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Fil-Am artist Mel Vera Cruz on a roll
Mel with his street art at San Francisco’s SoMa

Fil-Am artist Mel Vera Cruz on a roll

KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson (The Philippine Star) - November 30, 2020 - 12:00am

Shouldn’t we pose closer to your painting?”

The cheerful lady who asked the question, when a duofie with her was requested, was Senator Kamala Harris, on a visit to Manilatown’s I-Hotel in San Francisco, where she gave a brief talk on recognizing the history of the Asian American community.

The historic building’s ground floor that serves as a civic center is also often taken up entirely by an art gallery. On that day in October 2019, the group exhibit was titled “Benny’s Altars” in honor of a manong who had stayed in the old hotel in the 1970s.

One of the Fil-Am hosts who welcomed the California senator and a few other SF officials was photographer Tony Remington. Introducing Mel Vera Cruz as one of the artists who had taken part in the exhibit, he pointed towards the large diptych hanging some distance away.

Enjoying the company of then Senator Kamala Harris last year, with his artwork at I-Hotel behind them

Sen. Harris started a conversation, and when Mel requested a selfie-plus-one, that’s when the former SF Attorney General suggested that they move closer to Vera Cruz’s double artwork. Its vertical halves were titled separately, the left side as “Queen of Hearts” and the right side as “My Clubhouse.”

It wasn’t until a year later that Mel realized he had a video clip on file with the now US Vice President-elect genially voicing her suggestion.

Actually, I could have been in that fated company, but missed it by a week when I showed up at the same venue. Invited to the 2019 Filipino American International Book Festival that was conducted from Oct, 11 to 13 at the San Francisco Public Library, I met with Mel among other friends on the opening day. And on the last, with the closing evening social being held at I-Hotel, I came early for a longer chat with Mel. We enjoyed whisky and a medical herb at one of the hotel’s rooms, which belonged to our common poet-friend Oscar Peñaranda who was then abroad.

It was through the email loop of the art group Banggaan, composed of painters, photographers, musicians and a couple of poets, that Mel and I first met, online, nearly a decade ago. The group spanned the Pacific, with Australia thrown in, and wherever the roving photographers found themselves in Asia. We got to know of one another’s works — which in the case of the visual artists, often led to self-styled collaborations.

Hearing about the 2015 “Chromatext Reloaded” art exhibit at the CCP’s Main Gallery, Mel Vera Cruz sent over a glass-framed graphic collage that included text. It fit the exhibition’s call for a melange of the written word and visual art. It wound up as a personal gift when the show ended, and I’ve since hung it proudly on a bedroom wall.

Blown-up bilingual flash cards designed by Mel and displayed on utility boxes at crosswalks

It wasn’t until 2017 when Mel found a chance for a homecoming. We met with other “Banggeros” at the Oarhouse Bar in Malate. Previous to that, I had already grown to admire a particular facet of his art: inking. That is, he had become one of the more sought-after tattoo artists around the Bay Area.

He had migrated to the US in 1995 with a background in advertising and graphic design, as a UST graduate and with nine years’ experience at Avellana & Associates. Petitioned to join her at Fremont by his mother, Mel started incorporating painting and screen printing techniques when he gained employment as a graphic designer at Caltrans, after job stints as a factory worker at Macy’s, a stent winder, even as a dental assistant.

He joined other Fil-Am artists, like the group Kwatro Kantos with Lian Ladia, England Hidalgo, Marcius Noceda and Carlo Ricafort, and the collective Epekto Art Projects headed by Pam Ybañez. These associations led to exhibits, workshops and community cultural work in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, the Union City Library, Stanford University, Hawaii, Hong Kong, and in his home country, Boston Gallery in Manila and UP Diliman’s Vargas Museum.

He credits Santiago Bose, who had conducted workshops in the Bay Area in 2000, for influencing him in a major way, especially in weaning away the Pinoy artist from Westernized art and relying more on indigenous sources and materials. It was Santi who introduced him to Sydney-based Edd Aragon, who in turn brought him into the Banggaan group in 2001.

The past year has seen Mel collaborating with curator Lian Ladia in community art projects in SoMa. The first involved 10 utility boxes serving as traffic corners. Inspired by bilingual flash cards utilized at an elementary school with Fil-Am students, Mel’s designs featuring Fiipino words that are also spelled in baybayin were printed on vinyl and pasted on the sides of the utility boxes.

Another recent project involved what are called Big Belly trashcans, which are solar-powered, with their own composting units inside, making collection infrequent. But concerns were raised over our heroes’ images pasted on what are still trashcans, so that the Yerba Buena community dismantled them for future display elsewhere.

The latest project Mel joined was sponsored by the Kularts Team headed by Alleluia Panis. Ephemeral street art featuring “Mga Diwatas/ Deities of Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, and Transcendence” was on view starting last Oct. 25 on Bonifacio and Lapu-Lapu Streets in SoMa.

Mel’s contribution was a mandala using spray chalk. A pity it isn’t permanent. It won’t be there any more at SF’s South of Market area in case Vice President Kamala Harris comes back to check out the Asian American community again.

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