Viva Cuba!: Cuban Designer Gabriel León Lara

Viva Cuba!: Cuban Designer Gabriel León Lara
SPD Ex-0fficio Board member (and former President) Francesca Messina recently sat down with  Cuban graphic designer Gabriel (Gabo) León Lara in Havana. Gabriel represents the emerging multi-talented Cuba-based designers whose work spans poster design, identity design, illustration and publication design. As the U.S. embargo starts to lift, the awareness of the rich body of work and talent in Cuba will increase.

Says Francesca: "What struck me, aside from Gabo's obvious talent, was the story he told of the difficulties that designers in Cuba face in practicing their profession. Cuba has a storied legacy of poster design, and a world-class university program that has graduated generations of super talents. But on an everyday basis, lack of access to the internet and lack of access to basic hardware and software, and art supplies, makes accomplishing the great work they do even more extraordinary."

(see the complete interview after the slideshow).

  • Vistar Magazine is the magazine that I work for, it’s the first independent cultural magazine in Cuba.
    Vistar Magazine is the magazine that I work for, it’s the first independent cultural magazine in Cuba.
  • The design and illustration for the third studio album of the Cuban rapper Maykel Xtremo. It’s all about the communication and also the liberty of expression. The album design has a paper cover and a poster on the other side.
    The design and illustration for the third studio album of the Cuban rapper Maykel Xtremo. It’s all about the communication and also the liberty of expression. The album design has a paper cover and a poster on the other side.
  • A collaboration with a group of designers to make illustrations about Cuban trends and manners. Screenprinted, limited edition.
    A collaboration with a group of designers to make illustrations about Cuban trends and manners. Screenprinted, limited edition.
  • Terra is the last Lindiana and Mantra album. It’s a combination of photography and illustration.
    Terra is the last Lindiana and Mantra album. It’s a combination of photography and illustration.
  • A project for the 35 Cinema Festival of Havana, a poster and the invitation cards.
    A project for the 35 Cinema Festival of Havana, a poster and the invitation cards.
  • Illustration for a kindergarten in Canada, printed on plastic.
    Illustration for a kindergarten in Canada, printed on plastic.
  • An album design and illustration for a friend, a very popular Cuban rapper Barbaro El Urbano Vargas.
    An album design and illustration for a friend, a very popular Cuban rapper Barbaro El Urbano Vargas.


You are from Cuba, a country with a rich history of graphic design and art. How much does your identity as a Cuban influence your work?

My identity as a Cuban and my roots are always present in my work. In Cuba we are taught to learn from the great masters and to study the historical trends in Cuban design and art. I think my graphic design style (if a designer can have a style), and my illustration style is a mixture of all these influences, and all the national and international artistic currents that influence me. Though some of my work incorporates this more than others.

Tell us a bit about Vistar magazine: who is the audience, what is your role, who is on staff? Tell us about how the app version gets distributed without internet access...

Vistar Magazine is the first independent digital magazine founded in Cuba. It has a website, an application for iOS and an English version. It was created by a group of friends and the team is composed mostly of young and enterprising people, we are roughly 20 people who regularly collaborate.

The magazine talks about Cuban culture in general: music, art, theater, dance, photography, design etc. The audience is quite a large demographic range with respect to age and social position. It is a new phenomenon that has been widely accepted by Cubans and this is why many people follow us.

The magazine, along with the application package is distributed each week in the "weekly package", the Paquete Semanal, which is the alternative distribution channel that was created in Cuba to address the lack of internet access. The package is a doctored 1Tb hard drive where TV series, movies, music etc. are distributed weekly throughout Cuba from hand to hand This costs 2 CUC (Cuban tourist currency) per copy. This new and emerging distribution medium has a powerful reach, and is what we use for the magazine. It reaches all regions of Cuba, although foreigners can download it free from our website (www.vistarmagazine.com)

What magazines do you look to?

My favorite is Wired Magazine but I also really like GQ, Esquire, Details, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Interview, Dazed, Complex etc.

Tell us about your training.

I think the main training for me is just to keep working, that's what makes me a professional. Whenever I can, I'm reading about design on the web, I follow many of the leading designers' social networks as well. Not just for design; I think it's important for any designer also follow the visual arts in general: the plastic arts (painting, sculpture, photography), cinema, theater, good video clips and even anything that might be interesting from a visual standpoint. All these good things that the designer can see and understand, they somehow remain in the brain and emerge in the creative moment.

Who have been your mentors as your career progressed?

My main mentors have been my teachers. When I graduated from my university, my teachers became my friends. Important Cuban designers like: Nelson Ponce, Raul Valdes (Raupa), Giselle Monzon, Edel (Mola) Rodriguez, etc. Many of my friends from school today are designers like me, and we discuss a lot of our work from a critical point of view. Also some Cubans who live and work in the United States whom I admire for their successes, I mean Edel Rodriguez and Carlos Zamora, from whom I learned a lot.

Do you consider yourself a designer first or an illustrator first?

I consider myself a designer who uses illustration as one of my tools, not an illustrator who designs. It also depends on the particular assignment facing me, that drives the kind of Batman costume that I will put on, hahaha.

Havana is a city with a rich cultural life, music and art both. Tell us about your interaction with other designers and musicians there, how do you meet?

Havana is a small town where many people live, but people who have to do or are somehow related to art know each other because they all go to the same places. The designers come together in groups of friends, which may include a musician because someone in the group designed his album cover, or made a poster, and thus they became friends. These groups go to the bohemian parties where artists, dancers, filmmakers, and any friends who are not artists or designers but who join the group. Art exhibitions, concerts and theaters are places where it is more common to find these types of people, many friendships are also made in the long-popular and new bars of Havana, which are reinvigorating the Cuban nightlife scene.

Most Americans are not specifically aware of the challenges that designers face in Cuba to get access to software and the internet. Can you explain a bit of these issues for us?

In Cuba designers face many problems (as do other professionals), but the most common and most impactful for us is the lack of internet access. It is very difficult and expensive to access the internet for information, do searches for related topics, download fonts and resources, and send large files. This really impacts designers like me, who are doing work with customers outside the country. From here we cannot buy anything online (software, fonts, high resolution images, etc.), because even if you have a credit card (a trajeta, which is very difficult to get in Cuba); internet sites won't accept it and occasionally can block the trajeta.

For these reasons, we use pirated software. Applications are passed from hand to hand in external hard drives and flash drives. This is free but the disadvantage is that the software can crash in the middle of working on a job without saving.  And, if you work with customers in another country sharing files created in pirated programs gets complicated. The lack of material to illustrate and paint with is also a problem because there is no store that sells these products professionally and when it is in stock it is very difficult to acquire because of the high prices. 

The same is true with the high prices of computers and accessories compared with an average designer's salary.

Who are your influences as an artist and designer?

My main influences as a designer are the most important Cuban designers today and everyone who made history in Cuban poster art of the 60s and 70s. Also, the many contemporary international artists and designers that I follow on the internet. Agata Dudek, Blake Suarez, Edel Rodriguez, Nate Williams, Olimpia Zagnoli, Sasha Barr, Spike etc.

If you could work anywhere, what would your next move be?

Definitely my favorite magazine: WIRED!

cara.jpg




(see more of Gabo's work at www.cargocollective.com/gabolara)


  • That,s amazing and beautiful work, I loving it! The picture are really awesome.

  • Hello , Cuban Designer Gabriel León Lara . So sexy hot . Thankyou so much for sharing this post .

  • Wonderful

blog comments powered by Disqus