As Ruben Sanchez steps on to the cherry picker, armed with a spectrum of brightly coloured spray cans, a crowd slowly gathers below him. The machine gradually elevates the artist so that he stands 20 feet high, face to face with the enormous wall in front of him.
Suddenly, with a whip of his wrist, he begins sketching huge outlines of a scene that, at first, is hard to distinguish.
However, in just a few hours, the Spanish street artist has transformed a plain, lifeless looking wall in Jumeirah Lake Towers (JLT), Dubai, into a huge brightly coloured scene with cubism-influenced images of Arab culture.
From the steady swaying of the artists’ wrist, which results in an eruption of colour on to the wall, a silhouette of a woman sitting by a camel takes shape, and, slowly, the form of a man on a horse…
People below are talking excitedly about what they are seeing take place in front of their eyes, snapping photos and calling their friends.
Someone soon explains that Ruben is working in conjunction with a non-profit organisation – ING Creatives, which aims to inspire, network and generate UAE-based creative minds – to paint a creative wall for the community, and that he is doing it for free, for the love of street art.
But what they don’t know is that it has taken Ruben a long time to get up on to that cherry picker, that it’s been one exciting journey which started all the way back in the early Nineties, on the streets of Madrid, Spain.
According to his website, Ruben was ‘kidnapped’ when he was 14 years old by hooded skateboarders and street artists. The ‘kidnappers’ left a note for his parents that read: “We got your kid, cheers – graffiti and skateboarding.”
“Actually, I wasn’t really kidnapped in the true sense of the word.” Ruben says, with a smile. “I suppose it’s like a metaphor for how the streets shaped me and my art.”
In 1993, when he was 14, Ruben began to be influenced by the skate parks and graffiti scene in Madrid. Often skipping lessons to spend time with the skaters and artists there, he was enraptured by the artistic lifestyle that blossomed in the hidden areas of the city. He was thus adopted by the street and its people, and was soon trying his hand at graffiti.
“As a kid, it [graffiti] started more like a game. It was about who was spreading his name more, who was doing it higher, bigger, in harder places, all around the city. But with time, you start caring more about style, colours, possibilities, and creativity,” says Ruben.
Although officially illegal in Spain, graffiti is widespread on the streets, with artists ‘painting on the run’, decorating walls and skate parks with multi-coloured letters and images.
“In Europe graffiti artists must pay hefty fines if they get caught, and in the UAE they can go to jail,” says Ruben.
“Since it is quite new in Dubai, it seems like street art and graffiti is only designated to some areas and under some conditions,” he explains.
Ruben never studied art in school, but learnt through friends he hung out with on the street. “I used to skate with one friend, and he was the guy who gave me my first brushes and showed me some new styles. Since then I’ve been developing and finding my own style.”
Today, as he lounges on a sofa at the Tashkeel art studios in Dubai, where he spends his time designing and creating art for clients, Ruben Sanchez, now 35, still give thanks to the street.
“The street allowed me to interact with its people and their stories. I learnt to play the guitar, to skate, and it gave me the foundations I needed to find my artistic style. I started with letters and words, but soon moved on to images I found interesting,” he explains.
Since then, Ruben has been paying the streets back for its mentoring role by creating some of the most beautiful and captivating street art in Europe and the Middle East; splashing colourful art on to houses and neglected walls that tell stories of forgotten years, with a soulful and modern twist. Take for example the mural he painted in Al Fahidi district when he first moved to Dubai.
“I was fresh in the city, absorbing the culture and swayed by the Arab geometric patterns. If you mix all this you will get that mural. I love that area and surroundings, it’s real, with lots of street life and things happening.
“[That] area is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Dubai, and through this image of a man relaxing by the fire, I have tried to depict what life must have been like a hundred years ago for the Iranian immigrants who lived there,” explains Ruben.
