Interview by T.K. Mills - Images T.K. Mills and Polly Dawson
While vacationing in Tulum, I was intrigued by the breadth of incredible street art I saw. Naturally, I sought to learn more. Upon taking an Airbnb tour, I was amazed by the works I saw – in particular, one artist had a distinctive hyper realistic touch to their work. As I learned from our guide, this was local legend Emma Rubens.
During the tour, Emma herself came out to meet us at one wall and explain it’s significance – a portrait of an elderly man well known in town. Friendly and good-natured, the artist had a natural charisma, though our guide had to help coach her through some of the talking points. I was curious to learn more about this cheeky artist and how she came to be painting 3 story portraits down in Mexico.
T.K. Mills: Could you tell me the origins of the art collective you belong to, TINASAH?
Emma Rubens: TINASAH actually stands for "This Is Not A Street Art House." It was a collective -- it still is a collective, though it's a little dormant now because of COVID -- started by Valeria. The idea is that it’s a community of artists, muralists, to get together and collaborate and share work.
Mills: When was TINASAH started?
Rubens: Valeria actually started one maybe six or seven years ago called The Atelier and then they took the building over and they closed down for a while. So TINASAH started again two and a half years ago, three years ago, and I got super involved. I was one of the organizers at the beginning and we decided to organize the mural festival: FAT, Festival Arte TINASAH, FATTULUM. Our idea was to call this year’s festival FATTER or Extra FAT or something like that. We're playing with the acronym. Of course, you know, COVID shut it down.
Mills: Rewinding to start at the beginning, where did you grow up?
Rubens: I grew up in France actually, until I was 11, and then I moved to the United States for one year. My mother's American and my father's British, so I lived on and off in the states and then until the age of 22 or so, I was in England. I moved to Brooklyn for a year and then I came down here to Mexico, around 2007.
It wasn't my plan to stay in Mexico though. I started backpacking around for like a month. First, I started in Mexico City and went to the Pacific and then came here to Tulum. I was planning on staying here for a month. And then… Fourteen years have passed. Wild! Things happen, and of course things have changed.
Mills: What made you want to come to Mexico?
Rubens: Before coming here, that one year in Brooklyn -- I fell in love with Brooklyn. I wanted to stay there. It was my plan to live there, but I wasn't ready to set my roots yet. So many friends of mine were on their gap year. I was like, "I really want to go traveling. "Living in Brooklyn, I met so many Mexicans, loads of Latinos. I was always very curious to learn Spanish. It wasn't that far, so I just took a one-way ticket to Mexico, thinking I’d travel all the way down to Brazil. I arrived and fell in love with Mexico.
Mills: How did you develop your art career and when did you find yourself becoming a full-time artist?
Rubens: I've been painting since I was born. Both my parents are artists. My dad is an art teacher, a painter, an art historian, a potter. He's the worldly artist. My mother, she's more into design. Since I was a kid, we were always just getting paints and paintbrushes and stuff. I always knew I was a painter.
Professionally, I went to university and got a BA in Illustration, which wasn't so much my field. It was more graphic design administration, but I was like, "Yeah, I'll check it out. Everybody's going to university. Why not?" So I did it, too. I definitely wouldn't say university helped me decide or taught me anything really. I learned how to have fun the first year while living away from my parents' house.
But before I started Uni, I was waitressing part-time and bartending. When I first moved to Tulum, I picked up some shifts as a waitress and then I did waitressing four days a week. The rest of the time, I would paint.
Here in Tulum, people were commissioning me and I was like, ‘wow, I'm making money from this. I never thought I'd ever do that. I never thought I'd make a living for my artwork.’ So then when it started kicking off, I'd been completely freelancing, seven or eight years.
Mills: How did your style develop? You started street art with the animal head illustrations versus now, you work on photorealistic depictions. Can you walk me through your journey of how your style evolved?
Rubens: I don’t know, honestly. I feel that's kind of natural.
The first time I painted it, animal heads on human bodies, I was about 19 years old at art school. I really liked it. Then for years, I carried on doing it. The mural in Tulum was one of the first. There was yellow around the heads, but it’s faded now. It was so vibrant when I first did it. It really changes, and that's 2014, six years ago.
So in 2014, there was a mural festival called Tulum Art Project and it was the first time that I had painted on a wall in the street. I was super nervous because I was not used to painting walls. I was one of fourteen artists, and all the others were all street artists. There were two or three gals and the rest of them were guys, so I was like, "oh my god, I'm not good enough."
That really is when I discovered the love of street art. Painting, I realized wow, this is why I'm here. People were walking and driving past and like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ ‘"It's so cool.’ I was like, ‘Wow. Thanks for appreciating it.’
There's this side of the art world that I despise the snooty, elitist feel end -- galleries that sell work for insane amounts of money only for a certain type of people. Street art, no matter who you are, you can be rich, poor, fat, thin, whatever, it doesn’t matter. It's for everybody.
Mills: Street art has a more naturally democratic ethos.
Rubens: Absolutely. That’s why I the love it.
Mills: Do you enjoy painting murals or canvasses more?
Rubens: I love and need both. They’re completely different frames of mind. When I paint on canvass, I'm freer to play around and I can be like, "Oh, I wonder if I use this color what happens." Walls, you can't really do that because if you try this color, it's like three days’ worth of work that you have to redo. Sometimes when I'm really tired of painting a mural, I'm like, ‘oh my God, I just want to sit in my studio and paint on canvas for a while.’ I will do that and then I get itchy feet in my studio and I'm like, ‘oh my God, I want to go paint on a wall again.’ I equally love and appreciate both of them.
Mills: How did the hyperrealism start?
Rubens: I don’t know. It started naturally. I got out of the comic, illustrative side of the animal heads. I wanted to be a bit more serious, I think. In the beginning, I didn’t even like hyperrealism. I thought realism was so boring. I was like, "What is the point?" Then bit by bit, I wanted to fine-tune it and fine-tune it and fine-tune it. And that ability to capture someone's essence with realism has just fascinated me even more and more. That's what I'm into now, but who knows? Maybe in a couple of years, I could go back to fish heads.
Mills: On a different track of questioning, you've been here in Tulum for 14 years now. Can you tell me a little bit about how it's changed? How did the art community around here develop?
Rubens: Tulum’s changed drastically -- I don’t want to pooh-pooh so much, but it was nicer before. It was so quiet. It was so calm. It really had that small-town feel -- you knew everybody in the street. It was just very, very quaint, but saying that, there was no economy either. Everyone was broke all the time. No one was buying artwork. Do you know what I mean? There's no way in hell I could've been a artist freelancer. In that regard, I'm very grateful for how it's progressed.
So, two sides of the coin. Most of the crew that I hang out with, the group of friends I have, they've also been here at least ten years plus. That web of people that are still with me is what makes me super strong. The sense of community here is mega strong, super strong.
Bit by bit, travelers started coming through. They wanted to add something, and they would contact me because I sign my murals. It just started growing. Then Valeria's project, The Atelier, organically it started growing very nicely. I've been able to connect with lots of artists and get to know that community more.
Mills: What are some of your long-term ambitions? What do you hope for in the future, as an artist?
Rubens: I want to paint a building 50-stories high. That's what I want. Here, in Tulum, it doesn’t exist. The maximum here they can legally build is four stories. So I have to go somewhere else. This building I'm going to paint next is going to be a good practice for me. It's four stories, so it's going to be good to figure out drawing in dimensions, but I've got to go somewhere like New York. If you see any massive buildings that need to be painted, let me know.