The Wynwood Story: Local Artists Make Their Mark
White sand beaches and bustling nightlife may define Miami on the surface, but in the last 10 years the city has also garnered a global reputation for creativity.
At its core, along with high-profile attractions like Art Basel and Pérez Art Museum, is fresh and exploratory street art. The mural-based movement has restored dilapidated city blocks and given life to entire neighborhoods, with the most prominent being Wynwood.
“It encompasses a couple [of] blocks where everything, everything, is covered in art,” says Miami-based artist Tatiana Suarez, who began her career in Wynwood and was this year voted Best Street Artist in Miami New Times. “The floors and the walls are alive with art.”
To walk through the streets of Wynwood is to immerse yourself in eye-catching compositions, from multi-story murals to diminutive hidden paintings. Home to one of the largest open-air street art installations in the world (along with art galleries, artisanal restaurants, breweries, and boutiques), this eclectic district in the heart of Miami carries an unmistakable identity as one of the country’s most exciting destinations for artists.
“Every artist wants to come and leave their mark in Wynwood,” says Suarez, noting that artwork in the district is artwork that is going to be seen. “All eyes are on Wynwood.”
Photo: Martha Cooper
Her doe-eyed female subjects, often depicted with unsettling accompaniments, can be found throughout the district – perhaps most recognizably in Wynwood Walls, considered by many to be the neighborhood’s focal point. The captivating artworks have been called surreal, sensual, and even creepy, and they have propelled Suarez as a bold presence in the New Contemporary Art scene that is flourishing in Miami.
“I like that juxtaposition of the pretty, delicate girls with the creepy animals,” she says of her work, which is heavily influenced by nature, myths, and legends particularly from her own Brazilian heritage. “I like that they make people a little uneasy.”
Born and raised in Miami, Suarez got her start in Wynwood a decade ago when the neighborhood was still considered a dangerous part of the city. She caught the attention of a gallery curator while showing her work in local restaurants and bars and held her first solo show in the neighborhood. Soon after, she painted her first mural within the walls of the old RC Cola Plant in Wynwood.
At the time, the district was so far removed from the vibrant center of Miami that most of the people you would spot on the streets were graffiti artists. Once a home for Caribbean immigrants, Wynwood had fallen on hard times economically by the early 2000s. The sidewalks were not considered safe to walk, and walls were marked with graffiti tags rather than fine art.
Photo: Damien Morrow
The district’s renaissance came in the form of a partnership between developers and artists. While one group rehabilitated neglected buildings, the other painted the neighborhood in vivid murals. “Every day you would go, and there would be a new building, a new mural,” says artist Santiago Rubino, one of Wynwood’s most influential local muralists. “And it’s still the same way now. You always find a new gem.”
Rubino’s own artwork highlights the borders between the dream and the real. With rigorous precision and inspiration from nature, animation, and mythology, his figurative portraits captivate the passerby and have appeared in venues around the world from New York to Toronto to Mexico City. (One of his compositions also hangs in a private residence at The Mansions at Acqualina.) Entirely self-taught, he started asking the city for permission to paint walls and gradually developed his singular style alongside other artists who frequented Wynwood in its early stages.
“Painting outside is more exciting [than painting in the studio],” he says, “because I get to connect with people and interact. It’s a different, exciting experience every time I do a mural outside. The street is very unpredictable.”
Primary Projects was one of the first galleries to invite artists from all over the world to paint in Wynwood, and around the same time, Wynwood Walls opened as both a curated outdoor exhibit and an accompanying gallery that featured the studio work of the artists. Nearby, Jose de Diego Middle School underwent an incredible transformation with The Raw Project, a volunteer initiative in which more than 80 skilled artists like Rubino covered the school walls in towering murals. It was the first large-scale project of its kind in the country, and the positive impact on the children since then has been undeniable.
Photo: Santiago Rubino
“I had murals in Wynwood before it became what it is,” says Rubino. “So for me, it has always been a special place.” But when asked about the appeal of the district today, he speaks about its inherent energy. “All the artists and curators that have come together to make the place better… It’s been overwhelming.”
Wynwood Walls and the school are actually Rubino’s recommendations for first-time visitors to the district, along with a little bit of wandering on your own. You can find his mural in the Wynwood Doors section immediately next to Suarez’s relatively new mural.
Last December, Suarez was invited to paint in Wynwood Walls, which resonated with her for many reasons – one being that her very first mural was right here in Wynwood. Better yet, she became the first local woman to have a piece in Wynwood Walls, joining Rubino as the only locals with artwork currently depicted. “It makes me proud to be from Miami,” says Suarez, “and to be representing the city in there.”
For her, the creative process differs greatly between studio work and painting murals. In the studio, she says, “You can make mistakes and not worry about it being so large-scale and out there in the world where everyone can see the process.” Whereas with murals such as her piece in Wynwood Walls, time and materials are both of the essence, and the scale of the composition requires more planning – like a digital sketch on Photoshop to find the right colors in advance and a grid to transfer the image onto the wall. “It’s a challenge,” she adds, “and it makes it feel so much better at the end when it’s finished.”
Photo: Martha Cooper
Because art is covering everything and Wynwood is constantly changing, Suarez tries to be selective in choosing her walls to ensure that her work will stay up for years to come. (“At times, you can’t tell where one piece starts and one ends.”) One of her older pieces was actually taken over by change when part of the wall was knocked down by developers, leaving only the head of her subject behind. It has since been tagged by graffiti artists, but Suarez finds all of it to be interesting.
“I love that she’s not completely gone – the neighborhood is just growing around her,” she says. “It’s so transient, but that’s kind of the beauty of that too. It’s a shapeshifting neighborhood.”
As the district continues to grow and space becomes costlier, Suarez suspects that artists will flock to other parts of Miami and ignite similar revitalizations. (Little Haiti is currently experiencing its own artistic movement.) But that doesn’t mean any of them would pass up the chance to paint in one of the most prominent creative communities in the United States.
O the second Saturday of each month, Wynwood hosts Art Walk, an acclaimed festival brimming with art gallery events, cultural experiences, and diverse cuisine from James-Beard-nominated restaurants and dozens of food trucks. The concierge at Acqualina Resort & Spa can assist you in planning your visit.
Featured Photo: Wynwood Walls