Ricardo Cavolo The artist interested in portraying the B-side of society

Cover Image - Ricardo Cavolo
WordsAlix-Rose Cowie

While the A-side of a music record is reserved for the hits, the B-side hosts the songs that don’t quite fit. Spanish illustrator Ricardo Cavolo likes to play both. Despite his rise to fame as the artist behind Kaytranada’s 99.9% album cover, he’s most interested in portraying the B-side of society – outsiders, minorities or those treated as other because of their race, culture or way of life.

Ricardo Cavolo: 99.9% cover for Kaytranada
Ricardo Cavolo: 99.9% cover for Kaytranada

“I have a gypsy family,” he says, “so since I was a kid I’ve known that side of society. The side that nobody wants to look at, that people are scared of. I intend to show the magic and the beautiful things happening there.”

Recurring emblems like fire, hearts, birds and snakes fill the frame in Ricardo’s portraits of Kanye West, the cast of Star Wars, Frida Kahlo and many more. Through these motifs, he tells coded stories about his subjects. “All those symbols are giving information about that person, so people can ‘read’ how special he or she is and what’s happening in their life.”

His subjects often have multiple sets of eyes which he uses to show wisdom – the more you see, the more you know.

All of Ricardo’s works are done by hand, a process he likens to walking a tightrope without any safety net. “I need to feel the materials,” he says. “Touching the canvas, or the paper, feeling how the brush extends the acrylics is like having good sex.”

Ricardo works fast – as if lightning has struck his arm and he has to get the drawing out before the electricity runs out. “I want to charge people with energy and power,” he says.

There’s a surge of color in his paintings too. His palette is inspired by the illuminated manuscripts of 12th Century monks who used wild colors to portray the deeds of god and the devil.

Ricardo is not religious, but he uses religious iconography which he combines with mysticism, magic, and medieval and primitive art styles borrowed from cultures far from his own. And so, like in a dream where references collide, the scenarios in Ricardo’s work come from all the stories, all the art he has ever loved throughout his life.

“I read a lot, and watched millions of movies, and read thousands of comics and spent my whole childhood in loneliness,” he says. “That helps a lot to create a never-ending universe full of stories with amazing characters. What I show in my work is a mix made unconsciously in my mind of all that information I’ve been keeping in my head.”

Over time, the mood in Ricardo’s illustrations has transformed from triumphant to something more complicated. “I discovered myself as someone really melancholic, and if I want to be true within my work, it feels necessary to show that now,” he says.

“I was always interested in what's happening in the world in social terms, but now I use my work to speak about it. I like using art in that way, so people receive the message in a different channel.”

Words by Alix-Rose Cowie.