Artist Goes to the Dogs for Street Exhibit

November 27, 2009

Thirty-three-year-old artist Francisco Munguía has a nice set-up: a beautiful wife named Deborah, a four-month-old son named Fausto, 22 abandoned dogs, a parrot, a cat and, of course, his paintings, which adorn the walls of his home in the northeastern San José suburb of Guadalupe.

He works from home, either painting in his studio behind the sheltered pen where the 22 dogs roam harmoniously, or next to Fausto’s crib, at the computer he bought with the proceeds from a first-place prize in a 2005 mural competition.

The career trajectory of Munguía, one of Costa Rica’s most famous artists, has been steady. His output is varied, his style unmistakable. His work can be seen on canvas, stickers, phone cards, comic strips, calendars, T-shirts, underpass walls, movie and TV animations, a philosophy book in Mexico and a language book in the United States. Munguía is the artist responsible for the six iron street dog sculptures recently positioned along downtown San José’s Avenida Central as homage to the million or so abandoned dogs roaming the country.

It is hard to believe that this is the same man who once made a living dressed as an inflatable cow in shopping malls.

“I’ve done lots of different jobs, including the inflatable cow job, but fortunately I have since been able to make a living doing what I love,” Munguía said. “I wasn’t the best artist at art school. In fact, there were four or five people I thought were better than I was.

It’s just that I was always more enthusiastic about it.”

Enthusiasm certainly seems to be the key word. A quick glance at any of Munguía’s paintings (he averaged 150 last year) and the enthusiasm and energy that went into them is almost palpable. Rich in color and humor, they give the impression that while he slaps on the paint with one hand, he slaps his knee in mirth with the other.

The son of a carpenter father and a housewife mother, he studied visual arts and ceramics at the University of Costa Rica and joined the Zarigüeyas, an artist movement dedicated to caricatures, cartoons and comedy art.

“The thing is this type of art was more underground in the sense that there was no school for it, and it wasn’t considered traditional, but I liked it,” he said. “I liked using color and humor to get people’s attention and put across messages.”

Munguía also took courses in photography and design, which led to a job at the daily La Nación, where he worked as a page designer before becoming the newspaper’s resident cartoonist.

His talent was recognized by the curator of the San JoséMunicipality, who commissioned  him to paint a mural on the 300 meters of external wall space at the CalvoCemetery in San José, just behind the municipal offices on Avenida 10. The work took him 22 days and marked a turning point for him as an artist.

“My work at the newspaper up until then had always been in black and white and office-based,” Munguía said. “All of a sudden I was working in color, outdoors and with the public. People would come up to me and comment on the work, bring me something to drink or ask if I would paint a bear or something on their wall.”

Munguía’s professional life as an artist changed rapidly, and he was commissioned to paint murals in other places around the capital, such as Hatillo, Curridabat, Shalom, Cipreses and Tirrases.

“It was great,” he said. “Some artists would refuse to do it, because you would have to work outside and deal with the public, but I loved it. I was working alongside disadvantaged kids, tramps and prostitutes, and we all got along.

“What’s more, people start to look at their towns differently when it is brought to life with a mural and a bit of color. People are more likely to dump rubbish next to a gray bridge than a bridge with a mural on it.”

Munguía, who has since completed more than 80 murals throughout the Central Valley, is destined for Málaga, Spain, next year, where he will paint a mural in a similar urban project.

Since purchasing his computer in 2005, he has transferred much of this enthusiasm into animation and video making, with equally successful results.

“Making videos, to me, is like playing computer games. And some of my clips have been used for television and movie introductions,” he said proudly.

But why the fascination with dogs, and what are 22 of them doing in his home? Well, they sort of go hand-in-hand with Munguía’s love of urban art and love for his country.

“As Costa Ricans, we are a mix of races – part European, part African, part Chinese – so in this sense we are like the zaguate (mongrel street dog),” he reasoned. “What’s more, the street dog is a symbol of the town.

Every town has a street dog, just like every town has graffiti. They represent all that is urban, and that’s why hip-hop music and rappers always refer to them in their music. Think Snoop ‘Doggy’ Dogg, for example.”

The motivation for taking in 22 dogs – and converting an outside space into a shelter big enough for all of them to live and exercise in – comes partly from Munguía and partly from his wife, Deborah Portilla, who works tirelessly giving lectures and handing out materials in an effort to better educate people about the plight of the street dog.

The pair also runs www.youtube.com/costaricaguau, designed to champion the rights of the country’s abandoned dogs. “We are currently looking for help with the financing, because so far we have had to pay for everything ourselves, so any help would be much appreciated,” Portilla said with, uh, dogged determination.

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