The Luis Russell Mural: A Community Led Cultural Movement for Bocas del Toro

The Luis Russell Mural is being created as a cultural landmark that seeks to rescue an important chapter in Bocas del Toro history, while empowering its inhabitants to take pride in their cultural heritage.

July 2021 – Bocas del Toro, Panama

Walking the north side of 1st street in Bocas Town, passing the fire station, right now you will see a magnificent piece of art being created by the artist known as Madmagos. “El Mural de Luis Russell” is an initiative by the community of Bocas del Toro, for the community of Bocas del Toro. Let’s take a look at what this mural is all about and where this initiative came from.

A black and white photo of Luis Russell seated at a piano.

Who is Luis Russell?

Luis Russell is a pioneer of jazz music. Born on the tiny Panamanian Caribbean island of Carenero, Bocas del Toro, Russell would go on to be a famous musician, playing under the brightest lights, on the most important stages, in the biggest cities of his time. Classically trained by his father and uncle on four instruments, Luis Russell became an accomplished piano player in Bocas del Toro and the city of Colón as a mere teenager. Seeking adventure, he boarded a steam ship heading north to the United States at the age of 19. Adventure is what he found and Russell went on to have an amazing music career in New Orleans, Chicago and New York. He recorded dozens of his original compositions, and he played alongside musical legends of the time: King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. His music is immortalized on streaming platforms like Spotify. The Bocas del Toro native was on the forefront of the development of the genres of jazz, big band and swing music in the 1920’s and 1930’s. He passed away in New York in 1963 and is survived by daughter Catherine Russell, a successful vocalist with notoriety of her own.

Luis Russell could be considered not only the most influential Bocas del Toro musician of the 20th century, but in all of Panama. One could say that he is more recognized overseas than in his own country; and even in his hometown. Until July 2021, the only monument dedicated to Russell in Bocas del Toro was a small, dilapidated street sign that says “Avenida Luis Russell.” The inhabitants of Bocas del Toro rarely use his name to refer to the street anymore; preferring to call it “Avenida E” instead. Seemingly forgotten in his hometown, along comes a cultural movement to rescue this important chapter of Bocas del Toro’s history and give the Luis Russell legacy the recognition it deserves.

A street sign that reads "Avenida Luis Russell"

The Avenida Luis Russell street sign; the only known monument to Luis Russell in Bocas del Toro and in Panama; prior to the creation of the Luis Russell mural in July of 2021. Photo courtesy of Isla Colón – Raíces y Vivencias – Bocas del Toro.

the album cover of a collaboration between Louis Armstrong and Luis Russell entitled "Louis & Luis"

Luis Russell in Memorias de Bocas Town

Bocas del Toro historian and author Ariel Pérez Price uncovered interesting details about Luis Russell’s life when Pérez Price was researching his first book “Memorias de Bocas Town: La Vida y Tiempo de Dr. José Antonio Price.” The text is a biographical narrative of his grandfather, Docta Price, who was the first physician from Bocas del Toro. During Pérez Price’s research, he discovered not only the lost history of his grandfather, but that of many other grandparents; and the forgotten history of a whole town that was thriving as a cosmopolitan international port from 1890-1930 during Bocas del Toro’s Golden Era.

What Pérez Price found compelling is the amount of other characters from this era, who similar to his grandfather, led pretty extraordinary lives; yet their legacies only seemed to be alive in the memories of the island’s elderly community, being preserved by mere storytelling. Though his novel focused on the story of his grandfather, Perez Price was able to weave into the narrative many anecdotes and mentions of other notable characters who lived in the prosperous early 20th century Bocas del Toro. One of those legendary Bocas Town figures was Luis Russell. The story of the jazz pioneer really stood out to Perez Price and he decided to dig deeper in to the life and times of Luis Russell.

