Australian Muralist Pepa Llama Paints the Good Life One Mural at a Time
Surfing muralist Pepa Ivanoff, also known as Pepa Llama (or Pepa Mate to her most beloved friends) is a fabulously talented, down-to-Earth and eclectic Australian artist that splits her time between painting murals, stamping her passport, surfing, riding horses and smiling from ear-to-ear.
Australians have a reputation for traveling the world. Well, Pepa, doesn’t need to worry about losing her Aussie credentials. She’s been on walkabout for over two decades traipsing across the globe, especially in the western hemisphere, throughout North, Central and South America. Wherever there are waves to catch, people to meet, food to eat and scenes to paint, Pepa has it in or on her bucket list.
I – the author – had the pleasure of working alongside Pepa over 10 years ago at a snowboarding magazine in San Diego where she was a graphic designer. Since then Pepa decided to check out of the hustle and bustle of California life for the quiet surrounds of Costa Rica where she’s spent the last decade working remotely with bare feet sensibilities and a sun-kissed lifestyle.
She’s a feral surfer girl that totally has her act together and makes a fine living as a highly sought-after muralist.
This very month while visiting Cardiff, CA, Pepa finished her 250th mural. I’ve been looking for an excuse to interview Pepa for Artistic Fuel for a while now and a 250th mural milestone seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Pepa is a lovable and eccentric character — sort of a cross between Mick Dundee, Gidget and Jackson Pollack. And while she’s constantly on the move, she’s always got time to slow down for a sunset surf sesh, a Baja fish taco and chance to talk shop.
Good onya, Pepa Mate!
Q&A – Surfing Muralist Pepa Llama
A|F – So Pepa, what’s your origin story?
I was born and raised in Australia and I moved to San Diego when I was 23. I went to school for graphic design. My whole adult life I’ve been working as a graphic designer, for about 22 years now.
A|F – Were you always into art?
Yes, art was always my hobby. When I was a little kid, I was always painting and drawing. My parents were very supportive of my creative side and they always had me in art classes and stuff. However, they were always telling me, you know, the term “starving artist” exists for a reason. Cause they would ask me, “What do you want to be when you get older?” I said, “I want to be an artist.”
A|F – How did they respond to that?
They said, “You can’t be an artist because that’s not a real job.” So I thought, well, what can I do? And that’s why I ended up studying graphic design and working as a graphic designer. Art was my side gig and something I did for fun all of those years.
A|F – But somehow you transitioned from graphic design into a full-time artist?
Yes. I kind of transitioned from making art my hobby to making it my full-time gig, which is pretty much all I’m doing now. I still do graphic design on the side, but I’m mostly just painting murals these days, which is awesome.
A|F – So how did that transition take place?
I spent eight years living in southern California, and then the opportunity came up to move to Costa Rica, which is where I’ve been based for the last nine years. I really wanted to simplify my life and get out of the U.S. / California rat race.
In doing that I went to more of a freelance role with my graphic design business. Hence, I had more time to focus on painting and my art.
A|F – What type of art did you gravitate towards?
So in Costa Rica I started to paint a lot of small scale pieces, like canvases and stuff, and had art shows at my friend’s businesses and such. And then I painted surfboards for a surfboard shaper in Tamarindo for a couple of years.
A|F – How did the mural work come about?
While I was at the surfboard factory / shaping studio, painting surfboards, one of the shapers there was from Barcelona, Spain, and a very good friend of his, a girl named Ingrid, came to visit the factory while we were both working. She saw me painting surfboards and was like, “Wow, I really like your style. I really love what you’re doing with these boards.”
So she asked me, “Have you ever painted murals before? Like on walls?” I said, “Well, yeah, I’ve done it maybe a couple of times, but not really.” And she’s says, “Well, I just started working (in Costa Rica), as an interior designer, for a hotel company that’s based out of Panama, and they’re expanding all over Central America. The company name is Selina.” And she said, “We’re looking for artists to paint murals in all of our locations.” And I said, “Okay, sure! I’d love to do that with you.” So that’s how I transitioned from painting surfboards and canvases to doing murals.
