By Anita Malhotra
27-year-old muralist, painter and illustrator Nasca Uno (alias Armin E. Mendocilla) is best known for his lush, colourful murals featuring striking imagery of indigenous people and ethno-political topics from around the world.
Based in Berlin, he began developing his craft when he was a child, doing street graffiti and later murals in his hometown of Munich. His distinctive style is influenced by American and Japanese comic strips and by his Peruvian heritage (his mother is Peruvian).
Nasca Uno’s work is often commissioned and has appeared all over Europe as well as in Peru, Cuba, the Philippines, Morocco, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia, among others.
Last year, he was invited along with several other artists to create a mural for an art wall at the 2019 Lollapalooza Berlin festival. Anita Malhotra spoke with him on Sept. 7, 2019.
AM: How did this project at Lollapalooza Berlin come about?
NU: I got a request two months ago from an agency that was collaborating with SEAT, the festival’s official partner, and they asked me to do a mural painting for the festival. The festival is about music and people, and we were asked to interpret those elements visually. We were supported by the Spanish spray paint brand Montana Colors, and I painted alongside some very cool artists. In the end it was a beautiful project and I had fun working on that mural.
AM: Can you describe the content of your painting?
NU: The painting shows an indigenous woman surrounded by inhabitants of the rainforest – more specifically, the Amazonian rainforest. The atmosphere is depicted in a mystical way and you can see two monkeys and a snake sitting on a woman’s shoulder and head.
These animals are very important elements in my paintings. Their symbolism has a very long tradition in the history of art of different cultures. I was born in the Chinese Year of the Monkey – maybe that’s also one of the reasons I love to paint them. It just feels very natural to me.
I tend to paint people who tell stories through their facial expressions. So I often portray elderly people, whose life experience is visible in their faces. Of course, a younger face can also express many feelings and stories.
But because most of the observers of the mural will be young people, I chose to portray a younger person to convey the message. The fact that mankind is destroying its biggest rainforest is the theme of my mural. The small fire on the flute symbolizes the issue that is happening right now. I wanted to point at it very subtly. This mural is dedicated to the Amazon.
AM: Have you been to the Amazon region?
NU: Yes, but always as a tourist. The first time was a couple of years ago during one of my travels to Peru, and the most recent time was in 2017. Next time I want to dive deep inside and experience the wisdom of the tribes native to the area.
AM: Where did your interest in different tribes come from?
NU: My grandmother was born and raised in a Central Andean village, and when I was a child, my family used to take us there. The Andean scenery and its inhabitants’ deep knowledge, spiritual wisdom and connection to nature always amazed me.
This is something that our “modern” society is slowly trying to reconnect to now. I developed an interest in indigenous and ancient cultures as we used to have a book at home about the Incas and the Moche people.
AM: Can you tell me about your earliest exploration of art?
When I was little, my mom worked at an office and always took me with her. She understood very early on that drawing and painting was something that I would do for a long time.
Drawing was life to me. Every new cartoon series that appeared on TV, especially Japanese anime series, got my attention and I drew all of them.
When I entered school I was super confused because I couldn’t spend my whole time drawing. I got in trouble with my teachers, not just from not paying attention to class but also from distracting my classmates because they preferred to observe me drawing. I earned my first money drawing Pokémons and Digimons for my classmates.
Then came Dragon Ball. It was an old TV show from the ‘90s that became popular much later in Germany. Its style had a huge impact on my art and the aesthetics of my characters.
AM: How did you first get started making murals?
NU: I started doing graffiti when I around 10 – sketches of graffiti letters combined with comic characters. My best friend at the time was super into hip-hop and he asked me to start doing graffiti.
Together we started out first crew, “EAL,” which stands for “Equality” and painted our first bombings and pieces using trash cans from the hardware store. We lived in a village outside of Munich and were very young, so we didn’t have any connection to the scene.
I was pretty isolated doing graffiti in those first years and developed my own kind of style and aesthetics without any local influences. I was very lucky because close by there was a legal spot you could paint and barely anyone knew about it. I also had family in Barcelona and Peru, so I got the chance to meet graffiti writers there and paint there in the following years.
When I was 16 I got to know some local [graffiti] writers from my family’s hometown, Trujillo, which is a small coastal city in Northern Peru.
It astonished me how these guys were able to paint awesome photorealistic characters and styles using low-quality spray paints and roller paints.
