With his head anchored to the floor, Paco Rosic spins around like a top. Above him, God is creating Adam. His body twists and turns to the rhythm of James Brown’s “Sex Machine,” while the origins of mankind look down upon him. Minutes go by and he’s still going at a dizzying speed as the vivid colors on the ceiling swirl in abstraction. Paco’s life is moving as fast as his feet these days. It seems the world can’t get enough of the b-boy dancing artist who recreated the Sistine Chapel with spray paint. Rosic is taking graffiti art away from the urban underground and bringing it to Main Street U.S.A., even re-naming it “aerosol art.”
The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Italy’s version of USA Today (Corriere della Sera), ABC News, MTV and NPR, as well as tens of thousands of people from around the globe have come to see it: the story of more than 400 characters stretching across this curved, plaster ceiling, a sea of Biblical scenes like the Great Flood that seem as never-ending as this artist’s talent… 2,500 square feet of fascination and awe. It’s the first reproduction of the original masterpiece in 500 years.
And no, it’s not Italy, it’s Iowa. It’s not a Vatican chapel; it’s a vacant building on Commercial Street in Waterloo. It took Michelangelo four torturous years on his back to paint the Sistine Chapel. Paco did his version in four months at the age of 27. Michelangelo was 37 when he laid down the brush. The likeness between the original and the remake is incredible and unmistakable. Rosic’s is half the scale and not quite as detailed, but the colors are brighter than Michelangelo’s fresco.
Paco started where the Italian finished in 1512, and ended where the master began in 1508. He used brown to outline the foundation. Then, added multiple layers of brightly-colored paint creating brilliant lines, shadow and dimension. For ten to fifteen hours a day, Rosic put on his gas mask, climbed the scaffolding and used can after can of Krylon. He stopped counting after 2,000. He spent thousands of dollars out-of-pocket, until the company heard about Paco’s project and decided to sponsor it. Krylon now sends six-packs of spray paint by the dozen to his home for free. He created nine Genesis stories before put the finishing touches on Joel, the tenth and final prophet featured in the Sistine Chapel.
Paco didn’t copy the Sistine Chapel from a book or by using stencils; he memorized it. “The Sistine Chapel is a different language,” Rosic says. “I learned the Renaissance style by reading Michelangelo’s art.” Rosic flew to Italy before beginning his project. It was the first time Paco had seen the Sistine Chapel. “I walked in there, looked up and it was like my whole life flashed before my eyes.”
When he got back home and told friends and family he was going to recreate the masterpiece, most thought he was nuts. But this was not a publicity stunt or an attempt to prove anyone wrong; it’s something he’s wanted to do since he was six. “I can tell you the exact day when this all started. I was sitting in my mom’s lap. We were listening to Mozart’s “Turkish March” and looking at a book of Michelangelo’s art. The sun was shining through the window onto our fish tank. All the colors were amazing. Then I turned to the page with the Sistine Chapel, and I just knew. If Michelangelo could do it, I knew I could too.”
Finding the right canvas would be a long and painful journey. Paco was born in Bosnia. In the early 1990’s, Yugoslavia was a disaster. A vicious civil war split the country along ethnic lines. The Rosics moved from safe house to safe house, bribing soldiers and depleting all their savings. Amidst the bombings and gunfire, Paco learned how to draw. His first art exhibit was at an area hospital full of children who’d been hit by shrapnel during the war. He painted birds on the wall, a symbol of hope, that one day they’d all be able to escape the violence.
Paco was 12 when he and his family got out. Penniless but proud, they began building a new life in Ludwigshafen, Germany, a city that opened its arms to the Bosnian people. Paco was young, impressionable, and most of all, free. He learned German, went to high school and found his first love – dancing. The hip hop movement in Germany in the mid-1990’s was similar to the beat movement of the 1960’s in the Bay Area. In this case, artists/writers, deejays, dancers, and emcees all shared ideas and energy. Paco spent up to fifteen hours a day practicing his moves and joined a group of b-boys called the Unique Wizzards. They cut up the underground scene, eventually earning the right to perform with major acts like The Roots and Naughty By Nature. Paco’s reputation as a head-spinner turned heads in venues around the country. “I think I fell from my mom’s stomach and started spinning,” he jokes.
