A Muralist in the Age of the Wall


This week on The Trip podcast: Smoking out with Panca, Tijuana’s border-crossing muralist.

Ah, those are some sounds from the last day of Tijuana, one last taco with chef Ruffo Ibarra, and then one last ballad from a street singer. The taco was a beef stew masterpiece from Tacos Fito, where the taquero slings the stew across his outstretched arms, from the ladle in his right hand to the taco in his left. 

The wall, it can’t stop music, it can’t stop drugs or guns, and it certainly can’t stop art. So on my last day, I went back over the border, to San Diego, where I met up with Tijuana-based artist Paola Villaseñor, better known as Panca. Panca’s next show is at Bread & Salt in San Diego on February 8. I feel like you’ve seen her work, or at least, if you have seen it, you remember it immediately and forever: vibrant, hallucinatory hearts with triangle noses and stony eyes. Horned monsters regurgitating a river of floating heads into each other’s mouths across a pink triangle border wall. Her murals are ingenious, entrancing, narcotic. It was only fitting that we met at Klover, a brand-new dispensary across the train tracks from Mission Hills in San Diego, where Panca was working on two signature murals before its grand opening. The kind people who run Klover didn’t have drinks for us, but they did have some very, very dank weed that just seemed like the right choice for the occasion.

Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Panca. Subscribers can listen to the full episode here. If you’re not on Luminary yet, subscribe and listen (and get a 1-month free trial) by signing up here.

Thornburgh: You were born in Chula Vista, in San Diego. And now you live now in Tijuana. Have you always just been in both places?

Panca: No, actually I was thinking about that yesterday. I actually now have lived exactly half of my life in Chula Vista, and the other half… I’m going to be 34 soon. I moved to Tijuana when I was, 18, 19. So almost half my life.

Thornburgh: You’re getting real close on it.

Panca: That’s close. It makes me think. I grew up in Chula Vista, my family is from Cuernavaca and Mexico City, so they’re immigrants. I didn’t have very much of a TJ-San Diego life. It was more like Chula Vista-San Diego to Mexico City-Cuernavaca. Every summer, every Christmas, that was my link to Mexico.

Thornburgh: Very different style than Tijuana.

My grandma didn’t have a phone. She had a parrot, but she didn’t have a phone.

Panca: Very different. Very different sound, different accent. My parents did try really hard to make us travel as kids, because they were realizing that we were being, not Americanized, but that we were starting to have little accents, and all the typical things that happen. They wanted us to always have that link. I really loved it. I think that’s why I moved to Mexico as an adult, because I was enchanted by it. But as a kid I did hate certain things. I was a typical little jerk: “It smells,” and also I was in Mexico before NAFTA, so I do remember asking, “Where’s there a McDonald’s?” My grandma didn’t have a phone. She had a parrot, but she didn’t have a phone.

Thornburgh: Nice job, grandma.

Panca: I was like, “How can you not have a phone? This is dangerous.”

Thornburgh: She’s like, “I got a parrot. It’s okay.”

Panca: She said, “It’s good. I’m on the fourth floor.” For me, there were a lot of things I couldn’t do in the U.S. that my grandma would tell me to do: “Hey, go get me some cigarettes and Coke bottles,” and she would give me money and just tell me to go down the road. In the U.S. that could not happen. I would get picked up by child services if they saw me with cigarettes.

Thornburgh: In the past you had talked about having a health crisis in the family. Tell me about that.

Panca: When I was finishing high school, my mom got breast cancer. While everyone was getting ready for college, I was totally out of it, and just doing that. I ditched the whole trying for college. I just always felt like that wasn’t really what I was going to do. I did get into City College and I studied Chicano Studies. I was interested in politics, and that’s actually the first thing that drove me to put up art. But I was all about taking care of my mother. Eventually when she passed away, I inherited her house, but it was in the middle of the economic crisis. Pretty much everything fell apart, and I stayed in my house in Chula Vista until I could. Then eventually, I thought, Well, what are you going to do? I was 19 and dumb. That’s when I bolted to Tijuana.

It was a definite downfall of my life as a spoiled kid, to just be kicked into reality and realize I had nothing, that I had to figure out how I was going to make a life for myself. It wasn’t right away that I thought I was going to be an artist. I partied for six years. In that time, I met so many people that were just like, Do it yourself—dedicated artists and musicians. That’s what’s really cool about Tijuana, that they’re all mingling.

My family thought I was losing it. Really, I wasn’t. I was just finding out what I wanted.

Thornburgh: So it started as a social connection for you, while you were barista-ing, you were hanging out with artists and kind of through that getting a sense that it was attainable.

