September 16, 2005

Local artist adds rhythm and heritage to your stamps

By Pablo Jaime Sainz

When he’s not working on a canvas or taking care of his three-year-old son Santiago, local San Diego illustrator Rafael Lopez likes to go out and dance the night off at salsa clubs with his wife Candice.

“I’m in love with Caribbean music and my wife and I fell in love again every time we dance to the rhymth of salsa or merengue or some other Latin beat,” he said.

It is that passion that Lopez feels for music and dancing that he tried to instill on the artwork he did for one of four stamps with Latin music motives recently released in observance of Hispanic Heritage Month (from September 15 to October 15) by the U.S. Postal Service.

Besides Lopez, three other Latino artists participated in the “Let’s Dance/Bailemos” Collection: Edel Rodriguez, with Cha-Cha-Cha; Sergio Baradat, with Mambo; and José Ortega, with Salsa.

Artist Rafael Lopez

And because he loves dancing, Lopez had the perfect musical background to do the painting used for the stamp paying tribute to merengue, the national dance of the Dominican Republic that blends European and African rhythms.

“I wanted viewers to feel the erotism, the sensuality that evolves around merengue,” he said. “I also wanted to use the warm colors of the Caribbean. I wanted to include drums, Africa. I wanted people to look at the stamp and say, ‘That’s the Caribbean, alright!’”

While working on the painting for the stamp, Lopez said that he was always listening to merengue, especially Juan Luis Guerra, a popular Dominican singer who revolutionized the sound in the early ‘90s.

“I’m always listening to music while I work,” he said. Lopez trully achieved his goal of transmitting the sensuality of merengue.

“Poised in characteristic attitude, Lopez’s dancers engage in the short sideways movements typical of merengue,” reads a statement from the U.S. Postal Service. “Tension shows in their muscular bodies as they move in tight embrace, their shoulders shifting left while their hips shift right. Their heads face away from their shoulders, and their hands are clasped. A tambora drum, hallmark of merengue, peeks up from the lower right side of the stamp, opposed on the left by palm leaves.”

Merengue, which is considered the national dance of the Dominican Republic, “was brought there by French and Spanish colonists and descends from a European style of dancing that appealed to the upper classes,” the statement says. “Eventually it was adapted by the country’s peasant population, which, included both European settlers and Dominicans of African descent who incorporated the tambora drum and a more rhythmic approach.”

Although the whole process from the first contact by the U.S. Postal Service to seeing the stamp completely designed took about five months, Lopez said the actual painting only took him four days to complete.

“First I did about 20 something sketches that I sent to the U.S. Postal Service. I worked very closely with the artistic director of this project.”

The real painting that was used for the merengue stamp measures 14 inches by 10 inches and it was painted on an old piece of wood “to give it a feel of it being an antique,” said Lopez, who added he was paid $5,000 for this project.

The son of architects, Lopez was born in Mexico City 44 years ago.

During his teen years his family moved to the Juarez/El Paso area where he attended high school.

Eventually he came to California to study illustration at the Arts Center in Pasadena.

“When I was starting I was always copying the style of other illustrators. I was doomed to become part of the crowd. So I decided to try to stand out.”

That’s when López and his wife Candice began to travel throughout Mexico and Latin America, meeting people, learning about the different cultures, and, above all, discovering a whole new way to see the world.

“I immediately was inspired by the textures on the walls of Mexico’s houses, by the warm Mexican colors, by the popular culture that sorrounded me,” López said.

That’s the reason why he considers his art to be “very ethnic, with lots of icons from Mexican and Latino popular culture,” he said.

The merengue stamp included in the U.S. Postal Service’s “Let’s Dance/Bailemos” Collection, is Lopez’s contribution to the community.

“There has been a lot of negative coverage of our community in the media lately, so I want this to be a positive contribution to the Latino community. I want young people to look at this stamp and feel proud about their rich heritage.”

If you would like to learn more about the art of Rafael Lopez, visit

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