Author Ariel Perez Price and the first edition of Memorias de Bocas Town: La Vida y Tiempo de Jose Antonio Price

Author Ariel Perez Price and the first edition of Memorias de Bocas Town: La Vida y Tiempo de Jose Antonio Price

The Luis Russell mural idea is born

After publishing his first novel, Perez Price continued to research Luis Russell’s life. He had the opportunity to travel to two of the cities where Russell’s career flourished in the US: New Orleans and New York. In both cities, he couldn’t help but notice incredible street art dedicated to important figures of the past, and in particular murals dedicated to notable musicians. The Bocas del Toro historian and author first presented his research as part of an episode of Pa Que Sepas at the Buena Vista restaurant in August of 2019. During this Bocas del Toro visit, an idea began to brew: an artistic mural dedicated to Luis Russell in his hometown of Bocas del Toro.

In March 2020 the world stopped with COVID-19 and with that, any plans for the mural had to be delayed. Pérez Price continued researching street murals around the world, artists in Panama and local actors in the Bocas del Toro community that could assist in making this dream a reality. Pérez Price contacted me, on behalf of The Bocas Breeze Newspaper, and Kelly Berube De DeCaro of the foundation Cultivando Futuros. The three of us started putting together a plan to organize fundraising, sponsorships and logistics. Pérez Price had already found the most important piece of this project: the perfect artist to create this monumental artwork, Sergio Smith, known artistically as Madmagos.

While researching artists, Pérez Price had stumbled upon Smith’s @madmagos Instagram account. The artist’s notoriety was on the rise in Panama City, as he was becoming known for his massive murals of Dali-like psychedelic surrealism that also incorporate realistic elements. His popularity was growing so much so that his 2021 calendar year was filling up at the time that Perez Price approached him about the idea of a Luis Russell mural. Smith was immediately very receptive to the idea and set aside two weeks in July 2021 to travel to Bocas and create the Luis Russell mural. For a while he had been wanting to participate in a cultural project like this. Though he resides in Panama City, the artist’s father happens to be from Bocas del Toro, so an artist of Bocas del Toro heritage would indeed get to do the honors of the Luis Russell mural.

“For me it’s an honor to be able to immortalize Luis Russell with this mural. He’s an icon of the ancestry of Bocas. To highlight him is to highlight the homegrown talent of the area, and I think it’s a way to preserve what Bocas is,” commented artist Madmagos, in an interview with Bocas TV News.

the organizers and creators pose in front of the mural during the inauguration July 16, 2021

The organizers and creators of the mural pose in front of their work, during the inauguration ceremony on July 16, 2021. From left to right: Kelly Berube De DeCaro, Sergio Smith (Madmagos, Diana Maria Topo, Ariel Prez Price and Nicholas Corea. Photo by Alfredo Jurado Martinez (@bocasislove in Instagram)

A community led initiative

With the artist lined up, the organizers got busy mobilizing the Bocas del Toro community on this effort: spreading the word, finding the necessary support and planning the logistics and the whole execution of the project.

Bocas del Toro Mayor Emiliano Torres and the city council agreed to grant permission for the mural to be created on the 25 meter exterior wall of the municipal gym on 1st street, in front of the fire station. They also gave their blessing for an inauguration ceremony in the street in front of the mural for July 16, 2021.

Air Panama agreed to provide 3 round trip tickets from Panama City for the artist Sergio Smith, his assistant Diana Maria Topo and mural organizer Ariel Perez Price. Divers Paradise Boutique Hotel, Hotel Bocas del Toro and Calipso Bocas Town B & B were able to offer them accommodations for the two weeks they are in Bocas del Toro creating the mural.

Many amazing restaurants got behind this initiative, providing sponsored food and drink so that the artists could stay inspired and focused on the task at hand. Many thanks to Buena Vista, Receta Michila, Octo, Tres Palmas, Restaurante Yarisnori, JJs at Bocas Blended, Random Art Cafe, Super Gourmet, Restaurante Tom, Cafe del Mar, Rostizados Chubys, El Patio, Tequila Republic, El Último Refugio, Bibis on the Beach, Licores Malamore and Bocas Sushi.

