The Expat: Tranqui Yanqui

All things are bright and beautiful in Tranquilandia which artist Nick Mahshie created four years ago.
CV: Nick Mahshie aka Tranqui Yanqui
Born: Miami
Age: 27
Profession: Artist
Education: Fine arts degree at Rhode Island School of Design
Currently re-reading: The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain. Also The New Yorker and some Greek mythology
Last film seen: Toute la mémoire du monde
Gadget: My Kindle Fire

Why brought you to Argentina?
I studied in Italy and maybe I wanted to go back, but Buenos Aires was a cheaper, quasi-European version at the time and I figured I’d have the freedom to do my art somewhere different that wasn’t the US. That was four years ago.

Do you remember your first visit?
My first visit turned into me moving here and I had no idea I would stay as long as I did. I immediately became inspired by the edgier Buenos Aires, the struggling aspect to it, than I had been by Italy, refined with its good food, nice art, feel.
I came to do an artist’s residency in La Plata. It was a bubble, and all about having a studio and focusing on my artistic practice and seeing what came out of it. I was captured by street stuff, and people being resourceful, making things happen however it was possible, improvising, and the cartonero vibe.

What happened after La Plata?
After the four weeks, that got me in the mode of making art again and I just moved to Buenos Aires directly. I need to be in the city. It was a situation that worked out. A friend’s grandma lent me her apartment temporarily and the idea was to hang out and do my art from there. But I had no idea I would stay so long!
My friend had suggested I have tea with her. So I met her, and she said “don’t throw parties, pay the bills” and the next thing I knew I was preparing fashion shows and inviting photographers over! In the beginning we’d have tea once a week, I’d sweep up her patio while she was away and I lived in Villa Urquiza for three years…

Did you speak Spanish?
Not really, but I always had an ear for it as I’m from Miami. Plus the Italian studies I’d done in Rome had some influence, so when I speak Spanish it is very exaggerated and I really play with that.

Has it been a struggling-artist experience for you?
Totally, and it still is! This year I’m reaching a new point: I signed up for French classes and I bought my books! And I pay a real rent now! But in the beginning I did whatever to get by. Eating polenta, teaching English, doing translations.
One time, someone came to me from a language school as they had two Canadian visitors who wanted a tour of the city. I was fresh off the boat, here for a couple of months, and said “sure”. I met these architects and was talking, making up stuff about buildings and they said “that’s bullshit!” I did all kinds of stuff to sustain myself financially. Plus everything I did, Tranqui Yanqui wise, in the beginning was totally non-commercial. It was about me scraping together money in order to experiment with my art.

How did your Tranqui Yanqui alter ego appear?
I think it emerged in La Plata because I was fascinated by the idea that I was a yanqui boludo and that was the weight, no matter what, I was going to carry. So that name stuck and I decided in Buenos Aires to create an alter ego out of this stereotype. It just came together, and I had this fluorescent Uncle Sam character that I was acting out on weekends.
In the beginning it was about performance, so I’d be on the streets, interacting with people and getting them to scratch their heads then talk to me. Plus my Spanish was still pretty bad, but I played with it, and through the character it made sense.

What inspired the original outfits?
Being a starving artist here was very much like being a cartonero in the sense of being resourceful, taking stuff and creating something else. I had a little wheely cart and would fold up my cardboard wardrobe on to the back of it. I’d also carry a garbage bag which had different costume elements in it. As soon as I stepped out the door, the performance would begin.

What would you do?
I’d go to markets and set up paper closets filled with useless paper items, painted by hand, it was my art and I was playing with creating in-your-face useless. I just stood there, really. I was dressed like a clown so people would come up to me. I didn’t have a speech and just reacted to whatever came to me.
That moved onto a Tranqui performance on the subway, and I was interested in my role as an American jumping into this place I shouldn’t be in, selling cardboard jewellery on the subway. I had a speech then and it started that “due to the financial crisis, I’m making and selling these necklaces.” No one bought anything but I knew they wouldn’t!

Was living here therefore giving you a chance to be someone else?
Being away from the US gave me the chance to put a mirror on myself, and think about the exaggerated version of myself. So via Tranqui I could indulge in certain things I liked anyway — being goofy, bright colours, inspiration from Miami — so everything congealed in this weird Latin American character. There were no rules and I guess what held me back from this previously, say, at art school, was that there were always rules. You were always criticising and filtering before you did anything. And here, I thought “I can just wear a cardboard outfit, go out on the street and see what happens.”
And that’s how it got going — by not having shame or fear — and I had nothing to lose.

Where was Tranqui well received in the early days?
It depended where I was. In Recoleta, people would approach me about my “art project” and talk to me about the social dynamic of what I was doing. And in Once I was just another crazy person in their neighbourhood! I did get kicked out of Mataderos and Palermo. And Tranqui never really fit into San Telmo.

What has kept you here?
I feel more comfortable here than I do anywhere else. I have more freedom, and that’s the biggest thing, I feel freer to do stuff. And people are less critical: “oh that’s been done.” Here, everything is appreciated.

What has inspired your work?
I’ve been working at a new studio in Constitución, and have been inspired by my new “neighbours” to do vagina paintings! But I’m still working on cardboard, and the tropical pop world I grew up in.
The street aspect, whether it’s the cardboard or the collectors, the transvestites or prostitutes, whatever, also comes together with this colourful pop world.

What are you working on?
Tranqui went from making useless paper clothes to real clothes, such as tank tops, and I’m making limited edition designs for a shoe company which will come out next summer. I want to make some hoodies, and am collaborating with a pop-up restaurant which wants some Tranqui intervention. So I’m going to design a street stall for their food.
But I still work on vintage ideas, such as cardboard colectivo glasses, which is the engine for inspiration and keeps me excited.
And occasionally I get other commissions, which involves paint and is better than giving tours!
Of course, if Disney approached me to build Tranquilandia, I’d say sure let’s talk about this! The whole idea is that Tranqui has been a sell-out since he started!

How did you find your studio?
Nigel, who is a painter, runs it and treats it as cultural space in the neighbourhood which hasn’t previously existed. He found me, and invited me to have a space for a few months and to put on an exhibition.

Where do you live?
In Congreso, so I cycle to my studio on my collapsible bicycle. The place I live in was used by the editor of WKD magazine, another person in this underground culture of art in Buenos Aires, which has helped to sustain me.
We threw a St. Patrick’s Day event, and I painted a giant mural which people in the surrounding barrio can see. I put up scaffolding, and had people whistling at me from other buildings.

What do you do in your spare time?
I go out a lot less as Tranqui these days and as me, I like to go to a house party with good vibe and good people. Ping pong night is cool and I always go out on Critical Mass. I might go to the Malba or to see a film. And I play baseball for the Shankees! We beat the Koreans last weekend.

For more about Tranqui playing for the Shankees, click here.
Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on April 15, 2012
Photo by Mariano Fuchila

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