The Wall that watches you: An Interview with Alter OsBy: Gabriela Martínez @GabbMartivel
The eastern part of Mexico City witnessed the birth of Omar Arias, better known as Alter Os, an urban artist who even without an academic background, had the opportunity to improve his technique with the help of great artists such as Patricia Soriano, Leonora Carrington and Francisco “Pancho” Cárdenas.
His style consists of a mixture of realism, traditional illustration and airbrushing. His work has been part of numerous advertising campaigns thanks to his collaboration with Casa Picnic, where he has painted promotional murals for Kendrick Lamar, Bon Iver, The XX, and Harry Styles, among other artists and brands.
For the 17th edition of the Morelia International Film Festival (FICM), Alter Os designed a mural inspired by the image created by Rodrigo Toledo. We talked with the urban artist, who told us about his beginnings, his relationship with the cinema and his creative process to make the design he captured in Casa Picnic.
FICM: How did you start your carrer as an urban artist?
Alter Os: It started in the late nineties, illegally, like many artists back then: making graffiti. We did not imagine that graffiti would transcend so much until it became a highly regarded art. We never imagined that large buildings or murals were going to be sprayed with paint.
At the time it was more like a weekend hobby with friends and we did it more to show our work in the neighborhood. I am from Iztapalapa and this situation began with my childhood friends. My house is very close to a sports center which was really big back then and that was were the first “graffiti expos” took place. These were visited by people who had a bit more time in this and that was when I first became interested in this artistic part of graffiti, because there where people who already made things with volume and realism; that started to get my attention and helped me realize that this was much more than going out to “vandalize” the streets, because you could do something much more artistic with spray paint.
Nowadays there are paint brands that provide unlimited colors to create amazing things, but in the nineties I think there were only six shades that we mixed together to achieve more detailed things.
When I first began to see these expos and this type of images, I realized that I could make things that would attract more attention and that I could convey a stronger and more focused message to where I wanted to direct it. This is why I decided to exchange the illegal part for the artistic part; that was the beginning of my career.
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FICM: Was this a self-taught process?
AO: Yes, I never attended an art school. Life has allowed me to meet great teachers and from them I have learned to master techniques such as color theory, perspective, composition, and I think this has been very pleasant for me. Without going to school, I had the opportunity to have teachers like Patricia Soriano, Leonora Carrington and Francisco “Pancho” Cárdenas; they directed me towards the artistic and to improve my technique.
FICM: Do you feel a personal connection to the cinema?
AO: Yes, a lot. I like watching movies. It is very strange because, for instance, when I watch them with my family all of a sudden they are into the emotion, the plot, while I am more into the background, the perspective, the photography. I think that, as artists, we are a bit more sensitive to what we see in the cinema. Many movies have brought me to tears; I really enjoy the action, the special effects, so I believe that every artist becomes sensitive to all the arts.
FICM: What has been the movie that has impacted you the most visually?
AO: I think Avatar (2009, dir. James Cameron) had a huge effect on me. Contact with nature and love towards other people was what sensitized me the most. Also, when that movie came out I was going through a very strong emotional experience and when I saw how the characters connected with nature, how they connected their bodies so that the plants were lit, the setting, the special effects, which today perhaps are no longer as impressive, were all very surprising to me at the time.
FICM: Yalitza Aparicio was one of the attendees at the 16th FICM for her performance in Roma, by Alfonso Cuarón, and we saw that your made a mural of her. How did that idea come about?
AO: I am part of a collective whose objective is to elevate our cultre and our roots all over the world. When we talked about what our next project was going to be, it coincided with the premiere of the film so we thought it was important to highlight Yalitza’s work, her talent, which implied her image regarding beauty stereotypes represented in the media, so it seemed relevant to pay tribute. We agreed on this because we had just gone to Oaxaca to make a mural and we were soaked in its culture, its mezcal, so we wanted to capture all that emotion and everything we saw in Oaxaca on a wall, and as its main character we picked Yalitza.
Time passed and we received a lot of support, including that of the Toy Museum. This was a very personal production and when we saw that Yalitza uploaded the photos, that was really exciting for us. It was very nice that she took the time to photograph herself with our mural.
FICM: With regards to the FICM mural, did you make the design?
AO: I did, along with Casa Picnic, who have been very supportive of my work; this was how I became a part of this collaboration. Executive director, Valeria Villaseñor, sent several portfolios from different artists and mine was selected. They asked me to interpret the festival’s image, but they wanted it to have that urban touch, that visual impact on people. I believe that it is precisely that visual impact what has allowed urban art to grow.
I had some lines to follow so as not to leave the context of this edition’s image, but I did have the freedom to give it a personal touch so that people not only turned around and saw a dome, but that it allowed them to imagine as well. We’ll see what the people’s opinions are when they see the mural.
Many people know us for all the times we have collaborated with Valeria and Casa Picnic, so there is a high expectation among those who walk around here. Fortunately, we always achieve to have an impact on the community.
FICM:Which elements did you pick up and considered key to put on the mural?
AO: The dome’s rhombuses are fundamental. I included a movie tape to give it that direction to the cinema. I believe that cinema enters people through their eyes, through sight, it is the first sense by which we come into contact with the cinema.
In addition, the dome will have an eye in the center and on the pillars there are smaller eyes to close the eye’s circle. This means that not only one person is the one who sees you but, in reality, there are plenty.
The rhombuses were something that we were asked to highlight a lot so that the volume generated by the dome did not get lost, and I think it is something that will be very beautiful and impressive.
Whenever you feel that someone is watching you, it generates some concern and that was what I wanted to convey to the people who walk around here, so that in this case it is not them who turn to see the wall but that they feel that it is the wall who is watching them.
FICM: Where you based on the edition’s colors and added a touch of your own?
AO: Yes. Something that has allowed me to grow a lot has been thinking about the visual impact as much as the emotional impact. Regarding the visual, I generate it with my highly realistic or hiperrealistic technique and I generate the emotional part with illustration. So, I respected the tones of the poster but I did add some of my emotion.
When you work on a wall, you hand in a sketch, and people ask you to do it exactly as they see it; I think this is a limitation when you get to work. When you are in front of your work space and you feel free, that is when you start to flow and things turn out spectacularly. I left some unmodified elements on the dome and I also respected some of the colors. It was along the way that I developed a creative matter, very personal and emotional.