For Sofia Maldonado, the world is a canvas. Literally. Her colorful designs embellish building facades, highways and even swimming pool floors. Her work has been showcased at New York’s PINTA art fair and the Havana Biennial, but her favorite pieces are some of her now-scuffed-up murals, skateboards and rinks in Cuba and in her native Puerto Rico.
The Brooklyn-based muralist, 25, has made a career of bringing art to skate parks and skate culture. While her art also includes more gallery-friendly media, like paint on canvas, she prefers large outdoor spaces. “I don’t limit my work to museums and galleries,” she says. “I like to put my artwork in the eyes of people who don’t often go to art shows.”
Maldonado began painting as a high school student in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “Our generation was part of a boom of graffiti artists in San Juan,” she says, adding that she and her friends took advantage of dilapidated buildings and unused public space in the city. But unlike her peers she used brushes and acrylic paint instead of spray cans. “It was cheaper,” she explains.
In 2006 she began studying art at the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York. A year later, she had her first solo show, Tropic Storm, at Magnan Galleries. The three-part exhibition featured skate bags (which she designed), paintings on broken skateboards and a video that documents Maldonado creating a skate bowl from an abandoned pool. In keeping with her ethos that art should be interactive, she painted and installed a small ramp in the gallery that was open for public use.
Maldonado, who describes herself as an amateur skater, traces her fascination with skate culture to her desire to create interactive, democratic art. She takes cues from skaters who are constantly spotting freestyle skating spots in the urban setting. Where they see a good place to skate, she sees a good place to paint.
Her skate-themed art eventually brought Maldonado’s focus to Cuba—her mother’s birthplace—and made her an unlikely diplomat. Last April, she participated in the Havana Biennial, where she launched Skate My Patria, an effort to connect the island’s isolated skate community with the rest of the world.
In addition to delivering 40 hand-painted skateboards and other equipment from the U.S. skaters to their counterparts, Maldonado and her cohorts painted a skate park, exchanged skate lessons with locals, and filmed a short documentary about the experience. Maldonado is presenting the documentary and other artifacts from Havana’s skate community at the Taller Puertoriqueño in Philadelphia this fall.
Outside of the skate bowl, Maldonado’s career is picking up. Last spring, she was commissioned to paint a three-story-high mural in Hartford, Connecticut. Maldonado is designing for Etnies shoes this fall, and in the winter, will enter the world of high fashion. She’s working on a clothing line that will hit the runway in February.