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Ruben Ubiera's indoor graffiti

Gorillas, skateboards and urban decay: Ruben Ubiera's graffiti pops in Pompano Beach.

The gorillas invaded Ruben Ubiera's life when he needed them most, after the death of his mother from breast cancer and following the end of his career as a graphic designer. Laid off from his job at a Boca Raton ad agency in 2007, Ubiera recalled a conversation in which his mother, before she died, said he should "go be an artist instead." He found a studio in the Wynwood art district and began painting broad-shouldered primates on strange surfaces: cracked plywood, discarded cigar boxes, skateboards snapped in half, wood pallets.

Gorillas seem to be everywhere in Ubiera's solo exhibit "ubiera-pop," opening this week at Bailey Contemporary Arts in Pompano Beach. They wear DJ headphones and spin turntable decks, gaze in wonder at a painting of a McDonald's Happy Meal, or glower at the viewer. Spanish newsprint from El Sentinel and text from a biography of Michelangelo appear on the gorillas' faces and chests, references to Ubiera's Dominican heritage and his early fascination with neoclassical European art.

"I never did graffiti before my mom died," says Ubiera, of Weston, an Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale graduate. "But I was noticing in Wynwood that more people wanted to see graffiti on walls outside than in the gallery space. But why? Why not both? So I took these found objects and put gorillas on them. It's the big, 800-pound gorilla in the room about urban art. Why not put graffiti everywhere?"

The answer to that question is not in this show, Ubiera admits during a recent tour of his display. He calls "ubiera-pop" more "autobiographical" than academic. He grows animated when describing his earliest installation, "Urban Decay," a collage built from dresser drawers, a cracked skateboard, cutouts of himself grinding on a skateboard and a broken acoustic guitar. Paintings of pigeons on a telephone wire, a reference to his Bronx upbringing, appear on the guitar, which is coated in dripping, mint-green paint.

"I would do this — sshh, sshh — a quick, continuous throw up," Ubiera, 39, says, hooking his right index finger as if he's gripping a spray can. He waves his arm excitedly, pointing to a devil-like drawing below the guitar. "I call it 'urban pop.' It's a more conceptual version of graffiti, with dripping paint, and a visual language that's more do-it-yourself, no-rules attitude. This is a series of objects that I found, but I treat it like a mural, and try to work in colors that you can't describe in one or two words."

In New York, he fell in love with graffiti's fast, improvised style, but not the vandalism.

"My friend always tried to get me to go bomb a few walls, but I said, 'No,'" Ubiera recalls. "One time, I saw this guy in a gray hoodie walking down the street with his hands in the pockets. Suddenly, he pulls them out — plah! plah! — and there's a spray can, and does this quick tag, on the door, the window, a dead rat on the windowsill. All in 15, 20 seconds. That's why I love it."

For the collage "The Land Escape," which he installed at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Ubiera says he used whatever objects he found on the roadside during his drive to the airport. The piece contains a chipped, wooden chalkboard frame, a cigar box and plywood, and four of his own skateboards, which are painted with palm trees and birds. "Ciguapas," four mermaids with all-white eyes he says are modeled after the supernatural sirens in Dominican folklore, is painted on palm fronds.

Like his gorillas, Ubiera seems to be everywhere. At July's RedEye party in Fort Lauderdale, he painted a gorilla. Wynwood regularly carries his work. And next week, Ubiera will start installing a mural on a Broward Sheriff's Office building in Tamarac, part of a Broward 100 mural project celebrating the county's centennial.

"South Florida is a paradise of graffiti," Ubiera says. "And I'm going to do as many murals as possible."

"Ubiera-pop" will go on view this week at Bailey Contemporary Arts, 41 NE First St., in Pompano Beach. The opening reception will take place 7-9 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 13. The show will close Aug. 28. Admission is free. Call 954-284-0141 or go to BaCAPompano.org.

pvalys@sun-sentinel.com or Twitter @philvalys

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