ROA and Martha Cooper in Puerto Rico: Dispatches from the Island

Puerto Rico, “La Perla del Mar” (The Pearl of the Sea) Or “La Isla Bonita” (The Beautiful Island”) had a huge earthquake on January 7 and many vital services and systems have not been restored, causing 8,000 people to be homeless and 40,000 to camp outside of their homes, according to rescue agencies. The power plant that supplies a quarter of their needs is still shut down.

ROA. Hawksbill Sea Turtle. Puerto Rico. 2020 (photo © Martha Cooper)

Given those challenges to humans, you don’t usually think about the animals who live on the island.

But ROA does.

The urban naturalist has long championed the marginalized animals of any culture, and since the Belgian Street Artist has basically made Puerto Rico his second home, it is no surprise that he has painted a number of the island’s animals on run-down, neglected structures to remind neighbors who their neighbors really are.

ROA. Octopus. Puerto Rico. 2020 (photo © Martha Cooper)

Globe exploring photographer Martha Cooper was in Puerto Rico for other pursuits this January and managed to meet up with a number of ROA’s more recent friends on her journey.

We were lucky to speak to ROA to ask him about his new pieces and his affinity for the people and climate of Puerto Rico and here we share his responses along with Ms. Coopers’ photos with BSA readers.

ROA. Flying fish. Puerto Rico. 2020 (photo © Martha Cooper)

BSA: There have been a few major natural disasters in Puerto Rico recently. First the hurricane and most recently the earthquake. What sort of negative impact do these natural disasters have on the fauna in Puerto Rico? Are the resources in Puerto Rico available to help the animal species that are in danger?
ROA: Undeniably, the island was hit by the disaster, but to tell exactly how great the impact is on the fauna is difficult to estimate.  For example; the local green Puerto Rican parrot that was listed as critically endangered for many years and whereof were only 200 left, most of these were reintroduced in El Yunque Rain Forest as result of a recovery plan, but the hurricane completely blew out the population and we are back to point zero, and almost no PR parrot has been seen in El Yunque since then.  Recently I’ve read they released 30 parrots out of captive conservation programs into the El Yunque rainforest.

ROA. Red-Tailed Hawk. Puerto Rico. 2020 (photo © Martha Cooper)

BSA: Speaking of the impact that natural disasters have on animals, would you say that the largest disaster that animals face is the humans and their disdain for the preservation and the protection of our natural resources?

ROA: Of course, the greatest threat on earth for nature and all animal species, is humanity. Though we are also animals. For example, Puerto Rico: from the moment people arrived on the island the number of animal species declined dramatically and when the Europeans arrived; the original ecosystem became completely destroyed: lost natural habitat and the introduction of cattle, etc.

ROA. Lion Fish. Puerto Rico. 2020 (photo © Martha Cooper)

BSA: Are these new paintings on walls part of a personal project and if so could you talk a bit about it?
ROA: My love for Puerto Rico started when I was invited by Alexis Dias en Celso for Los Muros Hablan in 2012. I returned in 2015 for an art residency organized by JUST KIDS in San Juan and this resulted in a very long residency and during that period I painted my first walls on the island and that’s how I got stuck in Puerto Rico, and that’s super great! So, since the beginning, I started to paint around in different places on the island and in San Juan, and this project is naturally grown out of road tripping, painting and meeting Stefan from Elegel in 2018 by painting the Red-Tailed Hawk in Humacao (Grita Walls).

ROA. Puerto Rican Boa in collaboration with JustKids. Puerto Rico. 2020 (photo © Martha Cooper)

Stefan started helping me with getting around the island and to gather material in order to do this, somewhat a very natural project arose, that now just gets more site-specific over the island in a way that actually ties together all the different places in Puerto Rico where introduced, non-introduced and endangered animals are living, so that’s how we came across the people from “Recursos Naturales y Ambientales’, an organization that saves manatees and sea turtles… so it’s a naturally grown project started out loving being in Puerto Rico, and about being much into road trips!

ROA. Sea Horse. Puerto Rico. 2020 (photo © Martha Cooper)

BSA: For an artist and specifically for you and your work what are the advantages of living in a country with year-round sunshine and nice weather?
ROA: I consider Puerto Rico one of the places I call home. I spend time during the year there to relax between certain intense projects and meanwhile, I can go snorkeling, go scuba diving, and paint around any moment of the year. So that’s the advantage of good weather, so it allows you to be and paint outside, so you don’t have to deal with a “winter”, not in a European way where you get obliged to spend much of your time inside, and I am just happier outside.

ROA. Tiger Shark. Puerto Rico. 2020 (photo © Martha Cooper)

BSA: Have you found the people in Puerto Rico to be helpful with your work?
ROA: Los Muros Hablan, Alexis Dias and Celso, Charlotte from JustKids who brought me here, and now with the help of Stefan Lang (Elegel) and the new art residency, I definitely have felt support in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans are very warm and jovial people and it has a unique ambiance.

ROA. Rhesus Monkey. Puerto Rico. 2020 (photo © Martha Cooper)