Why Domingo Zapata Is an Art-World Rock Star

By David Jenison on December 15, 2016

Before becoming a world-famous artist, Domingo Zapata was a Wall Street mover and shaker who invested in a record label, co-wrote lyrics for Michael Jackson and raised money for the online-dating software bought by When he turned to the brush and easel, the Spanish-born artist largely bypassed the traditional gallery circuit, building a following through social media and celebrity fans like Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio. Zapata, who recently signed a book deal with Simon & Schuster for a novel, also collaborates with designers like Steve Madden, paints portraits of often-nude female celebrities and dates beautiful women. And you might remember him as the painter who made all the gossip sites for dating Scarlett Johansson, among other starlets. The media often characterizes Zapata as the new Warhol, but with so many business ventures, an equally valid comparison might be an art-world mashup of Jay-Z and Shepard Fairey. 

Zapata’s work is a mix of neo-expressionism and pop art, and he proudly displays his creations in galleries, licensing deals and murals. Regarding the latter, the artist painted two street murals on election night in NYC’s Lower East Side in 2016. "I want my murals to be a gift to the city,” Zapata said, “something happy and beautiful that will make everyone smile, and make us remember that whatever happens, we are all humans who enjoy beauty and laughter and love.” Other public works include a flag-based mural in the WTC’s Freedom Tower and upcoming works in NYC’s landmark Plaza Hotel and in Rome at the newly restored Colosseum. PRØHBTD spoke with Zapata to learn more. 

Your Masters series includes a lot of Mona Lisa imagery. What themes and symbolism do you see inherent in the original painting, and in what ways do you play off those themes?

Well, in my opinion, Mona Lisa was the representation of beauty for [Leonardo] da Vinci. I like to look into masters from the past and provide contrast and make it contemporary almost like an explanation. That's why I do it, to explain all the different options that could have happened to the Mona Lisa through all the years and to express myself using contemporary materials and mediums. That's my point, to try to find a contrast between the past and present. 

You did a version of Guernica, a painting that depicted the bombing in Guernica, Spain. You also worked on a giant mural for the World Trade Center. What can art bring to places affected by tragedies?

Guernica was [Pablo] Picasso's representation of his disgust for Hitler and [Spanish ruler Francisco] Franco and what that brought to the world. This was obviously represented in the bombing of Guernica and how Franco let Hitler do whatever he wanted there, which was a disaster. Then when I did my own version of Guernica, I wanted to do contrast, but I still wrote concerns and poems on it. I used Bob Dylan’s writings about concerns we’ve had in the last 20, 30 years. 

For me, Freedom Tower was very special because I was living in New York, and even though I wasn't in town those days, I experienced what happened after. So yeah, it does have an influence. People have to keep in mind that it's a monument, and all these memories live there. What I wanted to do was not represent that but rather represent the union of New York or America and how we can evolve. That's why the series is based on the American flag, and again it's got writing and poems that are positive and honor the souls that were lost. 

When you paint, do you see an individual image in your mind, or do you see a full narrative and capture one moment from it?

I paint from moments that made me very happy. I try to represent everything that I love, but I don't want to make a political statement because I don't know that much about those things. I just want to make the world a little bit more beautiful and let other people make it better. I look at moments that are important for me and colors I like. Memories. There's no narrative. It’s more like capturing those moments that mean something for me.

Is it more difficult to paint or is your art dramatically different if the moment or memory is sad?

The head of an artist is sometimes like a roller coaster: You go down and you go up. The important thing is to feel something. When you're feeling sad, maybe you cry for a second and then you have this feeling of euphoria, so you can work on both of those, no? I don't want to stop feeling. I don't want to stop being sad, and I don't want to stop being happy. I need to experience both, and it’s important. I think a lot of people are losing that to prescription drugs, thinking, "Okay, I feel too low, I'm going to feel high now." We're losing the passion.

My girlfriend and I broke up in May, and I wanted to be sad because I wanted to know that I was in love and felt something. You cannot cancel your feelings even if you don't like them. It's only through this that you will feel euphoria and fall in love again and enjoy those beautiful moments that will come. That's how I see it when I work.

The media tends to characterize you as someone who parties and hangs out with celebrities. Do you feel this helps your profile, or does it create a negative stigma within the art community?