Ruben has always been inspired by his surroundings and incorporated that into his art. Born and raised in Madrid, he was 16 when he left school fully – much to the displeasure of his parents – and decided to follow his passion. “My parents were like, you’re quitting school but you’re going to start working. You’re not going to live the lazy life,” says Ruben. And so he got by working odd jobs and supporting himself while focusing on street art in his free time.
When he was 21, Ruben moved to Barcelona – the heart of street art and skating in Europe during the Nineties. There he developed his style by learning from other street artists, however had to juggle his passion with working as a graphic designer (which he learnt from studying on the internet) to pay the bills.
So, when two years ago he got a call from the contemporary art organisation, Tashkeel offering him a chance to move to Dubai and develop his art with the centre, he didn’t hesitate.
Two years into his sponsored residency – during which time he has been painting commissioned art for clients of Tashkeel –the Spanish artist is lighting up the streets of Dubai in his free time with a flare that the city has never seen before.
Just last month, Ruben completed his third enormous mural in the UAE – a brilliantly colourful and captivating piece in JLT.
Working with ING creatives – a non-profit company that supports artists in the UAE – Ruben has waited one year to get the green light to paint the wall and it has been no easy feat to make it happen.
“I’m really happy to see how people have supported this project, just for the love of art. ING has organised everything and fought for over a year to get permission to paint this wall, not expecting anything in return, it’s remarkable,” says Ruben.
Indeed, ING Creatives is a unique concept in the UAE and the only one of its kind. Its founder, Ramy Alwaasy, believes in building a community in the UAE for creatives who have talent and passion, but lack the proper means to pursue their dreams.
“We talked about how there are such massive opportunities laying right between our hands, yet due to a lack of a creative collaboration, most of these opportunities are being lost,” explains Raami.
In the case of the mural in JLT, ING channelled Ruben’s passion and ideas through to DMCC, in order to make his vision become a reality.
Says Raami: “I think – and hope – what we have achieved is going to make it easier for graffiti artists all over Dubai to propose projects in the future.”
The tricky balancing act comes with negotiating the visions of an artist and those financing the project. Ruben never wanted the wall to be about branding or advertising. Companies such as adidas offered to finance the wall in exchange for its logo to feature in the mural. But Ruben refused.
“We wanted to keep it as independent as possible, to represent and reflect the community, for it to be for the people, by the people,” explains Ruben.
Thanks to the artists’ selfless vision, the dedication of ING and its work with the JLT facilities management provider, Concordia, who financed the project, this vision has become a reality.
An original and standout project in Dubai, the community came together to watch Ruben step on to the cherry picker machine in February to design and paint the enormous wall in cluster V, JLT.
Over the course of a week, people gathered in awe as Ruben worked on his mural, turning a plain wall into a bright and iconic site in Dubai.
“It’s supposed to be like a still life of a love story,” explains Ruben. “This guy on a horse is playing the oud trying to win the girl’s love, you know?”
The sight attracted photographers, skaters, and other creative minds and almost looked like an organic street-art scene you might find in European cities.
With the work of ING, these innovative projects may well become more and more prevalent in Dubai. The company is hosting a conference this month in Dubai Knowledge Village Conference Centre & Auditorium from March 27-28, with key speakers from around the world including renowned artists, designers and photographers, who will be giving motivational TED-style talks for aspiring creatives in Dubai. There will also be workshops and chances to network and get coaching from experienced members of the international creative community.
The Spanish artist admits that he could not have accomplished his mural in JLT without the work of ING.
And the residents certainly seem glad that it all came together, with streams of comments on Facebook celebrating the achievement.
As Ruben steps off the cherry picker, I point to the intriguing scene blazoned on the wall.
“So, does the guy get the girl?” I ask.
“Oh, that’s in the next mural…” he says laughing. “You’ll just have to wait and see.”
To see more of Ruben Sanchez’s work visit www.iamrubensanchez.com or follow him on Instagram @zoonchez