Anyone who’s ever been to Aruba likely remembers its well-deserved moniker: “One happy island.”
Aruba Art Fair founder Tito Bolivar offers tours of San Nicolas and its murals, created by artists from around the world. Photo Credit: TW photo by Jeri Clausing
And if Tito Bolivar has his way, visitors will also come to know it as “One happy art island.”
Though not an artist himself, Bolivar has spent much of the past five years helping to transform a former red-light district and oil refinery town about 20 minutes from the cruise port of Oranjestad into a street art mecca of sorts.
San Nicolas, whose Dutch-style historical buildings now feature huge, colorful murals, is home to the annual Aruba Art Fair, which brings some of the world’s most famous street artists to the island to paint and mentor local and other upcoming artists.
The rest of the year, Bolivar offers tours of the district, guiding visitors through the streets and relaying the stories behind the many paintings as well as the artists themselves. His passion is evident, both in his depth of knowledge about every piece of work and its creator as well as in his enthusiasm.
He began our tour at the entrance to the main street of San Nicolas, where there’s a mural that at first glance appears to be simply a woman’s legs crossed at the ankles and clad in fishnet stockings. But if you look closer, the stockings are really barbed wire, and the position of her legs represent the conflicts of workers in an area that used to be known for prostitution, he said.
A crab sculpture, another piece of art visitors will encounter on one of Tito Bolivar’s tours of the town’s art district. Photo Credit: TW photo by Jeri Clausing
Bolivar’s efforts to transform the area into an art district began, he said, during a trip to Colombia, where he first came across public art. After returning, he asked his mother why Aruba didn’t have any artist culture. We do, she said, there just isn’t any real forum or government-backed program to support it.
So he set about trying to change that, researching art programs and art fairs before going to the government to lobby for the creation of a public art program in Oranjestad. When officials suggested he instead focus on San Nicolas, he said he was surprised at first, then realized that by basing it there they could not only build up a public art program but also help elevate what had always been a rough part of the island that had almost become a ghost town after a nearby refinery shuttered.
In 2016, Bolivar launched the island’s first art fair, which has become an annual three-day event of expositions, food and music during which local and international street artists complete new works.
To date, more than 40 murals have been created in the neighborhood during the fairs.
Aruba Mural Tours offers tours and workshops in the San Nicolas art district, starting at $20.