immediacy than imbalance. Perhaps it's because he never set out to be an artist that his work is less about message than perception. He is simply responding to the world around him, and his view of that world is transferred, unfiltered, into his work.
'I work with what I see, what I'm interested in,' he explains over the phone from the forthcoming El Camino restaurant in Little Italy, which will be decorated with his murals. 'I love Mexican culture, and I use that theme a lot even though I'm Cuban.'
'Last Call,' the piece on the on CityBeat's cover, depicts a small Luchador pounding a beer before facing his much larger opponent. 'It's clear he's going to lose,' Tocayo explains. 'So he's having one last drink.' And was the theme inspired at all by events in his own life? 'Not at all,' he laughs. 'I just thought it was funny.'