Artist. Author. Filmmaker. Journalist. Maverick. Revolutionist.
Those are just a few of the words that can be used to describe Victor-Hugo Vaca Jr. Also, lucky in a way.
Vaca was born with the same name as the author of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Les Miserables.” That means that every day, hundreds of people across the globe accidentally stumble across his website.
He doesn’t take that for granted. Vaca uses his art to capture current events in a movement he has dubbed “modern-art-gonzo-journalism.”
“I’m creating a diary of the world on canvas,” he said, “and I’m telling stories that the mainstream media can’t or doesn’t want to tell.”
Although his work takes him all over the world, Vaca has a special place in his heart for Southwest Florida. He owns an apartment in Bonita Springs and participates in Marco Island’s annual Wet Paint Live fundraising event.
For this year’s Wet Paint Live last month, Vaca painted positive Chinese symbols as part of yet another one of his missions.
“Our country is pivoting toward Asia, and my website gets a lot of traffic from China,” he said. “So I want to paint welcoming messages and let them know that we’re a friendly country.”
Vaca’s passion for art began in an unlikely place: the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The academy has a way of figuring out a person’s latent talents, Vaca said, and for him, that talent was art.
“I don’t know how they were able to tell that I had this artistic talent, but they did, and soon I was painting banners for football games, posters and all sorts of propaganda,” he said.
He quickly became disillusioned with the Naval Academy after witnessing the hazing of a young female midshipman. A group of male midshipmen handcuffed the woman to a urinal in the men’s bathroom, took photos of her, taunted her and pretended to urinate on her, according to a Los Angeles Times article.
“It’s one of those things that I wish I had never seen,” Vaca said.
He left the Naval Academy shortly after that incident but used the leadership skills the academy had taught him to successfully oversee a large condo in Miami. It was then that Vaca became embroiled in a series of lawsuits that would change his life forever.
One of Vaca’s tenants, high on crack cocaine, jumped on his desk at work and proclaimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. The man promptly was fired from his job, and Vaca wanted to evict him. But the situation turned into a complicated series of lawsuits, and Vaca soon found himself fighting conflict of interest, corruption and censorship in the justice system.
At one point during the trials, which became colloquially known as “the Crackhead Jesus trials,” the presiding judge forbade Vaca from documenting his experience with the courts.
But he found a loophole in the judge’s orders. The judge specifically prohibited him from using “electronic media” but never said anything about art, and so modern-art-gonzo-journalism was born.
Vaca documented the entire proceedings through the titles of his paintings.
Later, after the lawsuits were settled, he turned his story into a graphic novel and a movie, “Crackhead Jesus: The Movie.” The film has attracted a cult following, often being shown alongside films such as “A Clockwork Orange” and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”
Inspired by his success with modern-art-gonzo-journalism, Vaca founded the Modern Art Music Movement, “an international coalition of artists, musicians, filmmakers and professionals using art, music, movies and live mixed-media event to raise awareness about social issues.”
Vaca was born with a form of synesthesia that enables him to see sounds as color — another stroke of luck. He paints canvases on stage while musicians perform, and he uses their music and current events to create original pieces. Vaca has performed with Rod Stewart and bands that have included Cheap Trick, Boston, Aerosmith and Goo Goo Dolls.
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