Efren Andaluz was playing Xbox on the sofa one Sunday afternoon last January when his cousin interrupted with devastating news.
“What the heck? It says Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash,” Andaluz’s cousin said, pointing to a TMZ story on his phone.
“Stop playing with me,” Andaluz replied.
Some further Internet sleuthing revealed that this was no hoax. Kobe was gone, as was his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others. Shocked and inconsolable, Andaluz slammed down his headphones and video game controller, let out an anguished scream and retreated to another room where he could be alone.
“I started crying like a baby,” the 33-year-old New York artist recalled. “I’ve never cried before over a celebrity I never knew or met, but this just hit differently.”
A lifelong Lakers fan born in Queens and raised in the Long Island suburbs, Andaluz endured frequent abuse from Knicks-loving friends anytime he wore a purple and gold T-shirt or jersey to school. They accused him of being a bandwagon jumper. He’d fire back that at least he rooted for a winner.
It was Shaq whose rim-rattling slams and affable jokes first drew Andaluz to the Lakers, but it was Kobe who became his lifelong inspiration. At first, Andaluz imitated Kobe’s signature work ethic and competitive streak when trying to launch his art career. Later, after the birth of his daughter, Andaluz tried to emulate Kobe the #girldad.
In the wake of Kobe’s death, Andaluz stayed holed up in his room and ignored calls and texts from friends and family checking up on him. That night, Andaluz decided the best way he could show his gratitude to Kobe would be painting a mural in honor of him and the other victims. On Instagram he wrote, “If you have a big wall in the NY area I will make this dedication mural. Paint is on me.”
Two days later, Andaluz began painting on a wall across the street from Barclays Center, home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. Passersby stopped to snap pictures or leave flowers as Andaluz worked to recreate an iconic Sports Illustrated photo of Kobe lying on the court with his head resting on a basketball.
“The most gratifying part was the reaction,” Andaluz said. “People loved it. There were people that were crying. It was crazy. That week, I was on every news channel in New York.”
It has been seven turbulent months of pandemic, economic recession and social upheaval since Kobe’s death, yet the outpouring of artistic affection for the Lakers superstar just keeps coming. As of Sunday, the creator of a website cataloging and mapping the tributes to the Lakers star counted 331 Kobe murals around the world, more than two dozen of which have been added in the past month alone.
About 200 of the murals are in Southern California, but some reside in more far-flung locations. There are murals depicting Kobe everywhere from a park in Abu Dhabi, to a playground in Italy, to a parking garage in South Africa, to an apartment complex in Mongolia, to a basketball court in the Philippines.
Lifelong Lakers fan Mike Asner expects to update Kobemural.com with new artwork a few more times in the coming days. Artists on both coasts are racing to complete new murals in time for August 24, dubbed “Kobe Bryant Day” to commemorate the No. 8 and 24 jerseys he wore during his 20-year NBA career. Sunday is also Kobe’s birthday. He would have been 42.
While chronicling Kobe murals has been more time-consuming than Asner expected when he launched his website in February, the project has been a labor of love. Fans often reach out to thank him for helping them find new murals to visit in person or for allowing them to follow the movement remotely.
“It’s been a very challenging year for me personally, but doing this project has been therapy for me,” said Asner, a digital marketing director who lost his job earlier this year. “It’s my way of honoring Kobe and Gianna and the families affected and also of giving back to the community of Lakers fans around the world.”
Among the most prolific painters of Kobe during the past seven months is a Southern California graffiti artist with a passion for the Lakers. Louie Palsino, better known in the art community as Sloe Motions, has created more than 20 murals, anything from Kobe and Gianna at the gates of Heaven, to Kobe posing with his five championship trophies, to father and daughter with angel wings.
As a result of the attention Palsino has received for his Kobe art, customers have hired him to paint murals at their homes. Inspired by the poignant speech that Michael Jordan delivered at Kobe’s memorial, Palsino recently painted an homage to the two NBA legends on the wall of an outdoor basketball court at an Orange County residence.
Palsino’s work has earned him one particularly noteworthy new fan. Vanessa Bryant posted a photo of his angel wings mural to her Instagram feed and liked several of Palsino’s other paintings.
“That shocked me,” Palsino said. “For her to do that, it made me very, very happy. I haven’t made it yet or anything, but it made me feel like I had made it.”
Los Angeles artist Gena Milanesi hardly ever does any street art, but she felt compelled to paint a Kobe mural after the death of her favorite NBA player. Milanesi painted a few tributes to Kobe, one of which adorns the wall of a Culver City coffee shop and features the Lakers superstar posing with his second championship trophy while wearing an NBA logo jacket.
“I’ve always loved the sequence of photos of Kobe in this jacket,” Milanesi said. “I picked this specific image because he’s got this gaze that is incredibly distinct and very him. He just won the championship, he’s still in the beginning of his career and he’s like, ‘I’ve got this.’ For years, I’ve been working as an artist to get this gaze down and after the tragedy, I wanted him to be remembered by this.”
There’s now such a proliferation of Kobe murals that artists are having a tougher time coming up with an original concept for a mural. That was the challenge facing three Southern California artists when a Santa Ana cannabis dispensary hired them to transform an 11-by-90-foot wall into a collage of images of Kobe and Gianna in time for “Kobe Bryant Day” on Monday.
Portrait and typography specialist Mikala Taylor sifted through dozens of potential photos of Kobe and Gianna before stumbling across one featured on the ticket stub from their February memorial service. “The way he’s looking at her and the way she’s touching his face, it’s such a precious, perfect moment,” Taylor said, choking back tears.
Taylor and fellow artists Tony Concep and Michael Ziobrowski also combed through pages of Kobe-related quotes before choosing a poignant one from his high school English teacher. “Rest at the end, not in the middle” was a mantra that inspired Kobe’s famous Mamba Mentality of never quitting and always outworking his peers.
For Taylor, her biggest fear was not getting one of the distinctive elements of Kobe’s face quite right — the almond-shaped eyes, pointed nose or joyful expression.
“Some portraits, I’m like, ‘Wow, the execution was great, but it doesn’t look like Kobe,’ ” Taylor said. “I don’t want anybody to be able to say that about ours.”
At the same time as Taylor painted in front of an audience this weekend in Santa Ana, Andaluz was racing to finish another mural of his own on the opposite coast. This one is inside a hip-hop dance studio in a Long Island mall and features Gianna in a white Brooklyn Nets jersey and Kobe in the Lakers’ road purple.
Like other artists, Andaluz has become known for his Kobe paintings since the death of his childhood hero and lifelong inspiration.
In mid-February, Andaluz painted Kobe live during a Jordan Brand event at an NBA all-star weekend in Chicago. Days later, a Southern California gastropub flew Andaluz across the country and paid him to spend five days creating a mural featuring the faces of Kobe, Gianna and the seven other crash victims.
Each time Andaluz paints Kobe, he focuses on the tiniest details. That’s his way of ensuring that his work stands out among the hundreds of other tribute murals.
“It’s bittersweet that Kobe passing has helped my career, but at the end of the day I think about what Kobe would have wanted,” Andaluz said. “He’d want everyone to be the best version of themselves, and that’s what I’m trying to be.”
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