When your first canvases are subway cars, a blank wall might seem a bit anticlimactic.
Not to Erni Vales.
The artist credited with developing the 3-D style of graffiti art was hard — and happily — at work transforming a patio wall recently at Mercadito, a new Mexican restaurant at Red Rock Resort. (He’ll be back soon to do the same for Mercadito’s latest Southern Nevada location, at Green Valley Ranch Resort.)
Perched atop a ladder, Vales puts the finishing touches on a few colorful flowers blossoming along Mercadito’s patio wall.
But a closer glance reveals they’re not just flowers — they’re swirling skirts belonging to “little Mexican dervishes” dancing along the wall.
The same multiple-identity principle holds true for another painting adorning a dining room wall.
Ponder the painting one way and it’s “a girl’s body — see her legs and feet?” Vales asks an observer, who notes the presence of a Mardi Gras-style mask, along with the figure of a butterfly — an image repeated in other paints displayed throughout the restaurant.
When Vales overheard Mercadito guests discussing the painting, one commented, “ ‘What an amazing face,’ ” he recalls, before noting another diner’s response: “ ‘Face? What face? I see a butterfly.’ ”
But that’s not all Mercadito patrons see; Vales’ commissioned work presents an array of arresting images.
Square wooden tiles picture quirky sugar skulls — a few of which depict the makeup-enhanced visages of the rockin’ members of Kiss — behind the host’s station. (Vales painted them in his Red Rock hotel room.)
Four related canvases stretch along another wall, one (titled “Happily Ever After”) featuring a Day of the Dead-worthy skeleton bride and groom.
They’re the first Day of the Dead images Mercadito’s owners have allowed in any of their restaurants, which include locations in Chicago, Miami and New York City.
“They don’t like that rendition of Mexican style,” the artist says. “I’m like, ‘It’s so amazing, so colorful, so cool.’
When he first met the original Mercadito guys and showed them an original Day of the Dead painting, the male skeleton was playing bongos and she was playing guitar, he said.
Mercadito’s owners may have turned down Vales’ “Everlasting Love,” but “it’s one of my most popular paintings” nonetheless, he notes. (You can see it, and Vales’ other works, at his website, www.evlworld.com.)
Even so, because he’s been painting for Mercadito for six or seven years, Vales says, there’s now a certain amount of trust between Vales and the restaurant’s owners and designers.
“They say, ‘Can you do something? What do you suggest?’ They know I have a good eye. It’s great to have a symbiotic relationship.”
Otherwise, “if I did the same paintings over and over I would get bored and I would just keep raising the prices,” he quips, only half-joking.
The Chicago-based restaurant chain is hardly Vales’ first commercial showcase.
He estimates he’s created murals and paintings at almost 400 nightclubs and restaurants. Vales also spent 13 years painting murals at New York’s Chelsea Market. (As the owner told him, “ ‘When you paint murals, graffiti artists don’t paint on your walls.’ ”)
A long collaboration with photographer David LaChapelle found Vales painting sets for —and sometimes painting on — celebrities from Eminem to Lady Gaga. Commercial clients range from Dos Equis to designer Ed Hardy. He even turned up on NBC’s “The Apprentice” to display his artistic skills.
Not bad for a self-described “pure Nuyorican” who discovered graffiti while studying at New York’s High School of Art and Design.
While a student there (“an insecure little teenager,” as Vales describes himself), “I met a whole group of graffiti artists and started doing graffiti on books.”
And through graffiti, Vales said that for the first time, he found something where her could belong. At 17, he began exhibiting in art galleries.
As with any self-respecting graffiti artist, however, Vales’ true test — and true canvas — came when he started painting New York City subway cars in the mid- to late ’80s.
His first train piece “looked horrible — it was so tiny,” he recalls. But subway train cars were “like the mecca. If you don’t paint the train … ”
Painting subway cars helped him learn the principles of scale, Vales says. Other lessons learned included working in really close quarters to knowing you have to paint fast.
(Both skills came in handy at Mercadito, where Vales set up an impromptu studio in the restaurant’s basement hall to paint his “personal Mayan triptych,” populated by such images as an eagle, a fish and a coyote — the latter howling at the moon and stars.
But the most important lesson Vales learned: “Be individual. Develop your own style.”
That’s exactly what Vales did, moving from subway cars to “commission jobs,” which weren’t “as exciting — you’re going to do a job.”
By 1983, Vales had left New York for Los Angeles, becoming the first graffiti artist in the painters’ union, creating “The Flash” and “Viper” TV series — and incorporating the styles of renowned artists from Diego Rivera to Thomas Hart Benton.
“I had to put the spray can down and learn how to use a paintbrush,” he says.
In the process, Vales began developing his distinctive 3-D graffiti style.
Inspired by a friend’s sculpture, he wondered “what if the side started to work with the front” of an image. “Now there’s no front and no side,” he says. “It’s just the entire piece.”
Eventually, however, Vales tired of the West Coast and its movie-oriented mentality, returning to New York before relocating to Miami, where his EVLWORLD studio and shop enable him to be “the client,” he says. “My paintings are working for me.”
He’s also working for himself, reveling in the independence his talents have brought him.
For example, when a recent gallery visitor suggested Vales “ ‘change your coloring a little,’ ” the artist responded, “ ‘Did we have a meeting? You come in and tell me to change my style?’ ”
After all, “it’s taken me three decades to start my career,” he says. “I’m where I always wanted to be.”
And when that “where” brings him back to Las Vegas, it means another “working vacation — it’s my favorite thing to do,” Vales says. During his last real vacation, he says he was bored out of his mind.
“I started asking people if they had a pencil I could use,” he says.
Which explains why he loves doing Mercadito.
“I know I’m going to have a good time,” he says.
Then again, Vales has a good time whenever — and wherever — he may be. As long as he’s painting.
“I wake up in the morning,” he says, “and I can’t wait to start.”
Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.