The People's Artist: John Rivera-Resto


You may not know John Rivera-Resto, but you've probably seen his work. The dashing, Cleveland-born Puerto Rican muralist and armchair philosopher steps into his black Mazda MX5 in the heart of Lakewood's Gold Coast and dons his sunglasses,  "J. Rivera-Resto" inscribed on the side. He is armed with leather man-purse and dresses the part of the exotic artiste: long black hair, black pants, the billowing white blouse of a pirate or Don.

He is taking Scene on a tour of some of his local work, "some of" being the operative words — John Rivera-Resto has been commissioned by so many local clients with such a diverse array of success stories that any complete tour is necessarily incomplete.  

First, we cruise up through Lakewood to the Madison Avenue Panorama Travel Agency to see his mural therein. Rivera-Resto painted an interior wall to capture the lush blues and greens of East Asia and the Pacific. It's a magnificent and highly detailed piece that took him four-and-a-half months to complete.

He was commissioned to paint the Panorama mural when the agency's owner, Vladan Blagojevic, saw the dancing painter working on the massive CMHA mural on West 25th Street and demanded a business card.  

But no time for details; we're off to Independence and another John R-R production: the interior of the recently opened Slyman's Tavern, the famed deli's first franchise restaurant since it opened more than 50 years ago. Rivera-Resto designed it all. With a small army of dedicated assistants, he painted the central Three Stooges mural that greets patrons as they enter. He selected the wood for the tables, the stone for the bar, the stained glass above the doorways, the Cleveland skyline above the crown molding. It is as comprehensive a project as Rivera-Resto has ever worked on, and he walks among the tables and the luncheoners like a king among his people.

Onward to Clark and West 25th, to pay homage to what might be Rivera-Resto's masterpiece: "It's Up to Us," the mural that he painted in the scorching summer sun and bitter autumn chill of 2012 and 2013. It is an immense achievement, located along a prime corridor where development is expected to boom in the coming years. Among the quirkiest trivia tidbits related to the mural's creation: Orlando Bloom's face was used as the model for the police officer.   

Rivera-Resto doesn't often dip into sentimentality.  He is as much a businessman as he is an artist, and he's not gooey about his work. He says, in fact, that the act of painting is his least favorite part. He's a thinker, a conceptualizer, a dreamer. He's got copies of The Jungle Book and The Once and Future King in the library of his cluttered studio on West Boulevard, alongside calculus textbooks and beer. He is an eccentric artist of all trades — a sculptor, a painter, an actor.

He says he often performs for clients to win their affection and their offers. He can do a Texas accent and several Spanish varietals. But Rivera-Resto has no business phone number. He is not a member of the so-called "arts" scene. He does not advertise, nor does he schmooze. So how does he keep getting commissions? Word of mouth, he says, and a portfolio website which doubles as a wormhole of his life and work.   

"But most of all," he says. "The secret of being employed is working cheap and working fast."