Artist Paola Villaseñor, otherwise known as PANCA, sees monsters. They live in the candy-colored paintings and murals she paints throughout Mexico and Southern California – or anywhere else she can get her hands on a clear wall or canvas. Some of them are funny little sweet-faced beasties, and others are far more grotesque. Either way, they’ve helped her make a name in the art world.
PANCA’s monsters can be seen on both sides of the border, either on gallery walls or covering an entire wall of a four-story building.
Photo credit: Saulo Cisneros
The binational artist grew up on both sides of the San Diego/Tijuana border. Her parents came to the U.S. from Cuernavaca, Mexico, raising Paola in Chula Vista, a suburb of San Diego, and Mexico City and Cuernavaca. However, as PANCA explored her art making more and more over the years, she realized the suburbs were stifling her creativity.
“[In Chula Vista] I felt very sheltered, culturally impotent as well as strange, and started sneaking off to TJ with older friends to go to shows,” recalls PANCA.
So, 11 years ago she decided to move to Tijuana, and has been living and working in the city ever since.
“I am constantly getting to know myself better and my bicultural background has taught me a lot about my own stereotyped ideas of myself and culture in general,” she says. “In my art, I think I’m constantly showing the example visually of a person with two cultures mixing into one.”
Latino references often appear in her work. Whether it’s a cute smiling taco or a piece depicting the struggles and racist ideologies Mexicans face when they attempt to cross the border, she tells stories through her art that reflect her experiences and politics.
The monsters aren’t just in her work or in positions of power. PANCA has faced her fair share head-on in the art scene as a woman. She calls “hidden misogyny that exists in every corner” one of the biggest challenges she faces as a working artist.
“You are either held back, exploited, undermined or doubted for your size, sex or technique”, she says, “Starting to do street art was sort of dangerous because I had to go out at night in a dangerous city to put my work up with corrupt cops and other things lurking.”
But as you can see, PANCA isn’t hindered in any way from making art. And sometimes people will lend a hand, or shoulders, to support her.
Although nowadays she is unable to do a mural in TJ because, as she explains, it will get covered in less than a day since there’s “street drama,” she’s been motivated to take her work into galleries and was even recently commissioned by Coachella to create an original design for their festival merch.
Perhaps the street drama hasn’t brought her down because art is in her blood. As a child, PANCA would pass little drawings to her family members while they all sat together drinking cafecito and playing dominos, but decades before then her great grandfather on her father’s side was a photographer documenting the Mexican Revolution, even photographing Emiliano Zapata. On her mother’s side, her grandfather was also an artist. He was a thief who’d rob women who worked as maids in rich Mexico City homes too, according to her family history. But it’s the old photos of him with a paint brush that weaves their artistic DNA.
So maybe danger is also in her blood. And she sees plenty of that as well.
“I’ve been on a ladder and leaned back to see the wall and not notice I had catapulted myself off the wall and a photographer standing by saved my freagin’ life by catching it mid air,” she says.
PANCA has also painted a mural with two broken fingers.
“Most people think doing a mural is super glamorous and stylish, but it’s hard, dirty work here in TJ,” she says.
Photo credit: Saulo Cisneros
Still, it’s what she loves and will continue to do until she’s no longer able to. PANCA also hopes to use her work as an opportunity to help others.
“One of the most gratifying experiences was helping a recently deported man named Mario get a day’s work done, and helped him by paying him for it,” she says. “He was my assistant and showed me so much about painting exterior walls. Seeing someone feel useful and strive makes me feel like there are a lot of opportunities to help. That’s something I have yet to develop buts it’s cooking.”