CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Day after day, abuse is hurled at the art of Oscar Olivares.
Rubber bullets and tear gas canisters clatter off protesters' shields adorned with his works — cartoon-like digital paintings that have made him an instant icon for the demonstrators who have taken to Venezuela's streets in recent weeks to oppose the socialist government.
Olivares received a standing ovation at a recent event by former colleagues of volunteer paramedic Paul Moreno, who died in May after being crushed by a truck while attending to injured protesters. In Olivares' hands, Moreno is immortalized as 24-year-old clinching his fist high the air while walking through a cloud of tear gas with Venezuela's colorful flag trailing behind.
Another popular creation, called the "Heroes of Liberty," depicts the more than 50 victims of this year's protests — along with victims of previous unrest in 2014 — standing alongside independence hero Simon Bolivar and other national icons smiling widely and staring into a sky full of white doves.
"I wanted to show in my artwork the sort of country we can have one day," said the 20-year-old artist, who could barely mumble his first words when Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999. "I wanted to send a message of hope, something positive that would encourage people to stay on the street and struggle."
The young artist said he was inspired by a personal tragedy that hit just as he was achieving a bit of personal triumph. He was in New York as perhaps the youngest exhibitor at the vast Artexpo in April when he got word that a childhood friend had been killed in one of the earlier protests that broke out against the government of Nicolas Maduro.
His next work paid homage to his friend, Juan Pernalete, who witnesses said was killed after being hit in the chest with a tear gas canister fired by a national guardsman trying to control a demonstration.
Renderings of other fallen youth soon followed, transforming Olivares into the so-called "painter of the protests." His Twitter following jumped and adhesive printouts of his pictures embellish some of the homemade shields that the young demonstrators wield in almost-daily clashes with security forces. In more than two months of unrest, at least 70 people have been killed and 1,300 injured.
Prior to the protests, the self-taught Olivares explored lighter themes. At Artexpo, he exhibited a mixed media print of Spiderman talking on a cell phone while sitting on an iron railing lunching on a Venezuelan arepa.
He first gained attention as a teenager for works glorifying the country's soccer heroes. And he's noted for works with religious themes. His depictions of the Virgin Mary have been especially popular with the protesters. He still works from his boyhood bedroom, surrounded by comic books and plastic action figures.
He said he doesn't mind seeing his creations defaced as a result of the street scuffles.
"I'd rather it be the shields that take a beating than my fellow Venezuelans," he says.
Fabiola Sanchez is on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/fisanchezn