A|F – So what happened next?
So I ended up painting at 14 of Selina’s hotel locations all over Central and South America. Since then I’ve painted 250 murals in six countries.
A|F – Wow, so how did all that extra work come about?
The majority of the work that I did was with this hotel company Selina, and then, as it kind of goes, when you travel to a location to paint, you meet people. I would stay in the hotel and paint. And then when you’re living and working there, people sort of stop by and they see your work and they’re like, “Oh, hey, how’s it going? We own this local restaurant down the street, would you be interested in coming and painting there?” And so then you paint at the restaurant and then someone comes in and sees you working at the restaurant and they say, “Oh, hey, I’ve got this AirBNB, would you like to come and paint there?” And on and on.
So once you have traveled to a place and spent time there living and working in the community, you get to know the people and the people get to know you and your work. And then that leads to more work. It’s been really awesome the way it has grown so organically.
A|F – So now here you are, a graphic designer, turned traveling painter, turned muralist. Is this what you dreamed of as a child?
It’s interesting because if you’d asked me when I was younger, what do you want to do? I always knew that I wanted to be an artist. I always knew that I wanted to travel and surf and paint, but I didn’t quite know how I was going to pull all of that together. Now I’ve managed to do that through painting murals. And the majority of my clients are hotels, hostels, AirBNBs, places that are oceanfront with good surf. So I kind of travel from place to place and stay there and paint and surf and hang out and then travel to the next place. It’s been pretty awesome.
A|F – That’s living the dream, no doubt. What do you tell people when they ask you how you got to where you are in life?
It’s interesting. I literally didn’t plan any of this. It just happened so naturally and so organically. It’s not something that I ever could have articulated or planned. Like, I’m going to do this, and this and this to get to some destination. It just happened. It’s just all the things in life and all the people that I’ve met, the connections that I’ve made, the relationships I’ve formed, the people I’ve worked with, the places I’ve been; it’s all come together to bring me to this point that I’m at right now.
A|F – So what would your advice be to young artists seeking to find their path?
If it’s genuinely, truly, authentically what you want to do, just keep doing it. Keep being creative. If you like painting, paint anything that comes your way. Be open to any opportunity that comes your way. Be open to any possibility that comes your way and just say yes to everything that feels right.
Even if you don’t think it’s a fit on paper. If you’re like, well, maybe that isn’t exactly how I thought I was going to get there, that’s ok. If it feels right to you, go ahead and do it, because you never know who you’re going to meet along the way, or what opportunities may come up.
A|F – And what about the starving artist part? How did you overcome that?
Haha – yeah, well it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. You have the peaks and the valleys of it. There might be six months where you’re knocking on all these doors and none of the doors are opening. There might be a couple of years where you can’t find a job. But if you genuinely want it, just keep at it because it will happen.
A|F – What is your take on style? As an artist, creating your own style, etc.?
Yeah. I think for an artist, it’s an ongoing process and it evolves. My style has evolved and changed significantly over the years. Obviously I’ve got a very graphic, bold, vibrant style. And a lot of that comes from my personality, but also because of my training as a graphic designer. And as you know, when I was working with you at the magazine, I love typography. I love fonts and I love photography and I love magazines. Actually, my first job out of art school was at Australia Surfing Life Magazine. So my first real, employed, paid job after I graduated from art school was in publishing.
A|F – So it all started with designing print magazines, eh?
Yes. Magazines have always been really special to me. I feel like that has definitely influenced my style and influenced my creativity because it calls in all the things that you love about a magazine: the graphics, the layout, the typography, the photography, all of those things really influenced my art style.
A|F – And how about your mural work, from a style standpoint?
As a muralist, I was really influenced by artists like Shepard Fairey, who started OBEY, and Banksy and and all the amazing things they were doing on these giant walls and the techniques they were using. For example, they use a lot of stencils, which, was huge for me, especially when I was starting out. I used to love making stencils and cutting them out. I use them to this day. Whenever the opportunity pops up now, I always try to incorporate stencils.
