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New York is a city with real character, mythologized in countless novels, plays, movies, and songs. But while most characterizations focus on the city as a whole, one artist has imagined a world where New York’s most recognizable buildings are players in an urban drama.
Brooklyn-based artist Diego “Rombo” Salazar’s New York Titans series takes structures like the Empire State Building, Freedom Tower, Chrysler Building, the Supertall Billionaire’s Row Towers and Hudson Yards and casts them as fellow New Yorkers who meet, date, mate, fight, and dine with the rest of us.
Rombo, a graduate of the prestigious Cooper Union was inspired by his training as an architect to think about buildings beyond their basic structural design. “I started having these ideas in 2016, right after I graduated from architecture school in New York,” said Rombo. “I had this whole concept about architecture being a sort of mask that we wear on our heads. And I began to imagine it quite literally, imagining the buildings of New York as characters and wondering if they would like each other, would they be lovers, enemies — clearly they wouldn’t all like each other — it just sounded really fun.”
Rombo’s large-scale drawings range from the playful and sometimes salacious to somber and provocative, which the artist explained is reflective of New York’s prominent role in society as a whole. He said: “I wanted to cover contemporary topics that are relevant to today’s time — not just necessarily, only about New York, but the world at large. These characters could be a way for me to tell stories about our time.”
Two of the city’s newest “characters” are the Billionaire’s Row Supertall towers on W57th Street, which immediately caught Rombo’s eye and inspired his piece Supertall Supermodels. “They changed the skyline so dramatically, so when I was thinking of characters for these super tall buildings, I couldn’t help but think that they were a bit superficial — they’re so elegant and expensive and tall and skinny. I thought that these characters would match the energy of some supermodels and the superficiality of that industry. I decided to do a piece where they’re having a fun evening of dancing and drinking while the rest of the city is way below them,” he said.
Hudson Yards is also prominently featured in the artist’s piece, A New Vatican. “New York is the new Rome of the modern age,” said Rombo. “It is the new capital of the world, with the most global influence. The Hudson Yards development on the west side of Manhattan is one of the most lucrative projects ever built. With a price tag of $25 billion, it is definitely the most expensive in US history.” In New Vatican, Rombo seeks to explore the correlation between the West Side’s gilded, glossy towers with the Vatican in Rome, which in its time, was also one of the most expensive projects ever. “This piece is an encounter between four of the first towers of Hudson Yards visiting the Vatican and placing Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel at the center of St. Peter’s Plaza, claiming themselves as the New Vatican,” he added.
Other inspiration came from the city’s darkest days, including the height of the pandemic. In one piece, Central Park is reimagined as a hospital treating some of the city’s oldest buildings. “It was a response to the pandemic when the makeshift hospital went up in the park. I purposely chose older, iconic, recognizable buildings — to symbolize the older people that were suffering the most from the first wave.”
Another compelling work, The City vs The People, addresses the unrest around the murder of Eric Garner – symbolized through the use of buildings like One Police Plaza, the Manhattan Court House, and a housing project. “Police brutality has been happening forever, but it’s a very relevant topic. I also wanted to address the greater problems beyond just the police — how on a systematic institutional level, these things are allowed to happen.” On a similar vein, he’s also created a piece where the Chrysler Building battles Trump Tower.
One of Rombo’s most powerful pieces is his New York triptych illustrating before, during, and after 9/11. The first piece of the three draws on a nautical theme — in1985: A Beautiful Day in Lower Manhattan, “I wanted to capture the original captains of the city,” said Rombo. “Because if the island of Manhattan was kind of like a ship, the captains to me were these powers at work. Then in 2001: End of An Era it’s right before the tragedy, and there’s this anonymous hand coming into the corner — because to me it doesn’t really matter who did it, it just matters that it happened,” he added.
The third piece, 2021: Into the Storm, addresses the rocky waters the city has navigated in the time since 9/11 and will navigate in the decades to come. “The Freedom Tower is now the new captain of the ship, and they’re in a storm — it’s a piece that is also a bit inspired by climate change,” he added.
While Rombo’s current work is deeply rooted in New York, he began his artistic journey in his home country of Mexico. “I was born in Mexico City and grew up in Cancun. I started drawing on my own when I was four, and took lessons for several years while living there,” he said. “But I didn’t consider myself an artist until many years later.”
Aged 12, his family moved to West Palm Beach, Florida, where Rombo was able to attend the well-regarded Alexander W Dreyfoos School of the Arts. “I’d wanted to be an architect since I was little,” he said. “ At Dreyfoos, they introduced me to the Cooper Union in New York. I applied there and miraculously got into the School of Architecture.”
While Rombo enjoyed his time at the architecture school, his post-grad work was less creatively fulfilling than he’d hoped. “I started working for some firms and was very disappointed by the industry. A lot of work, not enough expression, competitive, and not super well-paid.”
“I began missing that creativity and started making art again on the side. I had a realization that for me to be the architect I have to gain recognition and develop my creativity first. And I thought, well, I should be an artist first, make a name for myself as an artist. I was dead set on being an architect — and in some ways I still am, I’m just being a little more patient. I think it’s going to come later in life,” he said.
Taking the plunge into full-time art wasn’t easy, but it’s been worth it. “This was a big gamble to make a name for myself with this series,” he added. As the series took off, he was inspired to create Studio Rombo, to collaborate with other artists in Oaxaca, Mexico and New York. “I started meeting artisans in Oaxaca to try to help them make sales in the States, as well as to collaborate with them, challenge them with my ideas,” said Rombo. “It’s an amazing network of artists. I think of it like a hip-hop label — a collaborative art form.”
Studio Rombo has had two recent exhibitions at Bryant Park’s Luxuny Atelier on W40th Street (just east of 6th Avenue), celebrating Rombo’s New York-focused pieces along with collaborations from Mexican artists, also serving as fundraisers for organizations that help children immigrating from Latin countries to New York. “It was a dream come true,” said Rombo, of the chance to display his very building-themed work amidst the backdrop of some of Midtown’s most recognizable towers. Having a show in 2021 “was very important to me,” he said, “because it also marked the 20 year anniversary of 9/11 and I wanted, especially for the New York pieces about 9/11, to mark that milestone.”
Rombo wants to expand his studio to represent up-and-coming artists across the globe, while finding ways to give back to his home country. “I want to apply that collaborative mentality to the visual arts and help people come up. Eventually I want to get back into architecture, but still keep this company going and growing. I want to start investing in my cool architecture projects in Mexico, and focus on things that people need like schools and parks, playgrounds, and other social needs.”
For now, however, he is focusing on his work at Studio Rombo and on the buildings of New York. “Studio Rambo is my baby — it’s the project of my life and I love collaboration,” he said. “To quote an old professor of mine, ‘We have to stop being individually genius, and start being collectively genius.’”