summer burkes dilettante logo sf bay guardian 1997-2001_resized

Caped Curator: Arte Libre 3 – An evening of Artwork Inspired by Lucha Libre (Mexican wrestling)
by Summer Burkes

“Dilettante” column originally published at the turn of the century on 8.20.1997 in the SF Bay Guardian. Re-intro 4.9.2018 here.


THE MISSION Badlands Gallery, I assume, is so named for good reason. Located above the less-than-savory 24th Street BART station, next to the most un-artistic monstrosity America ever created (McDonald’s), and surrounded by semi-dilapidated mom-and-pop shops and yammering drunks, the Gallery provides the perfect medium for tonight’s subject: Lucha libre, or Mexican wrestling.

Luchadores, the masked demigods of Mexican street culture, would be perfectly at home here, telling their fashion-plate girlfriends under a flickering streetlight to ‘go wait in the hotel’ while they searched for some crime to fight.


El Santo, Mexico’s most famous actor and luchador

A semi-crudely painted (but beautiful nonetheless) plate glass window on Mission Street above Frida’s Pizza, reminiscent of the “Sale!” window displays of retail stores in the barrio, beckons art- and lucha-lovers inside with a gigantic wrestler’s mask.

Upstairs, in the foyer, young hepcats, art critics, and Latino families mill around as the Ramones blast from the stereo. It’s a hip event, no doubt, but the presence of neighborhood families, people who grew up with Lucha libre, is comforting. They remind us that Mexican wrestling isn’t a kitschy phenomenon recently co-opted by the American rockabilly scene; it’s a part of daily life for many Latinos, an ancient ‘trickster’ tradition deeply rooted in their culture.

El Hefe Santo, by Lawrence 'El' Colacion

El Hefe Santo, by Lawrence ‘El’ Colacion

Wrestling masks, screenprints, stenciled fabrics, and lucha posters beckon the consumer with affordable tokens of the evening, but the real prizes are inside. Pieces by 10 to 15 artists, mostly Latino/a, grace the walls of five rooms, and from almost every piece looms the ominous mask of a luchador.

Artist Lawrence “El” Colacion keeps it simple with clean-lined portraits of famous wrestlers like El Santo and the Blue Demon, painted on galvanized steel and framed in crude wood. Victor Gastelum stays true to the pre-fab, squeaky-clean and shiny aesthetic of Mexican lowrider culture with holographic paper backgrounds and Ultraman-like portraits. Jesus Angel Perez shows considerable artistic versatility with oil paintings on wood and tin, and linocuts on paper.

art by Victor Gastelum

art by Victor Gastelum

Many artists take recycling to the hilt by painting on found objects like sheets, hubcaps, and old pieces of wood. And Harry Ortiz Liflan, a trickster himself, spoofs the subculture with self-explanatory titles like “El Santito Duerma” (a baby wrestler sleeping on a cloud), “The Wrestler Wedding” (bride, groom, and priest all masked), and “Wrestler Purgatory” (the famous Catholic icon of a woman in shackles an flames… masked).

The back room, serving pizza and beer, is a forum for Latino, but not lucha libre related, art. Latino pop-culture mainstays as diverse as Cesar Chavez, the Day of the Dead, the movie Zoot Suit, Chicano street gangs, Frida Kahlo, and the Virgin of Guadalupe are artistically rendered in equally diverse mediums.

The romanticism, ardent passion, tradition, and strength that characterizes Mexican culture is beautifully represented in this room. But the hodgepodge of images, combined with the claustrophobic style in which the pieces were hung, causes sensory-overload for me and my best friend. We retreat outside to the roof to have a beer, chat about the art, and wait for the rock en espanol band Orixa to play. We wait. And wait.

Orixa: noun 1. any of the minor gods or spirits of traditional Yoruba religion and its S American and Caribbean offshoots such as Santeria and Candomblé

Orixa: noun 1. any of the minor gods or spirits of traditional Yoruba religion and its S American and Caribbean offshoots such as Santeria and Candomblé

We go look at the art again to make sure there aren’t any pieces that haven’t been sold that we can still afford. There aren’t. We go back on the roof. Orixa still hasn’t played. We discover that a good way to make people think you’re crazy is to look at them while they’re talking to you and try to bite the inside of your cheeks with your mouth open. (It works!)

That’s when we decide to leave–we’ll see Orixa tomorrow night at Incredibly Strange Wrestling. I take one more look at Lawrence “El” Colacion’s “The Sleeping Giant”, mourn that I can’t afford it, and we go. On the way home, we see a hubcap in the road and pick it up. Then we stop at a corner store. We buy tortillas and paint.


This is the second piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; this post’s intro here, and Dilettante’s first installment is here

Oh and ten years after this article, on 8.14.2007, the SFBG‘s next nightlife columnist Marke B had some secrets about drag kings

Follow Summer Burkes on Twitter

"el misisimo diablo," one wallpiece on the ever-changing Clarion Alley in SF's Mission, a neighborhood that still prides itself on its murals

“el misisimo diablo,” one wallpiece on the ever-changing Clarion Alley in SF’s Mission, a neighborhood that still prides itself on its murals




Share this Project

Leave a Comment