During the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants erected barriers for safety and practicality purposes. Think concrete blocks that line city streets. Metal fences around socially-distanced patios. And plexiglass boards between tables and chairs.
Over the past month, one Boston artist splashed a little life onto these bland partitions.
Several restaurants commissioned Joe Taveras to infuse their blank barriers with his signature style: a combination of graffiti, cubism, and Italian futurism inspired by Pablo Picasso, George Condo, Travis Scott, and Pop Smoke. That’s why three local haunts — Villa Francesca, Sonsie, and Little Donkey — now boast dividers covered with multicolored splotches and stylish black shapes.
“You could have a beautiful restaurant, but if the dividers and barriers don’t look great, the customer is not going to have an enjoyable experience,” Taveras said over the phone recently. “With me, restaurants are finding paths to create this energetic atmosphere for their guests again, while also being mindful of the importance of welcoming them back to a safe space.”
Taveras, 24, is brand-new to art. He only started painting at the crux of the pandemic in March 2020. The onset of the crisis sparked a “delusional fear of death,” Taveras explained, pushing him to pick up oil paints à la Vincent Van Gogh. In his mother’s Los Angeles home, Taveras spent 18-hour days in a “stream of consciousness,” refining technical skills and discovering his artistic identity.
“In that moment, I wanted to create something that would last beyond myself on a canvas,” he said.
For almost a year after, Taveras kept his job as a marketing specialist for New York-based Temi, manufacturer of the world’s first personal robot. That role took him from his home in Manhattan to the ends of the Earth — 150,000 miles flown in 2019, to be exact — to meet with clients and explore new cultures.
But, he has found, art is more fulfilling than these prior pursuits.
“From a marketing standpoint, there are other career paths I could take,” Taveras said. “But from a soul standpoint, this is the only thing I can do.”
So he rented a studio in the SoWa art and design district in September 2020 and officially left his Temi position in February.
Selling art to collectors — from Paris to the Middle East — has become his primary source of income. Sprucing up restaurant dividers is just an avenue for exposure, and a way to aid small businesses.
He got started painting barriers after fielding a request last month from Little Donkey, the Central Square global tapas place. Partners Jamie Bissonnette and Katy Chirichiello ordered eight plastic table dividers that were white and opaque when they arrived. They quickly realized the colorless additions would kill the restaurant’s ambience, prompting Chirichiello to direct message Taveras on Instagram (@robojoebot).
A friend of hers had previously invested in Taveras’s work, Chirichiello said. She hoped he could give the restaurant a touch of nearby Graffiti Alley. Taveras completed nine barriers, dubbed “The Stardust Series,” in two days before Little Donkey reopened April 12.
“He put the energy the restaurant exudes right on the canvas, and knew exactly what our vibe is,” Chirichiello said.
When the Little Donkey barriers are no longer of use, they will be auctioned off to raise funds for Artists for Humanity, a local nonprofit that supports under-resourced teens with paid creative work.
Sonsie manager Gabriela Choate said Taveras’s five outdoor barriers perfectly mesh with existing works in the Newbury Street bistro. Despite his amateur status, Taveras brings a boldness that complements the Sonsie patio, Choate said. “His work is impossible to miss, to ignore,” she observed.
At least four additional restaurant businesses in Massachusetts and Maine have contacted Taveras. Next up locally are Uni in Back Bay, Create Gallery & Cocktail Lounge in Somerville, and Pure Oasis cannabis dispensary.
For Taveras, painting dividers not only quells a creative urge — it satisfies a community need created by the pandemic. Everybody is hungry (literally) to dine away from home right now. Introducing visual improvements helps revive the easygoing dining experience we remember from the Before Times, he said.
“The first thing people want to do now that they’re vaccinated is eat with their friends,” Taveras said of the 3 million-plus Bay Staters who now have both shots. “Artists are rushing to get into galleries, but who is going to galleries right now? Restaurants are the thing people want when they emerge back to the outdoors.”
Taveras’s resume stretches far beyond art and robotic sales.
He completed a psychology degree at Boston College in 2018 after letting go of his childhood dream of becoming a surgeon. Together with friends post-graduation, Taveras founded an application that let college students sell items to one another. Then he turned to Temi, taught himself three programming languages, and traveled the world. (He keeps a Temi robot in his studio today.)
In quarantine, Taveras also pursued music producing, crafting over 400 unreleased songs.
“If he could cook, I’d be nervous,” said Bissonnette, the chef at Little Donkey.
His professional experience informs his portraiture and abstract pieces, which occasionally comment on the future of artificial intelligence and the ethics of modern technology. Taveras said he “wants tech for all” and believes the “dialogue of today will create the life of tomorrow.”
Even if he hits it big in the art world, leaving Boston is not on the agenda.
Taveras finds the city fascinating and familiar, considering he spent seven years as a kid living with his dad in Southborough. In Boston’s art scene, he sees a host of possibilities for growth.
“Boston has not been an arts city to me, which makes no sense,” Taveras said. “It’s one of the most intelligent places in the world — and the most creative. It’s crazy to me that those two things haven’t merged by now.”
By expanding his portfolio here, Taveras envisions a glorious future for himself — complete with a “modern renaissance” and plenty more commissions.
“I’m not the kind of guy to leave for where there is something else,” he said of creatives who escape to New York, Chicago, or the like. “I’m staying right here.”