Unsuppressed by the concrete poured over them, fierce desert weeds curled out of the sidewalk cracks beneath our feet as Argentine muralist and street artist Pastel and I ambled down Second Street in the direction of coffee under the freak intensity of an early March sun. Over the course of our walk, we almost made the total distance between the two murals Pastel has painted on large swatches of buildings Downtown, one at the Sanitary Tortilla Factory and the other at the Tower Building (the decades-old brick and metal structure on Marquette and Second Street, once an icehouse, then a warehouse, then a radio station, now soon-to-be artist studios and apartments). Pastel was born and raised in Buenos Aires and even went to school there for architecture, but has spent the better part of the last several years traveling, and in each new destination decorating the city's walls with large-scale botanical murals that throw tiny, often ignored native plants into stark relief against the man-made environment. It is a language transcribed onto an urban palette, and across Pastel's body of work, it is evidenced as truly his own.
“First I started painting just for fun, like graffiti,” Pastel explained, tidily dispatching a double shot of espresso on a very brief break from work (both of these massive murals had to be completed in about two weeks). “Then, I studied architecture … but I never wanted to be a regular architect, I'm not so interested in constructions. I think there are already too many constructions in cities. … So, I started to mix ... architecture concepts [with] what it means to paint on the streets, and I realized that was the way I wanted to make architecture. That's when I started to paint.” He quit the architecture firm where he had been working and began to paint in earnest. He has since put murals up all over the world—throughout South, North and Central America, across Europe, in Australia and in Southeast Asia (for those counting, that only leaves Africa and Antarctica before Pastel has worked on every continent). Though he undeniably has some clout to be boastful of, he is unabashedly humble—pointing out that he just paints the weeds that grow in the sidewalk cracks and uses the colors that he sees in the landscape around him. Every time I complimented his work, his serious expression transformed into an honest-to-god, genuine smile as he answered with a polite, maybe even slightly embarrassed, “Thank you.”
The murals Pastel is creating in Albuquerque depict flowering indigenous species like artemesia and aloysia, so I asked the obvious question: “Why plants?” He looked out the window for beat. “That is the best question,” he offered, before pausing for another long interval, eyes trained on the parking lot and gray cityscape outside. “When I started to make architecture … I started to understand that there are many hidden actors all around,” he began. “Like graffiti is a social actor … the color is an actor, because it is changing [the landscape]. … In cities, human developers are trying to make everything neat and pour concrete all over, but they are doing it in a bad way, they always make mistakes and there appear some breaks, and plants start to grow. It is like a reflection of the wrong way that modern cities and societies are growing. … These little plants are still social actors, but super quiet, because no one is paying attention.” The solution: put them on a scale that everyone will notice, though he is quick to point out that he is not always attracted to working in such a colossal scope and has every belief that the smallest canvas can disrupt and inspire, but the scale of the work has to be a human one.
The plants aren't just an assessment of modern development, they also reflect the environment back to the city's people. Pastel spends a generous amount of time researching each city he will paint in before he arrives—its history, people, geography, culture and flora—and then arrives on-site to observe the wall and its role in the immediate landscape. “I think [these] murals … can make the local identity stronger,” he elaborated. “If you try to learn as much as you can about a place, you will know better what it needs. Sometimes it doesn't need anything, sometimes there is some work to do. … but I don't always think that the space needs a mural … It's [about] being honest with a place.” Pastel used to describe his work as “urban acupuncture,” because growing up in a big city, he never agreed that the only path to progress was to continue building and to build on a large-scale. “I always lived among concrete buildings” he elaborated, and so, he came to focus on the ignored spaces in between them—underpasses, empty lots, subway exits—“maybe they are places without a real function or identity, but people are living there or passing by” and by transforming those spaces, a resonant impact can be made that reverberates across the cityscape. “I'm happy to work in that space.”
The murals—set to be completed by the time this article goes to print—were created in anticipation of Cross Pollination, an exhibition coming soon to 516 ARTS that examines the critical role of pollinators in the world's food supply and also bears weight as a metaphor. “Nature, the plants, the animals, the immigrants, the buildings, the city, the urban landscape, the people who plan it: It is all cross-pollination,” Pastel, who will also have a print in the formal exhibition later this year, mused without failing to recognize how his own journeys figure into the analogy. “I didn't used to take much of a perspective on what I do. But when I am made to stop and think about it, it is super strange. Like, traveling and painting?” He opened his palms in a gesture of admission to the rare and surprising opportunities, metaphors and canvases that life has presented to him, a boy who grew up wanting to be a soccer player, then an architect, and now travels to every corner of the world with the tools of his trade: brushes, sketches and paint-spattered jeans. “You know … it is really good.”