Ruben Ubiera Points Out the Gorilla in the Room

Ruben Ubiera’s larger-than-life murals prompt onlookers to see the gorilla in the room. Often, literally.

This neo-figurative artist known for his graffiti-inspired technique will help the Polk Museum of Art celebrate its 50th anniversary in April by painting a 16’ x 24’ mural onto an interior wall of the Museum.

The project is groundbreaking for both parties. This is the first time the Museum has dedicated such a large space to an interior mural and incorporated street art into its exhibition programming. This is also the first time Ubiera has painted a mural inside a museum. Doing so is symbolic for this artist who was heavily influenced by the graffiti he saw all around him while living in the Bronx as a teenager, and for the Museum, which is embracing and promoting street art.

“Graffiti was like a different language to me,” says the Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic native. “I would go around with a sketch book and sketch what I saw on the walls. It changed how I draw and paint.”

When he began painting professionally 10 years ago, he noticed galleries weren’t exhibiting urban postgraffism artists inside their spaces. Postgraffism is the term used to describe graffiti and street art that frequently includes images influenced by skateboard imagery, comics and typography.

That’s when the gorilla began making appearances in Ubiera’s work. He uses it as a simile, “so you can say it’s the big gorilla in the room that everyone was ignoring,” he says, adding that postgraffism was treated like a gorilla: too wild, too crazy, too strong.

The gorilla will be an element in the Polk Museum of Art’s mural. He has created a design, but will freestyle other elements as he paints.

To fill in those elements, he simply starts from the left of his canvas and uses his environment as inspiration for his work.  In this process, the structures, the people, and the community tend to be incorporated.

When Curator Adam Justice conceived the mural idea two years ago, he knew Ubiera, who is based in Miami, was the artist for the job. He specifically wanted the mural to represent street art in an effort to erase its stigma as being just vandalism.

It’s a bold move in that direction, for the artist and the art form, Ubiera says.

“To me, in many ways it’s a huge step in my career,” he says. “This is a reputable institution that is patting me on the back and agreeing with me as far as what this is. I think it opens a door for many other artists.”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and those who grew up seeing graffiti see it as art, he says. It’s a powerful hook for getting kids interested in art. While he is in Lakeland painting the mural, Ubiera will talk about postgraffism with students at Harrison School for the Arts.

The manner in which this mural was funded also is symbolic. Since the economic downturn in 2008, museums all over the country have had to broaden their bases of support. The Polk Museum of Art, founded as a private, community-based museum by the Jr. Welfare League of Lakeland 50 years ago, has followed suit. Their funding sources are diverse, and they are all important.

The project had been cut from the Museum budget two years in a row. Crowdfunding finally brought this mural to life. Everyone who gave, whether their donation was $5 or $5,000, was instrumental in making this dream a reality.

“This museum relies on a broad base of support,” says Claire Orologas, the Museum’s executive director. “We need everyone's support, and we need everyone to feel invested in their museum. This project really would not have happened if the community didn't pitch in.”

Just as traditional graffiti often is painted over within days of its appearance, Ubiera’s mural won’t last forever. His exhibition likely will remain for one year.

Knowing that it eventually will be painted over is “not a problem at all,” he says. In fact, it’s fitting.

“Hopefully, it will attract people,” Ubiera says. “It won’t be there forever, so go see it before it’s gone.”