(This story originally appeared in The Brooklyn Ink)
The floor beneath Miguel Luciano is covered with dried paint blotches. Behind him are rows of clear plastic containers filled with brushes, pins, and other materials. Dressed in a grey t-shirt and jeans, the Bushwick-based artist appears comfortable in his studio. He spends a lot of time here.
Luciano’s love for art stems from childhood, when he first formed romantic ideas about creating work that can spur social change. Now 38, Luciano’s work has been displayed internationally in countries such as France, Slovenia, and Russia. Through his artwork, Luciano has examined colonialism, consumerism, and the relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, where he was born.
However – his most recent work focuses on community-interaction.
“I very much like the idea of democratizing the experience of art by making it accessible – by showing them in non-traditional art spaces,” he says.
By non-traditional, Luciano means streets, the insides of bodegas, and the gum-spotted sidewalks of New York City. These pieces of artwork include a kiddie ride, vending machine, and an ice treat vending cart.
The vending cart is currently in the middle of Luciano’s studio. No one can miss it – it is large and painted in a rich orange, with smooth rounded edges around its speakers. Neon lights are installed underneath and there are flat-screen monitors along its sides. It is pushed by a bike and its twisted handles are mounted onto the cart, with side-view mirrors.
It is one of Luciano’s most beloved pieces.
Cleverly dubbed “Pimp My Piragua”, the piece is a public art project that was commissioned by the Queens Museum of Art in 2008. “Piragua” is the Puerto Rican term for the treat, which is made by scraped ice that is placed in a cup and filled with flavored syrup.
Piragua carts were one of the first Latino start-up businesses, according to Luciano. “It was an easy business to create – a homemade cart, some ice, some syrups,” he says.
Tall bottles filled with different colored liquids fill the hollow circles on top of Luciano’s piragua cart. In the middle is a large rectangular space on which a large block of ice is placed.
The project, which Luciano built himself over several months, was inspired by Bushwick, where he has lived for the past nine years. Luciano says piragueros – owners of piragua carts – are somewhat of an endangered species. “You don’t see as many of them as you used to,” he says.
In Bushwick, however, Luciano says there are still plenty in the summer.
The “Pimp My Piragua” project is meant to be community-interactive. The vending cart was on display as a mixed media sculptural project in the Queens Museum of Art, but Luciano would pedal it into the Corona neighborhood of Queens. He turns heads and pedestrians eagerly buy his piraguas.
“When he’s parked there, people are looking at those videos and they’re asking him questions,” says Juan Sánchez, an artist and professor of art at Hunter College who has known Luciano for several years.
Sánchez, who has had artwork displayed in museums such as the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, has observed Luciano interact with the community through his art. He calls Luciano an educator and provocateur because his artwork fuels discussion.
“The point is that that project [“Pimp My Piragua”], among his other works, is about initiating that kind of dialogue and that kind of discourse,” Sánchez says.
Luciano’s Coqui Kiddie Ride is another piece that serves as both a sculpture and a community-interactive piece. The coin-operated kiddie ride plays ambient sounds of the coqui, a tropical tree frog and a symbol of Puerto Rico. Luciano has allowed the kiddie rides to be placed outside bodegas throughout Bushwick and East Harlem for periods of time. He says he looks at projects that can have a life directly in the community that don’t have to exist in a gallery or museum but can actually exist in the public realm.
Last month, Luciano was featured on an episode of “Art Through Time: A Global View,” a 13-part PBS series that examines the themes of art created around the world through time. The artist was featured in the first episode, titled “Converging Cultures.”
In El Museo del Barrio, an art museum located in East Harlem, one of Luciano’s paintings is currently on display. Titled “Pelea de Gallos” (Cockfight), the painting pits the rooster of the Kellogg’s brand against the mascot of a local Puerto Rican chicken brand named Pollo Picú. Both are bleeding from an apparent fight. The painting, which became part of El Museo del Barrio’s permanent collection after the museum purchased it in 2004, is a representation of the complex relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S.
Rocio Aranda, associate curator at El Museo del Barrio, has shown Luciano’s painting during exhibition tours. She said the way Luciano carries the image makes it more accessible to people.
“Using those kinds of images that people recognize is always a positive thing because then people see the discussion and argument that’s being made in a more familiar way,” she says.
“Pelea de Gallos” will be on display at El Museo del Barrio through Dec. 12.
“Platano Pride”, a photo from Luciano’s series titled Pure Plantainum, is currently on display in the Museum of Art and Design. The series centers on actual plantains that are covered in platinum. Plantains, for many Puerto Ricans and people of the Caribbean, symbolize both national pride and references to race and class, often in a negative light.
Sánchez said Luciano’s work represents an artist of conscious, conviction, and one who’s committed to society in a very real and artistic way.
“It goes beyond what the art says – beyond the rhetoric of what the artist says about his work,” he says. “He’s actually doing it.”