At a dance party, he met a graffiti artist nicknamed “Paco.” Rosic later took that name as a tribute (His birth name was Evelin). German taggers called aerosol cans “weapons” and graffiti “beautiful writing.” Paco learned to paint by practicing with the best on the streets doing paid gigs on buildings, tunnels and trains. But just as he reached his artistic stride, Paco was told to pack his things. The war in Bosnia was over and Germany gave the refugees two weeks to head home. But that was impossible for the Rosics. Dad was Muslim and Mom was Catholic Orthodox. A divided Bosnia was not an option. They had family in Iowa and were granted an American visa. They had time to pack two bags and were forced to leave everything else behind.
For Paco, who had just graduated high school in Germany, it meant learning another language and culture in an artistically tired town. Nothing mattered anymore. He sunk into a deep depression, spending much of his time locked in the basement. The first six months in the U.S. were awful. “We were so poor. We had no money,” Paco says. “It’s very embarrassing, but late at night my brother and I would go looking for pennies in parking lots in our neighborhood. We’d search all night until we found enough to pay for a burrito at the gas station.”
Eventually, Paco and his family got jobs with Hy-Vee, a regional grocery chain. Paco worked in the produce section. He could show people where the watermelons were, but couldn’t carry a conversation. Then one day, he picked up an aerosol can at the store and found inspiration again in the sound of that little metal ball rattling around in the can. It was the dead of winter, but Paco was driven to paint. His garage turned into a Venice Beach-type mega-canvas of do-overs. With hands freezing and teeth chattering, he kept spraying. His neighbor back then was Terrance Bush, who worked late at an internet company. “I’d come home around midnight and fumes would be coming from the crack in his garage door,” Bush remembers. “Then this guy would come out with a weird looking gas mask on. But he was a ball of energy. I finally asked him, ‘What the hell are you doing, man?’”
“I told him, ‘I’m taking my life back,’” Rosic says.
Bush got a tour of the garage and loved what he saw. He bought a couple paintings, and convinced his company to look at Rosic’s art. His boss was blown away and gave Paco a thirty year advance to paint the business’s entire building. Paco’s money problems were over.
He found his identity again in painting. He did nudes, tango dancing, portraits, European landscapes; he truly can paint anything. Paco came up with his own style that he calls “abstract realistic,” where the subjects are recognizable, but their environment is not as clear. What he was doing was not graffiti anymore – it was as beautiful as pastel and elegant as oil, so he termed it “aerosol art.” Soon the whole city was talking about the kid who was wicked with the spray paint. More downtown businesses called for commissions. Paco did murals in restaurants, on building walls, he even tagged garbage trucks and buses. He painted the police chief and other officials at City Hall.
Waterloo, Iowa, is known for its John Deere plant and as the birthplace of the five Sullivan brothers, but now the town has a bigger star shining on the international map, thanks to a Bosnian refugee named Paco Rosic. “His ability to express universal thoughts, ideas and emotion through art, instead of language, has helped bring people in this diverse community together,” former Waterloo Mayor Tim Hurley says. “Paco’s art has helped wake up the old pride that people have here.” And now that Rosic has made it big, he’s determined to stay in small-town Iowa. “I swear to God, I’m staying in Waterloo. I want to bring artists from all over the world here. It’s my home, no matter what happens.”
As for the Sistine Chapel and the building on Commercial Street, Paco and his family turned it into a high-end restaurant with a lower-level lounge. The entire property serves as a gallery for Paco’s art – religious themed work in the dinning room, risque pieces adorn the sultry walls in the basement bar. The top story is his studio and flat, where the public can watch him paint and he can crash on the bed after a long night of work and a shot of Absinthe. He’s already planning his next big ceiling adventure. “It’s going to be four times bigger than the Sistine Chapel,” Rosic says. “I’m going to read the entire New Version Bible, study every character – there are more than a thousand of them. I want to know everything about them. Then, I’m going to paint them in modern times wearing modern clothes.”
He estimates the 20,000 square foot project will take several years. After that, he wants to do a ceiling paying tribute to American history. It will feature each war, all the presidents, the assassination of JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., Hurricane Katrina, and much more. “I love America,” Rosic says. “I wish other people would understand how great this country is. Everyone has a chance to reach their dreams here.” Once unsure about his place in this world, this artist armed with aerosol is now world famous. On the ceiling God is creating the sun and the moon. On the floor Paco is still spinning as fast as lightning. It’s all proof that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.
Written by: Ben Bamsey