I don't know. At the end of the day… how do I say this? The art that you do is what you do. We live in a moment where there are a lot of changes through social media, and artists are, in a way, capable of showing their work and promoting themselves on their own. They can also reach people who might be interested in not only buying the artwork but also understanding it or learning about it or following it. This was not possible 20 years ago. 

Maybe some people don't like change, and they look for an excuse to criticize it, and they are free to do it. I have a good life. I'm a good father. I work many hours, and yeah, I love to go out and enjoy myself and meet people and socialize. This is me now and me 20 years ago. I'm not going to change because someone in the art world thinks hanging out with celebrities is not right. They criticized Andy Warhol [for the same thing]. Things have opened up to a very different spectrum of opportunities, and no matter what you do, there's going to be some people that like it and some that don't. You can't police everybody. I'm just going my own way trying to make it beautiful, and if they don't enjoy it today, maybe they will in a few years.

You socialize with people in many different creative avenues. When talking with a fashion designer or music artist or actor about their creative process, do you often see similarities to what you do with a paint brush?

Well, yeah, of course. Even with a chef being creative, it is about composition, and anybody that has a mind that understands composition can be creative. If you already do something creative and you are good at it, you can act, and I think you can paint, and you can cook, and you can sing, and you can do many other things. Maybe you won't be as successful as you are in other things, but that is not a matter of creation, that is more a matter of how you express yourself and how you transmit that energy inside of you.

You've collaborated with fashion companies like Steve Madden and Alice + Olivia, among others. When somebody approaches you about a fashion collaboration, what type of vision appeals to you?

I'm very specific, and I choose to do very few things in licensing and fashion. I need to have a good relationship and passion for the garment itself or the brand or the people designing it. From there, the energy grows, and we can create something together. I have known Steve [Madden] for a long time. He's a friend and a collector, and it took years until we finally decided to do something. Alice + Olivia is the same. I'm a big fan of [founder] Stacy Bendet, and I've known her for a long time. I look for projects like that, just working with designers that have so much magic. You can explore and create so many things.

I read that sometimes your kids make marks on your art. What is something cool one of your kids did to a canvas?

Sometimes from my mistake something magical happens. One time I had these paintings ready for my dealer from London to come and take them back. I left my son Paul, who was four or five at the time, around the studio, and he did his own collaboration with me. It wasn't much, a few touches here and there, and I thought, “Let's just see what happens.” I didn't have time to change it. When my dealer came, he said, "Oh, wow, there are new things here. I like it.” I did tell him what happened, and he still took them so that was a nice anecdote. My kids both love painting, and one of the greatest things about being an artist is that I can bring my kids to work any time. They have fun painting on their own canvases, and daddy just goes to work. It's beautiful. Like Picasso said, “Every child is an artist.” You just have to preserve it as they grow up.

You just landed a book deal for a novel titled The Beautiful Dream of Life. How much of the novel will be inspired by your life?

The novel is about the life of an artist so obviously I'm using experiences I lived to tell this story, though it is a fictional novel that exaggerates scenarios. It's a beautiful story about an artist who achieved his dream of becoming an established artist but has a void inside. One day he meets a girl, falls in love and the void is gone until he wakes up and realizes she lives in his dreams. Now he wants to sleep as much as possible so he can be with her, and then he gets obsessed with the idea that his life in the dreams is real life and his life awake is a dream. The whole book obviously talks about the industry, and there are anecdotes and stories, but it's a beautiful love story that you'll have to read to see what happens. 

Going way back, you rewrote lyrics to “The Macarena” and co-wrote lyrics for Michael Jackson. What exactly did you do with Michael Jackson?

The Michael Jackson songs were not released. He wanted to do a song in Spanish, a tribute to the Spanish-speaking community, so we worked on the song, and I had the honor to meet him. Unfortunately, the song was completed a couple months before Michael passed away, so that was the end of the story. I love writing poems and participated in many songs, but I was never a full professional. It was more like a hobby. 

Last question. Let's say you and a bunch of friends go to the desert for the weekend. If you can only bring one thing, would you bring wine, whiskey, weed or mushrooms?

I would bring all of them. I would get a little bit of wine, smoke a little bit of weed and then go through the mushrooms, and the next day I would have a shot of whiskey to deal with it.

David Jenison ( is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.

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