The walls he’s painted have heard some things.

Your happy hour conversation at Bankers Hill’s Cucina Urbana, for instance, and the story you yelled to your dining companions as a plane roared over El Camino’s outdoor patio in Little Italy.

The artsy ambience at those hotspots is just a fraction of Juan Marante’s local footprint. As the artist Tocayo, he’s been orbiting the icons of border life and pop culture in his murals, drawings and paintings for years. The Cuban-born artist found a home he loved in San Diego more than a decade ago, at first making his living painting surfboards.

His daily commute to Orange County for his day job as a graphic designer for Fox Racing will soon shorten as he plans to move north with his new wife in a few months. But not before he puts together new paintings with longtime collaborator Exist1981 for a show at Little Italy’s Subtext Gallery next month. (The duo just completed artwork for the northerly Cucina Enoteca in Irvine, too.)

Between his day job, his commute and making art for that show this week, Tocayo shared with us what he wished happened with the Surfing Madonna, where he finds overlap between Cuban and Mexican cultures and what he does when he thinks of an idea in the car.

When did you start going by Tocayo? Do you share a name with someone in your family?

My dad’s name is also Juan, he has always called me Tocayo since I can remember, but outside that I have two other friends called Juan that have called me Tocayo since I was about 18. So it’s always kinda been around, it just didn’t hit me to use it as an artist name until around when I was 24. I’ve been using the Tocayo name for art and design work ever since.

You recently made a piece for an art show at Roots Factory featuring the Virgin of Guadalupe. What did you think of the Surfing Madonna situation in Encinitas last year?

I wish it would have stayed up. It was so suiting of the location. Encinitas is a total surf town, and the respect of the Mexican culture is very present in North County. I don’t think it would have ever been vandalized. But regarding the city’s point of view about allowing one street artist’s art to stay up and not another’s makes sense, ’cause then all kinds of art would start popping up all over town.

I just think they went about it the wrong way. They could have removed it, but then agreed with the artist to place it somewhere else as some kind of donation to the city. I don’t know, it was a delight to see it every time I drove by, is all I have to say.

How do you balance the Cuban influences in your art with the predominantly Mexican culture here in San Diego?

As far as both the cultures go, they are both pretty similar, same language (sort of), similar religions and food (sort of). As far as what shapes a culture, they both stem from different pasts, so that in itself changes things. I try to compare the two cultures all the time through just day-to-day interactions with all my Mexican friends, just constantly learning new things about them and trying to tie what I learn in with what I’ve learned growing up as a Cuban in Miami. By doing that is where my ideas come from.

You’ve drawn singer and activist Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez and Thelonious Monk. Quite a range. What kind of people or stories inspire you to paint them?

Anybody that I find fascinating for whatever reason. Mostly innovators or leaders that inspire change for the best or motivate me creatively.

Is there a piece you’ve done that you think you’re best known for? Is it the one you’d hope to be?

I wouldn’t say a piece, ’cause I’m still pretty new at the art stuff and even though I have a style, I don’t have a certain piece I am known for.

But there is a place.

I was blessed to be picked by Mauricio Couturier (the owner) of El Camino to paint the murals of his then two locations. My art at those restaurants really opened a bunch of doors for me as far as freelance goes. Plus it’s such a great restaurant that its fame has spilled over into giving me some acknowledgment. I’m truly grateful to my people at El Camino.

Give us a peek inside your studio. What kind of space do you work in? How do you start one of your pieces? What are you listening to while you work?

I have an upstairs studio that overlooks the ocean, but at times tends to get messy (’cause it’s also where I have my clothes and get dressed) and my art spills to the downstairs living quarters. From a visitor’s standpoint, the first thing one sees is posters all over the walls that I’ve been given from my very talented artists friends. Then you see canvases and pieces of scrap wood and spray cans and an array of papers with either hand drawings or reference material.

I start my pieces while I drive to work. It takes me an hour each way so I have plenty of time to think and write ideas in my Moleskine. Thinking is the hardest part, once I know what I want to do then it’s a piece of cake.

As far as music goes, it just depends on my mood. But usually I listen to Pandora or Slacker radio. Jazz and old Cuban music also pops up from time to time, depending on the piece.

As a full-time graphic designer, how do you balance art-making with making a living?

I work in the action sports industry (surf, skate, snow, moto) and have been a part of that industry for over 12 years. I started off painting surfboards for a living in Miami and then in here in San Diego. That’s what opened doors for me initially, since I’ve worked for quite a few companies with my freelance graphic design, but I currently work full time as a senior graphic designer at Fox Racing doing their T-shirt graphics.

As far as balance? Well, I pretty much make art a second job. I work in Irvine and live in Encinitas, so if I want to be creative after my full-time gig I pretty much have to do it into the late hours of the night. But I thrive on it, ’cause what I can’t do at work I get to do in my personal art. My hardest challenge is trying to separate the art and not make it too commercial.

What keeps you in San Diego?

I have lived here for over 10 years. What’s kept me here is the all-around vibe of the city. It’s very culture-rich, but also has the right mellow vibe I look for in a place to live. Plus the usual thing people say about the weather and how perfect it is. The waves, I love surfing, even though I don’t get to do it as often as I like I still appreciate the fact that when I do have a chance to go out, there is always a fun little wave somewhere for me to shred. But all in all it’s such a radical small/big city with so many cool things to do. Unfortunately, my stint here is coming to an end soon.

What’s most important when making work for a restaurant like El Camino or Cucina Urbana/Enoteca? What do they ask for and how much do you get to just make what you see?

The most important thing is to be on the same page as the owner, as far as what they are expecting and what I will be delivering. In both cases, I have been fortunate to work with two amazing people (Tracy Borkum and Mauricio Couturier) that have pretty much given me free range. My work is my product, so I take pride in what I dish out. If I’ve felt really strongly about an idea they have trusted me to pull it off.

What should we be watching for in your upcoming Subtext show?

A whole bunch of pop culture art, no theme really except I want to jump around from my usual portraits to maybe some waves or low-brow hot rod art.

What stands out from 2011? What’s coming in 2012?

Well, I’ve gotten married — sorry, ladies. (Hahaha.) No but seriously, I think my style in itself is changing. I’ve found ways to make it better and I’ve been messing around with different techniques as well. I would like to feel comfortable about my work and I’m not there yet. So I will be working towards that.

I’m also due for another Cuban-themed art show, the first one I did a few years back when I was green was a great hit. I plan to blow that old show out of the water on this one, with music, food and some art that I hope teaches folks lessons about the forbidden island.

Interview conducted via email and edited by Kelly Bennett, the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach her directly at or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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