Artists, Ex-Pats, and Waves of Change: Akumal Arts Festival 2018 [Part 1]

Written by T.K. Mills

Art by Kiptoe

A Freelancer Flies South

I was cruising down the 307, the federal highway that runs along Mexico’s Riviera Maya on the Caribbean coast. Along either side, the view alternated between lush jungle forestry and gaudy welcome signs for all-inclusive resorts. Though it was November, south of the border the sun was hot and the salty ocean air was cool.

Ignoring the no-smoking warning, I lit one up while my cheap rental bounced along the unevenly paved road. The 307 connects the Yucatan Peninsula’s major tourist cities: Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum – Akumal was wedged somewhere along the way.

The 307 connects the Yucatan Peninsula’s major tourist cities: Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum – Akumal was wedged somewhere along the way.

Art by @jimvision & @qubekmanchester

Earlier that summer, I’d heard of a street art festival in Mexico from Rena Gray. Gray was part of a coalition organizing the first Akumal Arts Festival. Busy with freelancing, I forgot about it. A week before festivities were due to commence, I saw a flyer. At the time, UP was still a pipe dream and I was between gigs. I decided ‘fuck it,’ and bought a ticket south.

A Federale armed with a machine gun waved me through the security checkpoint into Playa Del Carmen. I wasn’t on the official invite list, so I found my own sleeping situation with the help of NYC-based graffiti artist JoDo. I stowed my bags in the Playa del Carmen Airbnb, got back in the rental, and continued another hour south to Akumal.

I arrived late afternoon. After the bombardment of flashy billboards en route, I nearly missed the small notice for my exit. A bridge spanned the 307, connecting the Pueblo (town) and the Playa (beach) ends of Akumal. Pulling into the Pueblo, I parked on a side street and took a walk into town.

Several murals had been sketched and outlined, but most walls were still barren. The wind kicked up dust on the dirt roads that connected the village, populated by small, colorful homes and worn-down businesses. The place seemed deserted. It dawned on me that despite some preliminary research, I knew next to nothing about Akumal or the festival. I wandered until I found an artist.


Artwork in Progress by Kelly Heaton

Kelly Heaton was painting a small municipal building. She was an artist fellow at Tortuga Escondida [Secret Turtle], a residency offshoot of the festival. An electrical engineer with a creative edge, her background informed her choice of imagery. Heaton was painting a mural of Kawil, the Mayan God of Electricity.

I asked her about the festival, but she didn’t know much. Rather, she jumped on board when she noticed the momentum building. She told me to check out the Turtle Bay Café, where they were having a dinner for artists that night.

“You should also find Jen Smith and talk to her. She’s the one who put all this together. They call her ‘La Reina’ [The Queen,]” Heaton informed me.

“You should also find Jen Smith and talk to her. She’s the one who put all this together. They call her ‘La Reina’ [The Queen].” – Kelly Heaton

The Turtle Cafe

The café was bubbling with the excitement of introductions and reconnections. Most of the 70+ artists who had been invited to the festival were crammed around the tables, laughing, drinking, and smoking, everyone helping themselves to free food.

Artists hanging out in the Turtle Bay Cafe

Anticipation electrified the atmosphere. Artists quizzed each other on their wall assignments and allotted casas. The dinner was the unofficial kick-off to the festival, and artists from across the globe had been arriving all day, shuffled down from Cancun via rental cars and the colectivo mini-bus.

I took a seat next to Owley, a videographer from New York, and said hello to the French squad (Primal, Nubian, and Arkane) before introducing myself to Nate Dee and Ivan Roque of Miami, and Kid Crayon from the UK. I saw faces old and new wherever I turned. Owley introduced me to Jake Klone, an English-born street artist who served as the art-liaison for the festival.

Owley and I made a run to the local market for smokes. We stood on the edge of the crowd, catching up, strategizing, and wondering what to expect from the week.

When we rejoined the throng, I used my newly acquired cigarettes as social currency to buy my way into conversations. I asked around, trying to piece together whatever information I could glean about the festival, but the artists were as clueless as me. Most received an invitation and accepted, not really knowing what it was they’d been accepted to.

The thrill lay in the uncertainty.

La Reina

The next morning, I met Kerra Bolton, the press-liaison, at Tequilaville, a restaurant on the Pueblo side of the bridge. We got breakfast and beers while waiting for Jennifer Smith – ‘La Reina.’ Bolton, a freelance writer, had been living in Akumal for two years. She was tapped by Smith for the role due to her experience as a writer. While we waited, I inquired about the festival.

