It was the local skate and surf culture that first inspired Tonan Ruiz to do art. He was so much a part of the skateboard culture that he took part in building this skateboard park. It was he and his friends, surfers and skaters who designed it collectively and had the city put it together. I thought that was fascinating!
He had the fortune to have been on friendly terms with a few legendary artists like Larry Bell and Robert Graham. But the skateboarding and surfing diaspora was what led to his first creations of what he called ‘surf culture diorama art”. About a decade ago, meandering the alleys on his way to the beach, he came upon a husk of a palm tree. He picked it up, held it above his head and thought to himself “that looks like a wave”.As he thought that, a voice came into his head that said “ make this your artwork and you will never go hungry.” Well, he took that voice seriously and got down to work. Roger aka Mona, from Venice, saw a bunch of his works and asked “are you selling them?”And he said ‘well, yeah,for 100$.” He laughed and told him “ you don’t even know what you’re doing, do you? You’re making surf culture art! It’s rare in the world. I’m coming back to get that one” (he pointed to his favorite) “and I’m giving you $150.”
Internationally acclaimed artist Robert Graham, whose sculpture is displayed at the Venice Circle, also maintained a local studio. Graham would often stop by the surfers at the shore and ask about the surf. Tonan in turn asked him about his melting of metals. Graham graciously, with his beautiful wife Angelica Houston always by his side, invited him and his buddies to his studio and showed him how he did his castings. He went there quite often for inspiration. Tonan says his studio was full of casting of women’s bodies; torsos to be precise “He loved women.” When I asked if he ever did a full bodied woman he said “I don’t think so; it was basically torso; all the goods!” (His opinion, not mine!) Tonan then shared his work with Larry Bell, yet another internationally known artist who keeps a studio in Venice. (I will interview in next month’s issue ) He was peeling pieces of the graffiti from the old Venice Pavilion walls and made collages with those images and some objects he’d found with his metal detector, along with some broken mirrors. As Tonan describes it ,”Larry looked at both sets of my work, the collages and the surf diorama, and he also asked ‘ do you know what you’re doing?” And Tonan said “no, but it looks cool.” Larry agreed, then added “you’re taking a piece of history from the graffiti wall, a piece of local history with found objects and capturing it in a frame; it’s called a mosaic montage.” He said his surf culture art was in the line of contemporary folk art. “This is rare.” Mr. Bell said. “ What do you want for all of it?” Tonan was across from Nicky’s bar on Market street at that moment. They settled on a number and he got a chunk of money. “I ran to the bar, and treated all my friends all night and woke up that morning without a skateboard and no money. “Where’s my skateboard, where’s my money?” He realized right there and then that this art could keep me going! So he just kept making more and more. He still roams the alleys and thrift stores for frames that he can reuse.
Larry has supported him for over ten years. Tonan says that he gives him the inspiration to keep him going. “He asks’ are you still making it? Bring it by!’ Now when I get paid, I put it in the bank. And some of it I invested in and created a fashion line of sweaters called ‘neighbor hoodie’.” He has a lot of gratitude toward the late Robert Graham for his inspiration and for Larry Bell for believing in him and giving him direction in life. And he also wants to thank all those people who have supported artists in Venice over the decades.
Keep up the good works Tonan!
Tonan Ruiz can be reached at 310 422 0301 for a private tour of his collection. Not to be missed! Or at firstname.lastname@example.org