Oscar Melgar

Oscar Melgar and Jesús Javier Jaime, Untitled (Kingsley United FC bus), 2006

Oscar Melgar and Jesús Javier Jaime, Untitled (Kingsley United FC bus), 2006

At the age of 14 Oscar Melgar (b. 1968, Panama City) began to work as an apprentice with Andres Salazar, one of the fathers of the art of bus painting. In 1984 he obtained a degree in Visual Arts from the Ganexa Institute of Fine Arts in Panama City. While studying, he faced criticism from faculty and peers that pointed to him as merely a bus painter and not a ‘real artist’. In a local art competition in which he placed second, one of the jurors said that had it not been for his involvement with the bus painting, he would have won first prize. Despite this dilema, Melgar decided to continue decorating buses. Today he is one of the most important artists in the field. He is responsible for the decoration on 80 per cent of the buses circulating Panama City.

In Panama, public buses are called 'red devils' because their speed is often reckless and many of them appear completely covered by airbrush paintings with predominantly vibrant hues. These paintings are thematically distributer over the bus's body following a strict canon: on the back: an iconic figure (ranging from catholic virgins to pop singers and sports stars); on top, an Alpine or Oriental landscape: on the windows, the names of drivers past and present girlfriends; on the sides. Proverbs and witty phrases, and so on, all surrounded by proliferating baroque ornamentation. Although ruled by a fixed structure, painters such as Melgar find room to express their imagination via creative designs and their distinctive rendering of portraits, phrases and scenes.

Buses are also painted in other countries, including Haiti, Indie and Philippines, but Panamanian 'red devils' are the most extreme case of vernacular horror vacui. Each driver decides the motifs he wants for his vehicle and pays for them: the more profuse the bus is painted, the prouder its driver. a consistent style has ben established, which combines pop art and baroque poetics, images and words. However, each painter has his personal touch, techniques and reputation.

In a city in which over 40 percent of the population does not have a car, buses are an integral part of daily life. The commercial bus companies track the arterial roads in and out of the city centre, whereas the community transport buses service the hard-to-reach communities.

Artists in Panama work closely with bus owner and drivers to choose images with which to decorate their buses. In Liverpool, passengers from both commercial services and Liverpool's Community Transport Network were invited to propose the icons, landscapes and heroes with which to decorate their buses.

Their suggestions were interpreted and translated by Oscar Melgar and co-artist Jesús Javier Jaime in their own distinctive visual language. The highly decorated buses travelled around the city, their personal and individual designs offering a stark contrast to the corporate advertisements usually emblazoning the city's public transport. The identity of each bus carried a resonance for its passenger community and as they travelled their paths and routes crossed and intertwined.

Oscar Melgar at Liverpool Biennial 2006

Oscar Melgar and Jesús Javier Jaime 
Untitled , 2006
Artist-Painted Buses 
Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial 2006

Supported by

Northwest Regional Development Agency 
Visiting Arts
Arts and Business New Partners 
Stagecoach Merseyside
Kingsley United Football Club
Liverpool Community Transport 
South Central Community Transport
Merseyside Deaf Association 
Seel Street Studios Limited
Auto Paint and Panel Ltd
Get Gassed, Mobile Vehicle air-conditioning specialist 
HMG paints LTD