Bocas Island Express sent the paints from Panama City free of charge. Panama InDesign helped the group promote the project, contributing with graphic design. PostUp Media is producing a documentary at a very generous rate. Bocas Containers gave complete access to a very strategically located storage shed, right in front of the mural, to be able to store all the paints and tools. Filthy Friday lent one of their tents so that the artists could enjoy some shade while painting in the hot Caribbean sun. Filthy Friday is also sharing the project with their large international following, helping to promote this cultural initiative. Panama Vieja Escuela and FOCO Panama also have large audiences and are helping to spread the word.

When it comes to content creators, we’d like to give special recognition to Pa Que Sepas, who has been supporting this topic since its very inception, and has engaged in other important conversations about Bocas del Toro culture. And last but not least, Bocas TV has promoted the project continually on their national TV station and will be broadcasting our documentary on the project internationally on other stations in Latin America that they share content with.

The artist Sergio Smith, also known as Madmagos, is painting a street mural dedicated to Luis Russell

Artist Sergio Smith, AKA Madmagos, in mid-mural. July 2021. 1st Street, in front of the fire station, Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Signed, sealed and delivered!

With the permissions in place and sponsors lined up, what was really needed to get the project going was a bit of money. The original fundraising goal was set at $2,500, which would be utilized to acquire the paints and pay a modest stipend to the artists. This goal was met on June 29, thanks to the support of the community and lovers of Bocas del Toro worldwide.

Though we cannot list everyone who contributed, we’d like to acknowledge Paradise Found Real Estate, The Bocas del Toro Chamber of Tourism, Gran Hotel Bahia, LiveWalk, La Asociación Museo Cultural Chino Bocas Del Toro, Bocas Docks, Jacy and Lynn Heffner, Alicia Serrano Cerrud, Clay and Allene Blaker, Bill and Lizandra Raney, Turismo & Bienestar and Bocas Vacations. In the spirit of this cultural movement, The Lost Boys Blues Bar, Pirate Arts Experience and El Nido Studio have also made important contributions that are designated to be a part of a program that is being developed to support the young musical talent on the island; investing in “future Luis Russells.” We will have more details about his program later. Many thanks to everyone who has donated or has lent their support in one way or another.

The mural was completed during the first two weeks of July, 2021, and officially inaugurated on July 16, 2021, with a ceremony in the street. There will be more details published on the creation of the mural and related activities in an upcoming article and video documentary by The Bocas Breeze.

a photo of a street mural depicting the Bocas del Toro jazz pioneer Luis Russell

The final product: “El Mural de Luis Russell.” July 16, 2021

Why the Luis Russell mural?

“The mural seeks to empower the cultural heritage of the Bocatoreño, fostering the discussion about a founding Bocatoreño, who contributed to the creation of an original art form, which is considered universal: jazz. The mural will also be an artistic landmark for Isla Colón, which can be appreciated by tourists from all over the world, elevating the figure of Luis Russell and associating it -as it should be- with Bocas del Toro.” 

– Ariel Pérez Price, organizer of “El Mural de Luis Russell”

The official logo for "El Mural de Luis Russell" - the Luis Russel Mural project

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Nicholas Corea is the editor of the Bocas Breeze. He wasn't born in Bocas, though he got there as fast as he could. He is just one of the many foreigners who became enamored with the islands. His mission is to provide the community with news that unites and inspires, while sharing with the world the magic that is Bocas del Toro. Mr. Corea likes to extend his gratitude to everyone who makes The Bocas Breeze possible- starting with YOU (the reader).

2 Comments

  1. Juan Price Reply

    Remarkable coverage of the story behind the “mural” and fine recognition to its “intellectual authors” congratulations to you all for a job well done, surely this is firm continuity of the start towards rescuing our hidden past.

    1. Nicholas Corea Post author Reply

      Thank you for your kind words. This is a project I am personally very proud of and we will be sure to utilize The Bocas Breeze Newspaper platform to continue supporting Bocas del Toro cultural and historical initiatives such as this one.

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