And then also street artists. A lot of the time they use the wheatpaste technique, which I love applying. I love doing collage as well to a lot of my murals. So it’s kind of a mixture of all the things that I’m interested in and have been exposed to. It’s something that just evolves as you grow as a person and an artist.
A|F – How about the environment, your surroundings? Does that impact your style?
For sure. Obviously, when I’m in Central America, my style is very reflective of that place. It’s very bright. It’s very tropical. Whereas, now that I’m in California, obviously it’s not as tropical, but it’s still embodies the outdoors, the ocean, the plants, the pastel colors. It just depends a lot of where you are. For example, I spent five months in Peru, two years ago, so I was up in the mountains in Cusco. I was really influenced by all the llamas, colors, textiles and the culture of the Inca people. It still comes through in my work now.
A|F – So a style is really an amalgamation of influences.
Yeah, it’s just little things that you pick up along the way in your travels. You take them on board and develop them and make them unique. I think that’s really important for any artist. You can be influenced by other artists and other things, but it’s so important to develop your own unique style so that when someone sees your work, no matter what context it’s in, no matter what medium it is, they know it’s you.
A|F – Like the Pepa Llama style?!?
Haha – yeah mate! If someone sees a mural of mine or they see a tee shirt graphic of mine, or they see a piece of art, that’s mine, in any of those different contexts, they automatically know it’s me because it’s my style. That’s something I would encourage any young artists to be serious about. What style works for you? What are you good at? Where do you shine? What do you enjoy doing? What brings out your unique personality and really hone in on that. Cause there’s a million artists out there, but someone’s going to choose you because of your style.
A|F – Lastly, tell us about the importance of travel.
I’ve always wanted to travel, my entire life. One of my earliest memories was when I had one of those old-school globes, the ones you could spin back in the day? I’m a child of the 80s, so I’m dating myself here, but I would spin the globe and shut my eyes and stick my finger on the globe. Wherever it stopped and whatever country it was on, I would take the encyclopedia (this was back in the day before the internet) and I would read about that country. I would look at the flag and read about what language they spoke. I just was always fascinated with the world and traveling.
A|F – Aussie’s have a reputation as travelers, how did you get started with travel IRL?
I’ve been very fortunate that I started traveling pretty young. I was an exchange student in Germany when I was in high school. And since then, I’ve always been really interested in understanding how other people live, what other countries look like and what money they use. Which food do they eat? What languages they speak? What clothes do they wear? I’m just fascinated.
A|F – So why and how often do you travel?
Whenever I get the opportunity to travel, I always say yes, no matter where it is. I think that’s really important in life, in general, but I think especially for a creative person, because you can pull inspiration from anywhere. If you’re in your same house, in your same town, talking to the same people, eating the same food, doing the same thing all day, every day, it gets stagnant. You get stagnant. So as a creative person, it’s really important to hit the road.
A|F – Is it ever intimidating going it alone or to new places?
You just need to have the courage to go somewhere and not know the language, not know the people, not really understand what’s going on and just immerse yourself. That’s where you find inspiration. It’ll come up when you’re in a new city, perhaps in the architecture. It’ll come up seeing someone walk down the street in some crazy outfit that you’ve never seen before. Or may be in a song in a language that you don’t even understand. Or seeing a different landscape, or the different plants that grow, or the unique color palette of the place.
Travel can open your mind in so many ways. It humbles you. It makes you appreciate what you have, while exposing you to what else is out there. It’s really just about being curious, which I think is really important as a human being.
To ride along on Pepa Ivanoff’s artistic visions, travels and inspirations, follow her on instagram @pepallama
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James C. Sullivan is a guitarist, singer and long-time journalist having worked at publications including Snowboarder Magazine and USA Today. He recently returned to his roots in New England after a decade in California because cold winters and cloudy days inspire more creativity.