Confessions of a Vail rail artist
VAIL, Colorado ” Nearly every day, Justin Santiago flies over his works of art on his snowboard in Vail, Colorado.
The 26-year-old Brooklyn native sat on the snow alongside his new wife, Helena Laves, looking proudly at the colorful rails in Vail’s Fly Zone terrain park at Golden Peak.
Santiago, a gondola operator and urban graffiti artist, began his career as a kid in the city with a spray paint can. Over time, his graffiti has evolved into more sophisticated art that now decorates Vail’s park features.
The colorful murals are replacing what used to be plain red backgrounds, catching the eye of skiers and boarders passing overhead on the Rive Ban Express Lift (Chair 6).
“It’s cool because I ride this park everyday, and I’ll see my art.” he said, waving to friends as they ride past.
Once Santiago got the OK to paint the part, he started sketched designs onto the wooden rails. Then he and friend Jason Peruse started painting.
On a sunny day, you might catch Santiago working on a rail, each of which take at least a full day to complete.
The finished works are not what you would expect from a kid who used to tag alley walls. The urban art is whimsical, pops with color and features lighthearted designs such as clouds and mountainscapes.
Santiago points to one rail, dubbed the “Y Rail,” painted in shades of blue, pink and purple.
“This is definitely my favorite,” he said, pointing to the pink rail covered with a mosaic of colored triangles and diamonds. “Pink is one of my favorite colors to use, and it’s designed to look like broken glass.”
He plans to finish another side of the rail with a design that will have a 3-dimensional effect, he said.
“This one is called ‘Jelly Beans.’ Kids really like this one,” he said, pointing to one rail that looked like a spilled pile of Jelly Bellies. “I wanted to do things that were less graffiti, and more of something that grandmothers and kids would like, too.”
The art has gotten rave reviews from passing skiers and boarders, both Santiago and other mountain staff said.
“Everyone walks by and says, ‘I love your art!’ People yell from the lift, too. I haven’t had a bad comment,” Santiago said.
Terrain park staff said they were initially wary at the idea of decorating the park with graffiti ” until they saw Santiago’s work.
“What these guys have done is more than just tagging,” said Vail Mountain Terrain Park Supervisor Shawn Cranny. “It’s not something that you’d see on the side of a building.”
Cranny said the rail art is good for publicity, and it might even get the park featured in a magazine or video, he said.
Santiago said he hopes the rails will make their way into a magazine or catch someone’s eye. He wants to help paint other parks as well as start selling some of his canvas art at local galleries, he said.
Santiago’s art career began almost 10 years ago ” although back then he was painting on the streets, not on canvases.
“I grew up in a really bad part of town where a lot of people were doing drugs and drinking,” said Santiago. “I didn’t get too much into that stuff, but I was into graffiti instead. As I got older, I continued doing it, but it went more toward being art. I think doing graffiti might have saved my life.”
But that’s all in the past. Santiago left New York to find a new life in Colorado three years ago. Now, he has aspirations of going into graphic design and perhaps eventually designing for ski and snowboard companies.
“I’m moving past what I did as a younger guy,” he said. “You can’t be painting in the streets for the rest of your life.”
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