5 questions for a Salvadoran street artist in Costa Rica

June 3, 2018

Art as therapy. Art as a way to relax a daily, unstoppable anxiety that appears unexpectedly. Art as a release, the reason why Salvadoran street artist Dunkest has created graffiti throughout the city of San José, Costa Rica.

For him it’s a way to ease stress while also commemorating the places he’s been exploring in the city. He also loves to bring colors and happiness to walls that are abandoned or simply dull.

Using art as therapy started out when Dunkest was just 12 years old and began drawing Precious Moments cartoon characters from a coloring book his mother had given him. His dabbling grew into a need to draw and create art on a daily basis.

It was years later that he first grabbed a can of spray paint to do his first graffiti by writing out “Dunk” on a wall; the nickname was given to him when he was in high school in El Salvador, where he was known for his slam dunks on the basketball court. He would go on to study graphic design at Francisco Gavidia University in San Salvador, but he never graduated. Instead, he began working as a graphic designer in El Salvador, moving to Costa Rica three years ago to work with a design agency.

Here, he has also continued creating graffiti, which he says helps ease the anxiety he lives with as a result of having Asperger’s Syndrome.

“My therapy will [always] have to be painting. It’s become a habit: doing what I like and wanting to improve it all the time,” Dunkest told The Tico Times.

On a warm afternoon in Lindora, Santa Ana, west of San José, The Tico Times sat down with Dunkest, 24, to talk about his life and works. Excerpts follow.

When did you realize that being consistent made a difference for you?

I’ve always said that when you start to draw and have the notion of wanting to do it, you must save the worst sketch that you have done to remember where you came from… I started drawing when I was 12 years old. My mother bought me a book of Precious Moments [laughs]. I was always drawing the characters everywhere and I’d always do an aurora around them. It looked very nice and once when I started going out of the house by myself I began seeing graffiti with an aurora effect, and I began relating the two.

The first time I grabbed a can of spray paint was in 2006 or 2007 and I made a big splatter, so I needed lots and lots of practice. Maybe I did not practice daily, but I’d find a can of spray in my sister’s house and I’d go to a vacant lot to practice. You must be constistent in what you like because if not you’ll never learn to do something.

Salvadoran artist Dunkest likes to use vibrant colors within his complex letters in his graffiti. Courtesy of Dunkest

What is your process like?

First, you must have in mind what you want to create, then see the space. I like to do letters because for me letters have a lot of culture in my life. Maybe I’ve taken this from graphic design: trying to make the letters stronger than the graphic part of it by placing drawings in them depending on the topic.

Then, it’s about colors: how many colors will be used, if rollers will be used, if you’ll use [painting] guns to make it faster or if you’ll only use spray. Then, the dimensions are done on grids to start planning it according to the space.

Salvadoran artist Dunkest likes to experiment with angles, shapes and curves to improve his graphic image in graffiti. Courtesy of Dunkest

How do you choose the walls to paint on?

The walls come to be a very fun game. There are certain parts of San José that are very obscure, lots of drugs passing by. Sometimes people say they don’t want to walk there because it’s awful. It’s funny to me because it’s very abandoned, I start to paint there… and then people start taking pictures. I just wonder: if you’re scared of passing by, why are you taking out your phone while I’m doing this?

They tell me that they do it because they like what I’m doing and they’re not scared anymore. I ask them why and they tell me that if I have the courage to do those things here, then they shouldn’t be scared of passing by certain areas. I painted in the zona roja (the most dangerous part of San José) and the people from there would tell me that ever since I started painting there, people come by more often to take pictures.

They asked me who I was; I just said that I’m nobody. I’m just getting rid of my anxiety. I always try to look for places that are boring or dangerous and just take a drop of happiness. If there’s evil, you always have to take a bit of happiness where there isn’t any.

Salvadoran artist Dunkest usually likes to include cartoons in his graffiti. Courtesy of Dunkest
Drawing happy faces within his graffiti is something that Salvadoran artist Dunkest enjoys doing to bring happiness. Courtesy of Dunkest

How is graffiti different here in Costa Rica from El Salvador?

It’s very different. Graffiti in El Salvador is considered something that comes from gangs. You run the risk that if they catch you painting you can go to jail, or they’ll even think you’re a gangster just because you have a [can of] spray paint.

Here [in Costa Rica] it’s very different because that problem does not exist, and it’s nice. In El Salvador you get rocks thrown at you for that. I’m more open to the world and I know that I’m not doing anything wrong, so just respect what I’m doing.

One of the first times that I painted here, a woman came by and gave me ₡5,500 (about $11) [laughs]. I asked her why, and she told me to go buy a juice. I then asked her if she knew what I was doing and she said that I was beautifying San José.

I found that to be quite curious because in the culture of my country there’s the trend that it’s something bad. Here in Costa Rica, it’s much more pleasant.

Happy people in front of one of Dunkest's graffitis. Courtesy of Dunkest
A collaboration that Dunkest made in with New York artist Mr. Never Satisfied. Courtesy of Dunkest

When did you notice that drawing and painting worked for you as therapy?

When I accumulated a lot of energy I did not know how to release it. I used to play soccer a lot before. I tried skating…. it didn’t quite work as well. But being alert on the streets [while painting] at night helped. I’m not scared of the police, but I’m scared that there’ll often be strange things happening at night such as drug trafficking or people who simply live there at night and may have something bad that’ll end up [affecting] you by mistake.

That made me activate all of my senses, and I’d be in a phase that I’d be experiencing with all five. It’s very curious because sometimes the smallest sound can make you more alert or certain shadow makes you full of adrenaline, and it becomes a fun game.

One of Dunkest's graffitis located in an alley in Barrio Escalante, east of San José. Courtesy of Dunkest

For more of Dunkest’s art, follow him on Instagram.

“Weekend Arts Spotlight” presents Sunday interviews with artists who are from, working in, or inspired by Costa Rica, ranging from writers and actors to dancers and musicians. Do you know of an artist we should consider, whether a long-time favorite or an up-and-comer? Email us at elang@ticotimes.net.

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