"The idea for the portraits on paper money came from a Thumbprint Gallery show called C.R.E.A.M. which stood for ‘cash rules everything around me,’ explains Isaac Coronado, better known as Optimus Volts.
“I found a site online that sold a bundle of [Asian] currency, so I went ahead and ordered it. The piece I did for that show was painting the members of the Wu-Tang Clan on North Korean money. After that, I had all these leftover bills and I started going at them….I started making little goody bags. At first, I gave them out to a couple of artist friends, who loved them, and I even sold some at gallery shows.
“The money itself is really colorful, so that makes people curious, because they’ve never seen, you know, Afghan money, or Vietnamese money. I still have some money left over, because I started with a big, random stack. I have all these weird bills from little 'close to Russia' countries that I can’t even pronounce.”
In time, Optimus Volts will paint them all. Rather than limit himself to the conventional media of the urban artist (spray cans, acrylic paints, and stickers), Optimus Volts has experimented with all manner of unconventional materials. His custom Vinylmations have been particularly well received by fans and other artists.
Originally intended for Disney fans, Vinylmations are simple, vinyl Mickey Mouse figurines that function as a tradable commodity at and around Disney stores and theme parks. Disney authorizes blank Vinylmations so that fans can paint their own Mickeys. After seeing the figurines at a Disney con, Optimus Volts started modifying Vinylmations by curing the blank figurines, molding them into new shapes with Sculpey (a malleable artist's clay), and painting the finished products.
He says, “I made a blank one, decorated it, put it online, and started getting offers from people who wanted to buy it. So I made another one, and another, and another, etc. Sooner or later, people started calling me looking for commissions, like, ‘hey, I want a Harry Potter one,’ or whatever.”
Now, he makes them into everything from the Predator character to Dia de los Muertos unicorns.
Another Optimus Volts specialty is skulls decorated with metal spikes in a style the artist calls “bitches.”
“I do the metal spikes by destroying a spray can into pieces,” says Volts. “People have been liking that style. I puncture the can to take out the gas, let it dry, drip out any paint residue onto a canvas that I might use later, and then I start cutting the can up with tin snips. I keep cutting it until I like the shape, then I fold the pieces to make them look sharp.
“People want to touch them because they wonder if they’re sharp.”
Like so many artists, Optimus Volts’ name and style is a mashup of past influences and the ubiquitous background in graffiti writing. Over the years, it’s become more than a pseudonym for him. “Optimus Volts” is a personality quite unlike soft-spoken Isaac Coronado. Wearing a lucha mask and growling into the camera, Optimus Volts introduces new projects with gruff bravado via Facebook and YouTube videos.
“I’m a big Transformers fan, since I was a kid. The 80’s cartoons, not the movies!” he says, distancing himself from Michael Bay as much as possible. “I also used to do graffiti back in the day, and I would write ‘Hi Voltage.’ That was too long, and I shortened it to ‘Volts.’
“My alter ego came out with Optimus Volts, too. I do a video every time I want to promote an art show. I put a mask on and I turn into somebody else. If you see the video, you’ll think, ‘oh my god this guy is crazy.’
“People want to know if I am going to wear the mask to an art show, but the only way that happens is if it will be solo show.
The artist has found himself in the company of painters and other visual artists in the burgeoning Barrio Logan art scene.
“I gave up doing art about fifteen years ago, because I had to get a job, got married, etc. I had started working at Home Depot in the paint department a few years when an artist named La Creme EZ found out about some of the stuff I could do. He brought me out of retirement. The last time I did anything significant was about 18 years ago when I was part of a project to put white crosses along the border from here to Calexico. I was just doing Comic-Con at the time when I did the first show with EZ.
“Now, La Creme, Chikle, Dickie Islands, and I are going to start what’s basically an art collective. We’re going to get together and have our own crew, because we all see eye-to-eye on stuff.”
It’s not always fun and games in the art world, however. Volts recalls a good show marred by theft.
“We had a good show, good turnout, at the Stronghold Gallery (formerly the Spot) in Barrio Logan. Unfortunately, people loved my skulls so much that they had to steal them. I lost three pieces during that show.” It bummed out Volts and the new gallery alike. Volts is able to laugh over the irony that his art was stolen from a place called “Stronghold.” He started out angry over it, but settled on “hey, at least my stuff is worth getting stolen!”
1835 Main Street, Barrio Logan
Not content to stop experimenting, Optimus Volts continues to seek out new materials for his art. “I’ve got some animal bones,” he says, as though dead critters are no big deal whatsoever. “They’re hard to find, of course. Once in a while, you might find some bird bones, or cow bones if you can find a place to get them, but I found, like, a pelican skeleton perfectly preserved. I haven’t gotten to it, but it’s there and I want to try it. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it yet to make it different than just a bunch of bones. I might add something else to it, but I don’t know yet.”