Leaving Your Bite Mark: Juan Jose Surace

Written by JPJ Potts

“Monsters were born at the same time as angels.” This is Guillermo del Toro, perhaps our most cherished stan of the grotesque. “For me, half of the fun is explaining them socially, biologically, mythologically . . .” He’s onto something. Creatures in context are always more fun. There’s a monster in all of us — it just depends where we are. “I’ve always been attracted to them,” admits Juan Jose Surace, a dementedly talented mural artist. “They’re the manifestation of our deepest fears. Many times, I use them [like that]. They’re a resource to help me complement more complex ideas.”

Surace is another fan of the macabre. Often, too, the sublime: his graffiti could be ripped from a storybook stalked by giants, robots and skeletons grilling wieners. There’s a dark whimsy to his work, whether it’s creeping over shaggy blue insectoids or glazing the eyes of a thing reading the paper with wormy arms. We might be in a world once removed from Maurice Sendak or Chris Mould, sort of feral yet soft and okay. Then there’s the spiky edge to Surace’s painting. Pillars sprayed into screaming fat boys. A tin can cradling a skull. Bombs over Kyiv or what amounts to it below a miasmic sky, fish clinging to each other. Suddenly, his work gets scary. “I’m sensitive to suffering in the world,” he says over email, “and it affects me directly. Although there are times when I handle a more luminous register, criticism has more presence in my work.”

“I’m sensitive to suffering in the world,” he says over email, “and it affects me directly. Although there are times when I handle a more luminous register, criticism has more presence in my work.”

Why? Aren’t you meant to mellow with age? Surace, an Argentine, was in his forties when he found street art, although he’d been noticing displays (as anyone does) in Barcelona since he moved there in 1998. Before that, he’d lived in rural oblivion; Barca was a rush of images and characters dripping with life. As a 20-year-old, he gravitated toward animation, teaching himself to waggle figures on a home computer. He learned enough to make a short film, knocking on the door of one of the few companies in the city that were hiring at the time. To his shock, they accepted him. Surace spent the next 15 years working on movies, series and commercials.

“When I decided to retire, I was called by two universities to teach 2D, 3D and stop motion animation. All those years, in parallel, I was developing my painting and sculpture style, working with galleries and art fairs.” We’re talking 2017 now. I can almost hear him exhale through the screen. “It was like breathing again. Painting outdoors and interacting with other artists, far from the academic, snobbish galleries . . . That’s how I started to dedicate myself to muralism.”

You can see animation’s exaggerated gestures all over his catalog — the huge hands, the raisin eyes, screams and sighs bursting from mouths we might not trust, everything blown up or down to the realm of caricature. There’s a sad savagery to some of these pieces: the skeleton with the grill bends with kindness, telling a dog to stay away, failing to catch a gremlin behind him that’s about to steal a fried heart. A cracked wall becomes the stage for a man, titled some abandoned place, who stares at us bleakly, fingers wrapped around knees that might have a blanket. Most of his murals, commissioned or not, from Mar del Plata to the La Seyne sur Meyre conservatory, are mourning something. Or they’re too stupefied to tell us.

What’s he mad about? Easy — you and me. “I have always been interested in the contempt shown by human beings for human beings. From politics, the media, social networks, to the smallest dynamics like hierarchies within companies, or the lack of empathy in ordinary citizens for those living on the streets. The list would be very long, but all these issues affect me.”

“I have always been interested in the contempt shown by human beings for human beings. From politics, the media, social networks, to the smallest dynamics like hierarchies within companies, or the lack of empathy in ordinary citizens for those living on the streets. The list would be very long, but all these issues affect me.”

The purest stance might be Surace’s long-running series, Smile, you are in the network. Yeah yeah, it’s a trope we’ve seen before — phones r dumb, spreading a paralysis of marketable joy, and shush-now-come-on we’re all in on it. Yet before you tell me there’s a society out there, consider the ghoulish, fierce smiles of Juan’s recurring nightmare: the six-titted queen on her futon; a butcher’s shop and swollen tongue; the hulking creature burned by blue light. His crowning acrylic is a garden of teeth partying endlessly into the void. “A jagged facade of misery and insecurity,” is how he puts it.

Smile may be blunt, but it’s gratifyingly interchangeable. The message literally has the teeth it needs to leave a mark. And street art can suffer immediacy. If you’re speeding through Sant Feliu de Llobregat on a tram, the leaping image is probably the one you remember — no fuss, all bite. The kind of viciousness directed by Barcelona’s companies and officials at the street scene itself.

For decades, the Three Chimneys, or Tres Chimeneas, stood as a vacant canvas for urban culture. An icon of the city’s coal industry, the La Canadenca power plant was declared a historic treasure in 1979, only shutting down a decade later. Its square became the definitive spot to find and spray your own masterpieces. Graffiti sprouted on three walls, and tags were coveted. This carried on without much bother until 2005, when mayor Joan Clos, cracking down on the grassroots, brought in heavy penalties for anyone caught painting. The fines raised a bunch of money for the regional government. Clos is also the man who once said that no-one cares about sport in Barcelona. His heart was clearly in his own ass.

Regardless, those laws were lifted in 2011. Tres Chimeneas was allowed to flourish again. But the death knell came last year, when owners Conren Tramway agreed to redevelop the area with the city council, mainly for offices. According to Iberian Property, this will “triple its value” and “revitalize the asset.” The walls were knocked down in November.

Surace has his own beef with an organization he’d rather not name, one dedicated to street art here. “On the one hand,” he laments, “it receives subsidies from the Spanish state for its management, and on the other, it organizes graffiti jams in this space with the support of a big spray paint brand. The only one who wasn’t benefitting was the artist, who didn’t get remuneration for their work.”

And the exploitation keeps spreading. “There are many cases like this all over the world. Organizations receive money from governments under the pretext of bringing culture to the streets, offer artists the opportunity to paint large walls with the discourse of visibility, then don’t pay them. They sell guided tours to street art.” In April 2021, he painted his final mural in Tres Chimeneas — appropriately, a look through the butcher’s window.

So, what would he do to spend the rest of his life in absolute peace? In a room, doing one thing? He ponders it. “I would cheat,” he says. “I’d made a short animated film. It would encompass several disciplines; I’d write the script, draw and paint in pre-production, and make the music.” I’m not even sure it would take too long.