If you’ve spent any time on Instagram lately, chances are you’ve seen the name Ugly Primo come across your timeline. Within three weeks of starting his Instagram account, the young artist (who wishes to remain anonymous) had already launched a collaboration with Bad Bunny. The fourth post on the profile featured the Puerto Rican rapper reimagined as the Energizer Bunny, sporting Gucci flip-flops and banging on a drum with the word “Chambea.” It quickly caught the eye of Benito Martínez Ocasio himself, and led Ugly Primo to design official merch and clothing for the Latin trap superstar.
Similar to El Conejo Malo’s rapid-fire rise, Ugly Primo quickly amassed a loyal following. “Bad Bunny liked my stuff because it was funny,” he tells Remezcla in an interview. “Within the first three weeks, one of the biggest Latino artists in urban music right now hit me up to work. That was dope. It’s pretty unheard of. I didn’t believe it.” Beloved Chicano indie star Cuco, another artist whose career has exploded in the last year, soon became a fan and commissioned Ugly Primo to design the artwork for his Chiquito EP.
Scrolling through Ugly Primo’s Instagram profile, you’ll find an immediately identifiable visual style: bright, colorful illustrations and whimsical, tongue-in-cheek puns using Latino pop culture icons, like Walter Mercado at the mercado, El Chapo as “Chapo-Lín Colorado,” and Elvis Crespo as the face of the fictional fabric softener Suavemente. Ugly Primo uses a puppet dressed as a cholo as the face of the project, taking photos with celebrities and appearing in original memes. The creator describes his style as “digital meme art,” which reflects the diverse influences of someone who grew up Latino in Southern California. “I grew up with so many influences and inspirations, from Cantinflas to Richard Pryor, from watching Star Wars movies to watching novelas. It was a big melting pot for me,” he describes. “I took all these things and merged it all together.”
And of course, one significant influence was music. The illustrator grew up in Riverside, California, where he started designing as a necessity. In high school, he needed to create flyers for the events he was throwing as a member of a party crew. His love for music blossomed into DJing and eventually booking concerts for artists like Anderson .Paak and Odesza before they blew up. All the while, he was creating original artwork for these events. “Music and art go hand in hand,” he explains.
As a DJ, Ugly Primo learned to curate and connect to a diverse set of people, a skill that he was able to apply to his digital art and Instagram project. And as a Chicano growing up in Southern California, he was introduced to gangsta rap, oldies, and lowrider culture, but was equally impacted by bands like Rage Against the Machine and the Celia Cruz songs he heard at home. These musical inspirations existed alongside his love of street artists like Banksy and a passion for his cultural background. He found inspiration in pop art figures like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, as well as the green and hot pink houses he saw around his predominantly Latino neighborhood as a child.
Yet he noticed there was little to no representation of this particular collision of references in the art world. That’s when he decided to launch Ugly Primo as a way to create light-hearted pieces that bridged these cultural gaps. He quickly realized he wasn’t alone. “I would go to Mexico and I’m a gringo to them, and then I’m here and I’m too Mexican, so I’ve always been somewhere in between. I know there’s hella other people like me, that grew up like me, and were raised here, and we all understand the same references,” he says.
But his art isn’t just for young Chicanos; illustrations include Maradona eating donuts, Celia Cruz-branded azúcar, and a Don Francisco Valentine’s Day card. They’re all intended to showcase easily recognizable cultural signifiers, set in witty contexts and catering to a wide, intergenerational audience.
“People always DM like, ‘My grandma understands this. Thank you for being able to make something I can relate to and the rest of my family can relate to,’” the artist explains. “What matters most to me is being able to show my mom or my grandparents or aunts and uncles and they’ll get it.”
Through humorous digital art pieces that take advantage of memes while also tapping into nostalgia around Latino pop culture, Ugly Primo’s work references shared cultural experiences that also engages with our current musical icons. Traditional art spaces may not call it contemporary art – at least not yet – but to the illustrator, that doesn’t matter. “When I make a piece, it’s a reflection of me, something I grew up with,” he says. “There’s a lot of people I make art for – the underrepresented communities in Latino culture.”