In 2013, Sergio Garcia was curating a group show of photorealistic paintings at Kirk Hopper Fine Art when he was inspired to create something totally outside of his typical media of painting and street art: a series of little red tricycles sculpted into impractical shapes. By the time of the show's opening, he was so nervous that he left one of the sculptures in the car and suggested the others could be stored in the back and brought out only upon request. But Hopper went ahead and displayed the trikes, and by the time Garcia arrived an hour into the show, he learned they'd all already sold.
“Maybe it was because I am not a very competitive person, but something about putting that show together made me not want to do a realistic painting," Garcia says. "It was the first time I had no idea what I was bringing into the gallery. I was making it and didn’t know why.”
The sculptures bring viewers back to childhood. Some of the trikes have handlebars so long they drag on the ground; others have two sets of handlebars and four wheels. The top tubes are tied in knots, stretched out to form huge circles, elongated until they sag in the middle, shaped like slithering snakes or contorted into figure 8 or heart shapes. Another trike is separated into two pieces and built into the corner of a wall, with the seat and back wheels sticking out on the left and the handlebars, front wheel and pedals emerging on the right.
The tricycles are charming because the modifications are so simple. Garcia originally had much more elaborate ideas and he often receives complex suggestions, but he's found a less-is-more approach insures the highest impact. “Once I saw it in its simplest forms I started feeling something from it and it seemed to communicate with people,” Garcia says. He entered a tricycle in a juried show in Houston and won first place.
Several people, including John Zarobell, assistant curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, told Garcia his work was good enough to be shown anywhere, offering in-depth explanations of the merit of his art. Garcia appreciated the feedback, but says he's not too concerned about the approval of fine art institutions. “That’s not really the aspect of it,” he says. “Children perceive it. People from China and Germany respond to it.”
Garcia saw the potential to hone into universal imagery with sculpture, and soon he found he'd completely shifted from graffiti and murals to making realistic sculptures. Now images of his creations have gone viral, earning him celebrity endorsements and shows in galleries all over the world.
The series that has garnered Garcia the most international attention began in 2014 with a lifelike sculpture of what appears to be a young girl. But instead of a head affixed to her neck, a bubble wand releasing a large bubble emerges from it. From there, Garcia began painting resin molds of forearms reaching out of the walls.
An early pair hides its thumbs and twists its middle and ring fingers together to form a “W” indicating West Coast, or perhaps west side. Another features long, painted fingernails and a wedding ring, one hand holding a joint half-rolled, with the rest of the paper sticking out, ready to be licked. Yet another tattooed forearm grips a bottle of liquor and pours one out as a sign of respect for a lost loved one.
Garcia takes inspiration from popular culture and cultural changes he observes. The marijuana references respond to inconsistencies in how use of the drug is policed. “It got to a point in Colorado where it was legal depending on the county,” Garcia says. “The next state over it’s illegal. It’s like, 'Can you smoke on the street here or is this taboo?'”
He sees the divisiveness of marijuana laws as a reflection of the state of the U.S. in general. “Where are we on anything?” Garcia asks. “Nobody’s on the same page. Not even a little bit.” His commentary on marijuana culture has led to interview requests from High Times and the Hash, Marijuana & Hemp Museum in Amsterdam even bought a couple of his pieces.
The most provocative and controversial of his arm sculptures show purple drank being poured from a plastic Sprite bottle into a doubled-up Styrofoam cup. “The 'lean' ones were more of a documentation of the Houston rap scene,” Garcia says. “That’s something I don’t know that much about.”
Purple drank and lean are among the names given to a concoction of prescription-strength cough syrup typically mixed with soda for a recreational high that includes disassociation and euphoria. Although it has been around for much longer, the mixture first became popular in Houston in the early '90s, and went on to spread throughout hip-hop communities in the South.
While making the sculptures, Garcia asked friends for advice on jewelry suitable for Houston hip-hop artists, even visiting jewelry stores to take pictures. Almost immediately once they were finished he began receiving inquiries from people who wanted to commission work based on molds of their hands. Even Houston rapper Paul Wall contacted Garcia to compliment his work. “I’m glad Houston approved. It’s a touchy subject,” Garcia says, alluding to the fatalities that have been associated with lean.
These works also got the attention of Atlanta hip-hop artist Future, who used a few of Garcia's pieces for a pop-up show in Los Angeles. Garcia plans to collaborate with Future again, and plenty of other major artists are biting. Sean “Diddy” Combs’ assistant reached out about a project related to Diddy's Ciroc brand of vodka; Lil Wayne asked to commission a piece; and French Montana also bought some of his work.
Garcia now has 36,000 followers on Instagram, and names as big as professional skateboarder Tony Hawk have posted his work on Facebook and Instagram. “Social media is crazy,” Garcia says. “It gets to people so fast. Some artists frown on it, but I basically use my Instagram account as a website for my work. It’s great that people will share work online. Women who live in Georgia who own a hair salon will post my work. People who normally just post pictures of them and their kids somehow feel the need to post this work.”
That's just the tip of the iceberg as far as hip-hop artists and celebrities who have taken an interest in Garcia’s work; he's shy about dropping names and notes that he's typically in touch with celebrities through their "people." Hip-hop has the cultural sway that rock 'n' roll once did, and it's helping to make Garcia a star of the contemporary art world, but he's more interested in the power of art to achieve a spiritual connection than he is in making celebrity buddies. “Art fairs have helped me a lot,” Garcia says. “If people collecting trash, setting up or sweeping feel the need to take a picture of my work I feel like I have really done something.”