Santurce, an up-and-coming neighborhood in San Juan, draws locals in their twenties and thirties, and increasingly, millennial travelers who like the still-rough-around-the edges vibe as well as the bars, restaurants and burgeoning art scene.
Murals make the most visible artistic statement in Santurce, a neighborhood that’s situated two to three miles, or a 20-minute walk from the popular Condado beach resorts.
Santurce’s outsized tableaus combine graffiti, comic book, caricature, sci-fi and contemporary art elements. Beginning artists such as Jonathan Ortiz, 22, create many of the larger-than-life images that decorate the facades of buildings, but a few of artists have had murals featured at Miami’s Art Basel.
Ortiz, facing his work of Christmas trees and a deer’s head veined with looping blue, gold and red, tells us that the painting is about the Christmas bonus. “In Puerto Rico the Christmas bonus used to be 30%. It went down to 8% and so did the deer.” Ortiz, whose street name is “Soap” because he kept getting his hands dirty learning techniques, left law school to study art in Puerto Rico.
In August 2014, Santurce’s Independent Artists Union hosted their fifth annual Santurce es Ley street festival. “We do this to bring awareness about Santurce and its artists,” says Alexis Bousquet, the festival’s director and curator. “These were abandoned buildings. We took them over, cleaned them up and made them look good with art.”
Several bands play Latin music, people dance and kids get their faces painted. One mural features a red Mercedes perched on a tongue; another showcases a reclining critter wearing a gold rabbit’s ear hat and an orange and purple striped shirt; another’s black and white ink-like swirls snake around the outside wall and doorway of a bar.
Santurce, Bousquet estimates, has more than 100 murals, large and small. Pointing to a corner building, Bousquet says “That building was closed for 30 years. Artists moved in and now the building is a gallery and a restaurant.”
While beauty in Santurce is clearly in the eye of the beholder, and many buildings still remain vacant, no one can deny that the influx of young artists has enlivened the neighborhood. Popular restaurants include Pa’l Cielo.In September a developer announced plans for 252 apartments, a 60,000-square foot retail space and a public park.
Nevertheless, as we leave the Condado Hilton Hotel for the August festival, the concierge warns us not to walk around Santurce at night. Our first taxi driver has no idea where to go, so she drops us off two blocks from the Hilton.
Our second cabbie Oscar, a long-time local who won’t tell us his last name, is unsure of where to drive, but perseveres. When he finds the murals and the crowds, Oscar says “I didn’t know so many people coming down here. It’s like a boom. They draw very nice. It’s beautiful.”
Back at the Condado Hilton, we reflect on San Juan’s newest trend over dinner at one of the city’s flagship restaurants, Pikayo. The exceptional fusion cuisine, a mix of Puerto Rican, European and African dishes, has made Pikayo a must for locals and visiting foodies for more than 22-years.