Panca: I was partying. This was the same time that Tijuana was extremely dangerous. My family in San Diego was worried. I also had a couple things of dangerous things happen to me. My family sent me to New York—they were just trying to get me out. They thought I was losing it. Really, I wasn’t. I was just finding out what I wanted.  I was in New York and I saw street art there and I was super influenced. I went to museums. I saw Maya Hayuk‘s work for the first time, and it influenced me just to know she was a woman, I took some stickers from a radio station from Tijuana and I put them up. I remember thinking this should be my work I’m putting up. I thought, I need to go back to Tijuana, and I know every single wall that people walk by that I’m going to put a wheatpaste up, and that’s how I started getting the idea. Then I thought, well, Tijuana has been untouched for about eight years. Nobody’s done anything aside from graffiti. It seemed like the right time, and I pretty much just got the guts up to do it, to just run out in the middle of the night with other guys that I ended up meeting that were like, “Hey, we’re doing this too.” That’s how it sprung up.

Thornburgh: The act of going out on the street and doing this wheatpaste. It’s pretty illegal…

Panca: Oh, super illegal. There was a lot of risk in it. First of all, obviously, with the cops. I had to learn the schedule, learn when they change shifts. I was dodging the police, and also TJ was hella sketchy back then, and me being a girl running around in that time, I had these little shorts and these boots. I was naïve. Eventually I started going out with some other homies that would show me the ways. They watch out for me while I put things up and vice versa. We did a bunch of running away, and then coming back and putting things up again, and all that. It was a rush. At that time I was also getting a bunch of tattoos. I think I was at that age where I was just trying to get a lot of me out, and it was pouring out of me in that way. I guess that’s good. I could have been doing stupider stuff.

Thornburgh: You don’t miss that kind of adrenaline rush of doing art that way?

Panca: No, I get the same adrenaline rush now with stress. Now it’s, I have to get this done because I have all these clients expecting this of me, and I want to live up to the expectation, and I always want to go further. Now it’s like I transferred that rush into a more responsible work thing. But I still get it, definitely.

Thornburgh: That says some dark things about getting older too, that you’re replacing an adrenaline rush for stress.

Panca: Yes. I still get tattoos, but now I eat well and have a vitamin and a probiotic beforehand. I still have fun, but at the same time I take this more seriously now that it’s a serious career for me. Back then I thought, “Maybe this is going to happen.” Now it’s “No, this is what I’m doing, so I have to keep it going.”

Thornburgh: It’s hard. It can feel inevitable that you would be able to make a career out of this, but you really can’t take that for granted, no matter what the talent is.

Panca: I always think of myself and the guy that sells corn in the bucket, the elote guy. Maybe I have talent, but maybe that guy has more work ethic and discipline, so screw me. I need to be like that guy.

Thornburgh: Sounds like a good way to keep it humble.

Panca: I have a show in February at Bread & Salt, so that is a solo show. That’s a huge amount of work because it’s a pretty big giant room. I have to fill it, and it has to be good. Also it has to sell. Also it has to be an updated version of what I’m doing. The last time I did a show there, I loved it, and I did really great, but I also had done the mural outside. It was my 100% intention to work on that, and everything I filled it with I felt was a combo of old, new, and past stuff.  This, I want to be a more updated and centralized idea. It’s going to involve the giant indoor mural and some installations. Now, I’m also doing a book because I have all these photos that I find in Tijuana. Tijuana’s like the dumpster of the U.S., when it comes to Goodwill and all that. There are a lot of albums that I’ve found that have photos of—who knows?

Thornburgh: What are you seeing in Tijuana that’s changing in the art scene? How’s the art scene now?

Panca: Well, there was a gap for a while. There were a lot of muses, a lot of models, but there wasn’t really content coming out. I’ve noticed all those people that were just messing around, a lot of them kind of started taking things a little more seriously. Whether it’s noise, or jazz clubs that are opening up, or just beer taps.

Thornburgh: There’s a lot of fucking beer.

Panca: Yes. Food, people opening up spaces for galleries, taking it a little bit more seriously, and the artists too. There were a lot of people that were little fans of mine five years ago, and those kids now—because I followed them when they followed me—I look at their work and I think “Holy shit. These guys are really good.” They’re really, really going for it, and they’re very young. I’m already starting to ask them to come to festivals and be considered for things because they’re going for it. I see the talent that was kind of stagnant for a while, maybe they were too young, but now they’re all blooming. A lot of them are kind of just going for it. I see a lot of potential right now for artists.

Thornburgh: So it’s the whole next crop coming up.

Panca: Yes, this is the next crop that’s coming. It’s already happening. This year and next year you’re going to see a lot of it pop up in everything. Yesterday I was out on a Sunday, and it looked like a freaking Friday. There’s a lot of violence in Tijuana, but it’s so odd at the same time—the subculture of going out is blooming.

Thornburgh: There’s no direct correlation between violence and going out.

Panca: Yes. It sucks, but it’s poor people that are involved in drugs, and they happen to be around when something goes down. They’re there, and it’s bad. But it’s everywhere. I’ve been to places where somebody got shot in the bar upstairs, and people are still partying, and the body’s down there with a blanket over it. Hot dog vendors right next to it. We’re just so used to it in Tijuana. You just see it all the time. I was so naïve when I moved here, and so many things have happened. I don’t want to stay there permanently, because I think things will get thicker and harder, but I also am amazed by its growth.

Listen to the full episode at Luminary.





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