“Smith is basically at the center of everything. Tortuga Escondida is the dorms she opened in the jungle,” Bolton explained. “I stayed there when I first moved to Akumal. It’s a residency for all kinds of artists – writers, photographers, musicians, performers.”

Beyond the dorms, Smith was involved in several businesses around town. She owned the Turtle Bay Café, operated a destination wedding business, and headed Cueva Vodka, a distillery based in the jungle.

“[Smith] is very well-respected. She’s the one who gathered everyone together. It took someone of her talent to get the city officials on board, the schools on board, the housing for artists… She put all of those pieces together, and she’s really the only one who could have done it. She’s been here the longest and has connections in all of those different groups.”

Smith popped into Tequilaville for a moment, but before we could conduct a proper interview, she was off again helping artists find their walls and ensuring the event was running smoothly. In addition to the murals, she organized a series of workshops around the Pueblo for local children. I still managed to get a few questions answered.

Smith grew up in Newport Beach, California and has lived in Mexico for fifteen years.

“Eighteen years ago, I came down for my honeymoon,” she recalled. “Very different time and place, it was a sleepy town. I came back the following year for vacation, and then the following year, we moved here.”

One of her first moves upon arriving was to buy the bakery. Under her leadership, the Turtle Bay Café became the center of town for both locals and ex-pats. Naturally, it served as the base of operations for the festival.

Smith explained how the festival began, in February. “I was meeting with the Delgado [equivalent to a mayor] to talk about street lights. Often, they’re blown out or broken. It’s a safety hazard for tourists and workers. During that conversation, I thought it would be nice to get some artists to paint the bridge to cover up some of the graffiti. By the end, we were planning the festival.”

Smith explained how the festival began, in February. “I was meeting with the Delgado [equivalent to a mayor] to talk about street lights. Often, they’re blown out or broken. It’s a safety hazard for tourists and workers. During that conversation, I thought it would be nice to get some artists to paint the bridge to cover up some of the graffiti. By the end, we were planning the festival.”

Art by Nate Dee

To take on the task, she enlisted the help of fellow Akumal residents. The core team was composed of Smith, Gray, and Klone, plus Marti Johnson and Erin Ko. Gray ran social media, Klone handled artist connections, Johnson handled email correspondence, and Ko created the website. Smith took charge of overseeing the whole operation, including financing.

“This is really a grassroots organization. All of the accommodations were donated by the different homeowners on the beaches. The artists were really taken care of. I had people donating seven-bedroom houses, condos, and ocean fronts.”

Smith secured these donations through a mix of politicking, strong-arming, and charming the ex-pats. “Basically, the festival was funded by the people on the beach side, whether it be monetary or accommodations. And the people in the Pueblo are contributing by volunteering in different programs.”

Community engagement was a key ingredient. Smith alluded to tensions between the Pueblo and the Playa in the past. She wanted to bring the two together. To this end, Smith was most excited about a flag project involving all the children in the town.

“We went to all the schools and the children’s library and brought pieces of fabric for every child to paint whatever they’d like to paint. We’ll be stringing those through the Pueblo. In total we have 1,200 flags.”

Before I had chance to ask more, Smith was off.

Art by Nubian

Paint the Town

Klone joined the team at Smith’s invitation. “She asked me to curate the artists and sort out all the walls. I happily obliged. I’ve been living in Akumal almost four years.”

Klone explained, “we accepted everyone. I don’t like to discriminate when it comes to art. There are some other people who only want big artists that have a big following, and that really didn’t make a difference to me.”

Originally from Leeds, England, he came to Mexico with his girlfriend, whom he had just found out was pregnant, for a long vacation. They found a jungle ranch that required a house-sitter and decided to stay for the birth, eventually settling in and having another son. Klone is very active in the Akumal community, teaching children and volunteering at the community center.

Art by Klonism

Klone began painting when he was thirteen, getting up on the streets of England. “I did a lot of illegal stuff and ended up getting arrested. That’s how I became a teacher. I switched from doing illegal graffiti to doing community work, because I was going to court and getting in a lot of trouble.”

Emigrating helped Klone develop his own style. “In England, I always painted letters. I struggled painting images, they didn’t interest me. When I came to Mexico, all the vibrancy of the Oaxacan folk art inspired me to paint more animals – I love painting birds in vibrant, pop colors.”

I asked him if he assigned walls in consideration of artists’ styles. “A few sent in designs, so I knew where to place them based on the size of the spot. But in the end, I just mixed it all up.”

