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Behind the Mask: Optimus Volts channels a love of vintage cartoons, sports and Mexican culture into his art

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Isaac Coronado is sitting in front of a bed frame in his Barrio Logan studio. What was once a simple wooden frame is now an alarmingly bright shade of red, decorated with elaborate carvings, old spray paint cans and some downright scary skulls, their mouths agape as if screaming from the dark corners of the creator’s imagination.

“That was broken into pieces when I found it. To be honest, it was actually in the trash,” says Coronado, who goes by the artist name Optimus Volts. “I went to visit my mom and she wanted to go to some yard sales. We were driving around and I just had to stop when I saw it. She kept telling me it was broken, but I told her, ‘I bet I could fix that.’ I saw in my head what I could do with it.”

Piece by piece, it took him a month to repurpose the bed frame into the downright gothic piece of art that now sits in his studio. He ended up unveiling the frame at a solo exhibition at Sparks Gallery in 2019. Along with the woodworking, which he learned as a kid from his father, the piece includes resin skulls that are created using a mold.

“The pieces would just get bigger and bigger to where soon I was doing furniture pieces like this one,” Coronado says.

The approach is emblematic of the Optimus Volts style. Take something that was once ordinary — a bed frame, a baseball card or a comic book, for example — and turn it into something else. Something that might be creepy or sinister on the surface, but one that is representative of his culture and his pop-cultural influences as well. The concept of upcycling — that is, taking something that would otherwise be discarded and using it as either the medium or the canvas — isn’t uncommon in the art world. But in the case of Coronado, and what has become his masked alter-ego, it’s become second nature. For him, a canvas really can be anything.

“I’m the type of person who loves to use resources that are recycled and repurposed,” says Coronado. “Frames, wood, whatever.”

Artist Isaac Coronado shows one of his upcycled collectible cards in his Barrio Logan studio.

Artist Isaac Coronado shows one of his upcycled collectible cards in his Barrio Logan studio.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Take his paintings, for example. A sports card collector and comic fan since childhood, Coronado repurposes vintage cards and comics, painting over the faces and backgrounds to give them a pop-surrealist vibe. Sports superstars like LeBron James and Ken Griffey Jr. are retouched to look as if they’re Día de los Muertos-style skeletons. Batman and Thor comic book covers are painted in hyper-colored, street art-style tones complete with the character’s logo rejiggered into block lettering to look as if it was written as a graffiti-style tag.

“I’m getting collectors of certain players DM-ing me on Instagram or emailing me, and they want their favorite player done by me,” says Coronado when asked about his sports cards work. “A lot of these people repost it so a lot of card collectors are now embracing it.”

This work in particular has led to some exciting opportunities. Whereas once painting over a trading card was frowned upon, Coronado said he was recently invited by Beckett Media to an industry summit in Las Vegas. Beckett, arguably the most respected trading card and memorabilia grading company, gave Coronado his own booth at the summit.

“They’re embracing this type of work now,” says Coronado. “This is a big company in the industry so just them talking about me and my art, it’s making other collectors accept it too.”

Some of artist Isaac Coronado's hand-painted vintage baseball cards.

Some of artist Isaac Coronado’s hand-painted vintage baseball cards.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

This concept of acceptability is one that Coronado has struggled with over the years, but also one that he has pushed through. Born in Chula Vista and raised there and in San Ysidro in the ’80s and ’90s, he remembers a time when his style of art wasn’t always readily embraced.

“When I was growing up, street art and graffiti was considered bad or property destruction,” says Coronado, who grew up in a Catholic family. “Even my parents thought I was just another hoodlum and thought I should be painting religious stuff.”

While he says he was always into art, he admits that he was often “hanging out with the wrong crowd in the South Bay.”

“Back then in the ’80s and ’90s, there was a lot of gang life,” Coronado recalls. “So I was often getting into trouble. Doing graffiti on the streets and stuff like that.”

He found refuge in things like comic books and the cartoons that would air on Saturday mornings. When the cartoons would finish, he says he’d switch the channel to a Spanish broadcast in hopes they’d be showing his other favorite programming: lucha libre wrestling.

“I was so attracted to it. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it,” says Coronado.

Artist Isaac Coronado with a bed frame he refashioned into a skull-filled piece of art in his Barrio Logan studio.

Artist Isaac Coronado, whose artist name is Optimus Volts, with a bed frame he refashioned into a skull-filled piece of art in his Barrio Logan studio.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

He would draw sports figures, wrestlers and comic book and cartoon characters in class. He says he “barely graduated” in high school but still decided to take some art classes at Southwestern College in Chula Vista while working odd jobs. It was at Southwestern where he met Michael Schnorr, a professor and muralist who had a number of murals in Barrio Logan. Coronado would often accompany Schnorr to create murals and says that Schnorr was responsible, however incidentally, for the development of the Optimus Volts style.

“The style actually developed in his painting class,” Coronado recalls, saying that his own particular brand of using spray paint cans in his work came from an incident where he was bullied by classmates. “To be honest, it came out of anger. One day, I decided to rip these spray paint cans into pieces and I ended up using them in a canvas.”

Schnorr ended up loving the new work, but it’s also a style that came out of necessity. Making art can be costly and Coronado recalls using anything he could get his hands on to create his work. He would often take classmates’ discarded materials and paints, items that they left behind or threw out, and repurpose them to create his own work. Judging by his current work, it’s a practice that still comes in handy today.

Out of school in the early 2000s, Coronado found a community in the local underground gallery scene at places and events like Ray at Night, Roots Factory and The Spot, which eventually became La Bodega Gallery. He started wearing custom-made lucha libre masks and using the Optimus Volts moniker professionally around 2012.

“When I put the mask on, I realized that I was not afraid of being on camera or speaking in public,” says Coronado. “It started to pick up steam, all these people loved it and loved my energy with it.”

Over the past two decades, he’s channeled his myriad influences into creating pieces of work that are both original and an homage. He has a solo show featuring new work opening November 11 at The Soap Factory space in Logan Heights. He says he’s just happy that he stuck with his style and that there’s now a market for the art he once got in trouble for doing.

“When I first really started doing this, I was like, ‘you know what? I just want to be different and distinct,’” Coronado says. “It was like a new person starting a new chapter, and for some reason, it’s just happened.”

Name: Optimus Volts (real name: Isaac Coronado)

Born: Chula Vista, California

Age: 45

Fun Fact: His artist name is a mixture of the early name he’d use while doing graffiti (Volts) and Optimus Prime, a character on the popular ’80s animated series, “Transformers.” His custom lucha libre masks often have a tweaked version of the emblem for the Autobots, the protagonists on the show.

Combs is a freelance writer.