Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Man Who's Painting Portobello; Alex Martinez Has Brightened Up Some of London's Dowdiest Streets with His Graffiti Wall Art. Now He Has Put Together an Exhibition of His and Others' Work

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Man Who's Painting Portobello; Alex Martinez Has Brightened Up Some of London's Dowdiest Streets with His Graffiti Wall Art. Now He Has Put Together an Exhibition of His and Others' Work

Article excerpt

Byline: DOMINIC SWORDS

IT'S the David Cameron approach to hoodies, but on a grand scale. For years, one spray can-wielding youth has rendered shopfronts, public walls and even vehicles unrecognisable in a small area of west London.

And what do the residents of Portobello do? Invoke the Antisocial Behaviour Act of 2003? No. They invite him to curate a gallery exhibition at their annual artfest.

Alex Martinez is responsible for more than 30 graffiti murals in little over a square mile. But these are large, lavish works - all commissioned by the owners of the walls - which have obviously taken a lot of time and skill.

He's less a one-man crime wave than a one-man Renaissance.

Fresh from last week's Lovebox Weekender at Victoria Park, where he demonstrated his talents on purpose-built walls, Martinez is bringing together 20 graffiti artists from London and around the world to show their works, on board and canvas, at the Muse Gallery, as part of the Portobello Film Festival.

Taking a stroll through Portobello market with the 27-year-old American is quite an experience. He's a local hero.

Shopkeepers call out to him. Publicans and cafe owners wave him into their premises. The fruit-and-veg guy and the halal butcher stop their shouting and chopping to acknowledge him.

At the art supplies shop, Lyndon's, on Portobello Road, he recently painted his third graffiti mural on the same wall.

First it was a Daliesque thing of tigers jumping out of each other's mouths; then a multicoloured Charles Bronson; now it's the craggy features of Samuel Beckett, in black and white, to commemorate the Irish writer's centenary.

Some of Martinez's best works are the simplest. For a greengrocer's cart, he did a monkey eating a banana. It may not have the political resonance of Banksy, but it works. At the Sun in Splendour pub, Portobello, he has turned a corridor into a thick jungle scene, reminiscent of the naive art of Henri Rousseau.

He's an unorthodox graffiti artist, because of his willingness to work within the law. He started out in Notting Hill by getting permission from shopkeepers whose walls had been targeted by taggers - mainly kids, he says, who hurriedly scrawl their mark or tag wherever they can. "I'd say to the storeowners, instead of letting it get tagged up and then having to paint it over, let me paint on your wall," Martinez says.

When other businesses saw the results, and the fact that these artworks lasted, they were queuing up to pay Martinez to adorn their own premises. The halal butcher got him to do his brand-new storm blinds and, inside the shop, a cutout on board of a deranged cartoon cow wielding a meat cleaver.

Soon Martinez was getting commissions from as far afield as Fulham. "I did a Lord of the Rings thing on Jemima Khan's kids' bedroom walls in 2004," he smiles. He has recently finished a work at Brixton primary school, St Helen's.

Martinez arrived three years ago from the Bronx. An untrained artist, he picked up his skills from the New York streets and from comic books. In London, he lives and works in what he calls his "mini-factory", surrounded by supplies and sketches for works-in-progress.

He grew up in the rail town of Reading, Pennsylvania. "It was sort of a broken home, but we're still a close family," he says. His father, who is Mexican, worked as a bridge engineer for Conrail. But he was also a musician and ex-footballer. His father's paternal uncle, Alex's grandfather's brother, was the Mexican comic actor and dancer Adalberto Martinez (known to millions as Resortes) who starred in more than 100 movies.

"There's a film of him doing the moonwalk in, like, 1954," says Alex proudly.

His mother is Greek, from Lesbos, and she ran a coffee shop called the Daily Grind, "which had mochas even in the Eighties". His parents split up when he was 12 and he went with his mother first to Antwerp, and then to Lesbos where they lived at the family home. …

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