The Bridge

Learning more about Akumal, I began to notice the disparities between the Pueblo and the Playa. The Pueblo was where Mexican residents lived, and featured the hallmarks of developing-world poverty – stray dogs, abandoned buildings, and gated windows. By contrast, the Playa was home to wealthy ex-pats and tourists, featuring beautiful beaches, renovated condos, and five-star hotels. These two worlds were connected by the bridge.

As such, the bridge was the center of action, with artist painting all four sections. The walls were separated into quadrants, divided by two axes – Playa/Pueblo and north/south. Bolton and I checked out the Pueblo-south side where Kiptoe, Iena Cruz, and Damien Mitchell were painting.

The Bridge, as seen from the highway north side

Born in Wagga Wagga, Australia, at eighteen, Mitchell moved to Europe, before crossing the Atlantic and taking up residence in Brooklyn. His art career started with tagging around his hometown and evolved into stencil-work, before graduating into muralism. He had sketched an outline of a fisherman onto his segment of the bridge.

While researching the festival, I found out Akumal was a sea turtle sanctuary, so I figured there would be a lot of that imagery,” Mitchell explained. (To evidence this theory, his wall-neighbor, Cruz, was painting a mural depicting the danger plastic bags pose to turtles.) Mitchell continued, “it’s good to see what your neighbors are doing – you don’t paint in vacuum.”

Damien Mitchell & Iena Cruz, work in progress

On the other side of Mitchell, I struck up a conversation with Kiptoe. An LA-based artist, he heard about Akumal while painting in London. Kiptoe has made a name in the international street art scene both for his skillfully executed murals and his innovative, kitschy painting videos.

Regarding his subject matter, Kiptoe explained, “I’m obsessed with superheroes and mythology, so I wanted to create a Mayan Spiritual God for the turtles. He’s guiding them and protecting them on their way.” He elaborated, “I like to put a storytelling element into my work. It’s very conceptual at times.”

I asked Kiptoe about the pros-and-cons he’d taken away from the festival so far. “I’ve been meeting all these other great artists,” he told me. On the flip-side, “it’s super-duper hot. Still, it’s rewarding to go home to the beach and have a beautiful view.”

A consequence of the November sun, artists on the bridge’s south side spent most of the day sweating in the heat, while those on the north side got to paint in the shade. Mitchell added, “it’s the kind of job where you take two-hour breaks to go jump in the pool. We’re all down here at sunrise trying to get a few hours in while it’s cool, then we take a break, and come back at sunset.”

Art by Kiptoe

Fiesta on La Playa

Armed guards waved us into Akumal-Sur, a gated community on the Playa. Elaborately designed mansions furnished the neighborhood. Marveling at the extravagant wealth, I thought back to the modest homes in the Pueblo.

We stepped inside the grand estate where an assembly of ex-pats greeted us. We rambled past a marble tiled lobby with two ornate staircases, through a living room lush with Mayan and Mexican art, and into the backyard. Out back, the beachfront property had a mini-pool and a patio populated by catering staff.

The ocean lay just beyond the courtyard, its shore dotted with palm trees. Adding to the tranquil scenery, melodies were provided by Ruby Rae, a resident ex-pat musician, who stood gentling strumming an acoustic guitar and singing.

I huddled with a small band of New Yorkers, including John Domine and Kristy of SOLD Magazine, FunQest, and Gray, sipping vodka cocktails while the party filled in. The function resembled a middle school dance; artists and outsiders clustered on one side, residents on the other. But with alcohol acting as social lubricant, the two groups began to mingle.

Seeing an opportunity to learn more about Akumal, I sought out locals to talk to. The majority were from America, and a handful of other Western nations. Some had only been in Akumal a year, others nearly a decade. Many lived in Akumal seasonally, others year-round. The two constants seemed to be: 1) few were fluent in Spanish, and 2) less had ever gone to visit the Pueblo, preferring the luxury and amenities of the Playa.

Smith was the sole exception. Throughout her two decades in Mexico, she had seamlessly navigated both worlds. I learned from the party’s host that while she had offered her space for the event, it was in fact Smith who had organized the party. I looked for her in the crowd, but in Gatsby-fashion, she was nowhere to be seen.

When Smith did arrive, I watched her check in with the caterers, Rae, the host, and several artists before making her presence known. I sat at the edge of the pool, my feet dipped in the water, next to Rebeka Skela from New Orleans, plus Sinned and Ria of New York, while Smith gave a speech.

Smith offered welcoming words to the artists, before she gave the stage to a mariachi band decked in red-and-white attire.

