Like most people living through the explosion of drug cartel violence in Tijuana in the late 2000s, Ruanova and Barragán grew paranoid. You could see it in their art. Ruanova’s work at the time — “The F--- Off Project” — included bright, colorful paintings shielded by steely gates and teeth or painted over with the project’s titular epithet in bright red letters.
He also built large-scale metal sculptures with sharp edges that defended the spaces where they were installed. “Protect my space, protect my people, protect my stuff, protect my consensus,” he said back in 2009. “And when you start doing that, you realize when you protect yourself, you’re just giving more energy to this cycle.”
Barragán, meanwhile, constructed soft sculptures of baguette-style leather handbags shaped like chef’s knives.
In 2008 there were 844 homicides in Tijuana. San Diego, which sits just across the border and is comparable in size, had 55 murders that year. The frequent kidnappings and gruesome murders took a toll on Barragán and Ruanova. They were afraid to go out. They kept a gun in their home.
Just two years earlier, the New York Times had hailed Tijuana as the center of a “vibrant new art movement” during the landmark “Strange New World: Art and Design from Tijuana” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. That exhibition hosted 130 works from 41 artists, including Ruanova and Barragán. It was the pinnacle of U.S. interest in art from the Mexican side of the border.
By 2008, Tijuana artists — like much of the rest of the city’s residents — were bunkered in their homes, securing themselves behind locked doors.
“It was depressing,” Barragán said. “It was contaminating us as artists.”