Photos by Asia Morris.
António Correia, or Pantónio as he’s better known, is the Portuguese street artist who painted the sweeping manta rays on the Aquarium of the Pacific’s nearly 2,600 square-foot front wall as part of the week-long POW! WOW! Long Beach street art festival, which ended on July 15. Nearly two weeks after its completion, the artist's first mural painted in the United States certainly tells a story.
The mural was highlighted during the aquarium’s most recent Night Dive event, part of an after dark summer series geared toward the interests of a similar audience that responds well to POW! WOW! and arguably viewed the event as an atypical activity for a nonprofit institution; turning down the lights and the volume up to create the vibe of a night club, per say.
“What we know as an institution is that it’s our job to provide an opportunity for our community to be involved with us, but we also have to be involved with our community,” said Sean Devereaux, manager of volunteer services at the aquarium. “It’s our obligation to reach every person in our Long Beach neighborhood, to make the aquarium feel like home to everybody.”
Born in the Azores and hailing from Lisbon, the artist held his first exhibition when he was 13. Just two years ago he painted what is considered to be Europe’s largest mural on a wall 217 feet tall and 50 feet wide in Paris’s 13th district, while in April the artist painted wall on the streets of Chernobyl to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the nuclear disaster.
The artist spent two days at the aquarium before he could decide exactly what was going to go on this Long Beach wall, however. Correia considered painting whales, but scratched that idea, deciding it was too similar to the Long Beach Arena, then considered painting seals, based on their similarity to his signature stylistic rabbits. However, he decided that, too, would be too easy. He finally chose manta rays.
"This is exactly the piece that needed to be on that wall," said Devereaux.
“If it’s not fantastic, it doesn’t catch the eye of [anyone],” said Correia. “It’s very easy to paint rabbits; they are very playful, but it’s more difficult to paint manta rays. But, they have this charge, no?”
Manta rays are often too large to be held in aquariums and are difficult to study, while the species is listed as vulnerable to becoming endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature. You could say they elude researchers to an extent, a notion that appealed to an artist who paints freely roaming swallows, rabbits, sardines, cod, octopuses and other animals.
“His work often carries social messages, echoing modern crises and aiming to disrupt the establishment,” read the aquarium’s release, describing the man painting a mural that pokes at the establishment, or the aquarium in this case, and the idea of animals in captivity, whether or not it’s for the noble and necessary purpose of conservation and education.
“It’s the movement of the animals, the freedom of them,” said Correia. He noted that the nets he painted, visibly wrapped around one of the manta ray’s tails on the left portion of the wall, are indeed a subtle message about eluding captivity, chasing freedom.
The mural was a beautiful compromise, one where the artist could still disagree with the idea of institutionalized marine life, and animals in general, yet aid the aquarium’s educational mission in drawing attention to endangered species. It’s a complicated but authentic point of view that serves both the artist, the nonprofit and the street arts festival that brought the two together.
“Art helps people make an emotional connection to the social and environmental issues of the day,” said Jerry Schubel, president and CEO, Aquarium of the Pacific, in a statement. “It is our hope that this mural will leave a lasting impression with our visitors and inspire them to act on behalf of marine life facing extinction.”
One of the reasons the aquarium was able offer an exterior wall to be painted during Pow! Wow! In the first place was the tie-in to its recently opened temporary summer exhibit, Vanishing Animals, which seeks to educate visitors about endangered, once-endangered and currently at-risk marine life. So, too, will the mural vanish, once the aquarium’s first major expansion, the 29,000-square-foot Pacific Visions wing, is completed.
“This particular art installation is also temporary,” said Devereaux. “And it emphasizes that storyline that we really need to take it all in when it’s here, because it doesn’t last forever. It’s just a beautiful, traumatic, but inspirational story behind not only the gallery that we opened, but this epic mural by Pantonio, the first one in the United States by this amazing artist. It’s not going to last forever.”
The aquarium is located at 100 Aquarium Way.