Afterwards, Bolton and I took refuge on the rooftop veranda, watching the waves kiss the sand. Several artists joined us, including Winnie May, a friendly English painter, who made self-deprecating jokes about being older than most other artists.

Looking out over the scene, the whole evening struck me as incredibly surreal.

The Ceremonies Begin

The next morning, I met up with Owley and his girlfriend, Ronit. Together we inspected the walls, documenting the festival. Owley brought his drone, getting exclusive sky-view shots. Artists who had finished their bridge murals had started second helpings around the Pueblo. By noon, the sun’s fury forced us to retreat back to their casa, where we took a dip in the pool.

Owley with his drone

Ronit and I swam around, while Owley sat in the shade, editing his footage. Nubian and Depoh took a break from painting to join us. Depoh, a Bronx-based artist, had been assigned to paint the concrete bleachers in the Pueblo’s park, where the evening’s opening ceremonies were set to commence.

He explained, “the original drawing for this mural was created ten years ago, today, when my daughter was born. The same day this festival opens.” Depoh found a special significance in this correlation. “It’s magic. I’ve been getting that energy from all the artists here. It’s totally spiritual and universal, everything lining up.”

Depoh wasn’t alone in this belief. Several artists had told me they’d felt a similar a spiritual connection. An innocent air of good intentions seemed to fill Akumal, with one artist describing it like summer camp. As Dirk later put it, “energy creates spaces, and spaces create energy.”

Art by Depoh

That evening, our crew headed to the Playa library for a ceremony serving as a preamble to the official opening of the Akumal Art Festival. It started with the burning of incense and a steady drum beat as the orator spoke about the Mayan history of Akumal. She lit a torch, and a procession formed behind her as she led us to the bridge, with Smith beside her at the front.

At the center of the bridge, Juan, a Mexican of Mayan descent garbed in traditional dress, took the torch. He began a chant, and others joined in. Incense filled the air and the energy intensified. Juan blew a conch like a horn and the beating of the drum grew louder. When it hit its crescendo, suddenly everything stopped. Juan said some blessings as Smith held the torch. After commemorating the rites, the procession continued across the bridge into the Pueblo.

Townsfolk joined our parade, with children running alongside the growing congregation. All over town, the hand-painted flags danced in the wind. We arrived at the park, and the gathered crowd took their seats, artists and residents sitting together.

“Distinguished guests, honorable friends. Welcome to this important cultural and artistic event in Akumal. Culture and art express the most important moral and social values for society. Culture improves personal relations, and it strengthens peace and stability in a society.”

A speech by Juan kicked off the night. “Distinguished guests, honorable friends. Welcome to this important cultural and artistic event in Akumal. Culture and art express the most important moral and social values for society. Culture improves personal relations, and it strengthens peace and stability in a society,” he began. “This festival in Akumal is one of unification, healing some of the divisiveness that has separated us. In division, no one wins. In unity, we all do… We welcome you to this very special place, we thank you for your voice and talents, in bringing this special event to our home.”

Following the opening address, a series of shows were performed, including Ruby Rae, local musicians, dancers, a play, and more. At one point during a set by a Mexican rock band, birds crapped on Ronit and I. Laughing, a local woman handed us some napkins. Pointing to the birds and smiling, she explained “es bueno suerte.”

After the bird incident, I left the small stadium to check out the carnival set up around it. Native vendors sold food, shirts, jewelry, and other wares. I met up with Dirk and his girlfriend Anita, and the three of us took a walk around town.

Anita, in front of art by Deity

As the night came to a close, Dirk, Anita, Sinned, Ria, and I went back to the Turtle Bay Café for dinner. Someone brought up a warning they received about the ‘dangers’ of the Pueblo. We were dismissive. Having seen the town, having felt the blessed aura of Akumal, we found it hard to believe there was any real danger. I chalked it up to ignorant stereotypes Americans had of Mexico.

Still, I thought of the whispered tensions and calls for unification. Danger always lurks just beyond the shallow waters.

Art by Sinned & Ria

Read Part 2, detailing the troubles & tribulations in Akumal, in Issue #2 – Travel & Place. By your copy today.

T.K. Mills is an art journalist based in New York City. After receiving a Master’s Degree in Global Affairs, he discovered a love for graffiti while backpacking through Cuba. T.K. has written for several art publications including SOLD, Global Street Art, and Arte Fuse and ran the street art blog, Well Pleased We Dream. Beyond art, T.K. loves reading and traveling.

Insta: @t.k.m85 // Email: // Site: