Behind the Mask: Optimus Volts channels a love of vintage cartoons, sports and Mexican culture into his art

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Isaac Coronado sits in front of a bed frame in his Barrio Logan studio. What was once a simple wooden frame is now an alarming shade of red, decorated with elaborate carvings, old spray paint cans and downright spooky skulls, their mouths open as if screaming from the dark corners of the imagination of the creator.

“It was broken into pieces when I found it. To be honest, it was actually in the trash,” says Coronado, who goes by the name Optimus Volts. at garage sales. We were driving and I just had to stop when I saw it. She kept telling me it was broken, but I said, “I bet I could fix it.” I saw in my head what I could do with it.

Piece by piece, it took him a month to turn the bed frame into a downright gothic work of art that now sits in his studio. He ended up unveiling the frame in a solo exhibition at Sparks Gallery in 2019. Along with woodworking, which he learned from his father as a child, the piece includes resin skulls created by hand. using a mould.

“The rooms were getting bigger and bigger until I was soon making furniture like this,” Coronado explains.

The approach is emblematic of the Optimus Volts style. Take something that was once ordinary — a bed frame, baseball card, or comic book, for example — and turn it into something else. Something that may seem spooky or sinister on the surface, but is also representative of its culture and pop-cultural influences. The concept of upcycling – that is, taking something that would otherwise be thrown away and using it as a medium or a canvas – is not uncommon in the art world. But in the case of Coronado, and what has become his masked alter ego, it has become second nature. For him, a canvas can really be anything.

“I’m the type of person who likes to use recycled and repurposed resources,” says Coronado. “Frames, wood, whatever.”

Artist Isaac Coronado shows off one of his recycled trading cards in his Barrio Logan studio.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Take his paintings, for example. A sports card collector and comic book fan since childhood, Coronado reuses vintage cards and comics, painting on faces and backgrounds to give them a pop-surreal vibe. Sports superstars like LeBron James and Ken Griffey Jr. are retouched to look like Día de los Muertos-style skeletons. The Batman and Thor comic book covers are painted in hyper-colorful, street art-style tones, with the character’s logo revamped in block letters to look like it’s been written on like a graffiti-style tag.

“I get collectors from some players who DM me on Instagram or send me emails, and they want their favorite player made by me,” Coronado says when asked about his work on sports cards. “A lot of those people are reposting it, so a lot of card collectors are embracing it now.”

This work in particular has led to some exciting opportunities. While once painting on a trading card was frowned upon, Coronado said he was recently invited by Beckett Media to an industry summit in Las Vegas. Beckett, arguably the most respected trading card and memorabilia grading company, gave Coronado its own stand at the top.

“They are now embracing this type of work,” Coronado says. “It’s a big business in the industry, so just having them talk about me and my art makes other collectors accept it too.”

Some of artist Isaac Coronado's hand painted vintage baseball cards.

Some of artist Isaac Coronado’s hand painted vintage baseball cards.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

This concept of acceptability is one Coronado has struggled with over the years, but also one he pushed through. Born in Chula Vista and raised there and San Ysidro in the 80s and 90s, he remembers a time when his art style was not always easily embraced.

“When I was growing up, street art and graffiti were considered bad or destruction of property,” says Coronado, who grew up in a Catholic family. “Even my parents thought I was just another hoodlum and thought I should paint religious stuff.”

While he says he’s always been into the art, he admits he “often hung out with the wrong crowd in the South Bay.”

“Back then, in the 80s and 90s, there was a lot of gang life,” Coronado recalls. “So I often got in trouble. Doing graffiti in the streets and stuff like that.

He found refuge in things like comic books and cartoons that aired on Saturday mornings. When the cartoons were finished, he said he would switch the channel to a Spanish show in hopes they would show his other favorite show: lucha libre wrestling.

“I was so drawn to it. I couldn’t take my eyes off it,” Coronado says.

Artist Isaac Coronado with a bed frame he turned into a skull-filled artwork at his Barrio Logan studio.

Artist Isaac Coronado, whose artist name is Optimus Volts, with a bed frame he transformed into a skull-filled artwork at his Barrio Logan studio.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

He drew sports personalities, wrestlers, and comic and cartoon characters in class. He says he “barely graduated” from high school but still decided to take art classes at Southwestern College in Chula Vista while doing odd jobs. It was at Southwestern that he met Michael Schnorr, a teacher and muralist who had a number of murals in Barrio Logan. Coronado often accompanied Schnorr to create murals and says that Schnorr was responsible, but incidentally, for the development of the Optimus Volts style.

“The style actually developed in his painting class,” Coronado recalls, saying his own particular brand of using spray paint cans in his work stemmed from an incident where he was the victim of bullying by classmates. “To be honest, it came out of anger. One day I decided to tear these spray paints into pieces and ended up using them in a canvas.

Schnorr came to love the new work, but it’s also a style that was born out of necessity. Making art can be expensive, and Coronado remembers using everything he could get his hands on to create his work. He would often take discarded materials and paints from his classmates, items they had left or thrown away, and repurpose them to create his own work. Judging from his current work, it’s a practice that’s still useful today.

Out of school in the early 2000s, Coronado found a community in the local underground gallery scene at venues and events like Ray at Night, Roots Factory and The Spot, which eventually became La Bodega Gallery. He began wearing custom-made lucha libre masks and using the nickname Optimus Volts professionally around 2012.

“When I put the mask on, I realized I wasn’t afraid to be on camera or to speak in public,” Coronado explains. “It started to pick up steam, all of these people loved it and loved my energy.”

Over the past two decades, he has channeled his myriad influences into creating works that are both original and tribute. He has a solo exhibition featuring new work opening Nov. 11 at The Soap Factory space in Logan Heights. He says he’s just glad he stayed true to his style and now there’s a market for the art he’s had trouble with.

“When I really started doing this, I was like, ‘You know what? I just want to be different and distinct,’ Coronado says. “It was like a new person starting a new chapter, and for some reason whatever, it just happened.”

Last name: Optimus Volts (real name: Isaac Coronado)

Born: Chula Vista, California

Age: 45

fun fact: His artist name is a mixture of the first name he used while doing graffiti (Volts) and Optimus Prime, a character from the popular 80s animated series, “Transformers”. His custom lucha libre masks often have a modified version of the emblem of the Autobots, the protagonists of the series.

Combs is a freelance writer.

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