Because of the lack of good quality paints, people there were really experimental and used all the materials they had. It showed me that you don’t need fancy paints to do awesome pieces. It really inspired me, so I started experimenting a lot.
Back in Germany I had been doing commissioned work since the age of 13 because the local mayor discovered my work at the legal spot in my home village. It was a good chance for me to train many different skills and styles and to gather a lot of paint to use for my free work. I was able to get a big stock of spray paint so I could paint more and more, and with that money I was able to travel and meet new people.
AM: Are you planning to go all over the world doing your paintings?
NU: Well, as much as possible, of course. There is so much to see out there, and what else is more beautiful than exploring the whole world and the experiences it offers?
In the future, travelling should be more regulated because we have to save our environment, but if I have the chance to combine my passion of painting with exploring the world, there is nothing more fulfilling than that for me.
This year I was very lucky to spend three months in Southeast Asia to meet and experience many different people, cultures, heritages and types of wisdom. I had beautiful experiences that keep inspiring me in my art.
AM: Can you tell me a bit about the technique of doing such a large-scale painting as this one at Lollapalooza?
NU: When it comes to large-scale paintings that greatly exceed human proportions, I like to use the paint roller technique to do a first rough sketch. Once this is done and I have my concept, I can work on top of it with whatever technique I like.
There is also a way to use grids to transfer your painting on the wall. I try to avoid that because I like to train my skills without using artificial methods.
When I do a sketch for a wall as preparation and then redo it on the wall, it is just a copy of the state of mind I was in when I did the sketch. I’m someone who always wants to learn and develop.
So when I do a sketch for a wall, I leave it very rough to allow for spontaneous ideas. I always like to surprise myself. Of course, when it comes to projects with a busy schedule, you can save quite a lot of time by using a grid.
AM: So you don’t use any artificial method to figure out the proportions? You can just do that while you’re painting on the wall?
NU: Yes, on this scale I can do that just by using my eyes. It’s just experience – pure training. Like a sportsman training his muscles, you can train your sense of proportion. The more you train, the better and more confident you will become at this.
AM: Where did your artist name “Nasca” come from?
NU: The name Nasca came up for the first time in 2009. I painted under a lot of different names before that but “Nasca” originated because of the region and ancient culture in Peru that is said to have created the Nazca Lines, the most famous geoglyphs in the world. I think my brother came up with the name.
I always wanted to use a name that in some way represented my connection to Peru, and one day I read an article in a science magazine that said that Nazca Lines were kind of a graffiti for the gods in former times, because you could only observe them from above the sky. So that was a sign for me to go for that name, and sometimes I add the “one” or “uno” as a classic hip-hop gimmick.
AM: Aside from Lollapalooza, where else do you have work in Berlin?
NU: Actually, all around the city. The most inspiring place I have painted in Berlin was definitely Teufelsberg, an abandoned former spy station from the Cold War that was built on Berlin’s highest hill and is now one of Berlin’s biggest outdoor galleries for urban art.
When I moved to Berlin in 2015, there was an art festival happening in Teufelsberg where I got invited. It blew my mind as I hadn’t seen many places like that. It is so inspirational – I recommend everyone to visit it.
There’s one other beautiful place called the Urban Art Hall, where I painted several murals and pieces. It’s an abandoned post office in the Spandau district and it is run by a foundation that is putting a lot of love in it. It’s a place for everyone to paint and express themselves freely. It’s a good example of what you can achieve when artists are given the space and freedom to do what they love to do.
AM: Can you tell me about your smaller works – those that are not murals?
NU: Basically, the content of a painting painted on a big scale or a small one is the same. The big advantage of painting in a studio is that you can take a lot more time to work on the artwork. Paintings on walls and murals are often dependent on weather conditions, daily costs of lifts, and so on.
Also, painting on walls and murals forces you to go outside and beyond your comfort zone. You go to places that most people wouldn’t seek out such as abandoned buildings, ruins, along railway tracks, ruins and so on. Sometimes you even wake up at 6 a.m. in order to have the full day at those locations or to not attract any attention because of legal conditions.
Depending on the surroundings of the wall you are painting, you get to know the people of the area, listen to their stories, make friendships, and get to know their culture and sometimes even family.
And these experiences can also be integrated into the paintings, which I love. When it comes to painting in public areas, especially on a big scale, it’s very important for me that people can build up a kind of relationship to the painting – it’s not me throwing them a bone in an aesthetic way. In my opinion, that’s one of the responsibilities as a mural painter.