There were many details Mayling Pao labored over in her painted tribute to music and style legend Prince. Everything had to be perfect - the right image, the right facial expression, even the right hair. But there was one detail on which the West Palm Beach artist was unmovable.
“It had to be purple, absolutely,” Pao says, standing in front of the downtown West Palm Beach mural that has become a favorite spot for taking selfies and Instagram shots of the singer, who died a year ago on April 21, 2016.
”It was my idea. They wanted to make sure (I) was comfortable painting dark skin, but I was like ‘Wait a minute. What if I do purple?’”
Actually, the image really isn’t mostly purple - “It’s blue!” Pao says of the eventual mix of paints used to make the likeness pop, except for an eerily alluring purple shadow around his Afro. But because of the power of music and overwhelmingly personal imagery, “people see purple, because it’s Prince.”
His large, indigo-accented eyes stare intently at passersby on the 500 block of Clematis Street, where since last fall they’ve been part of a mural dedicated to several other fallen music legends, including David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Bob Marley and Beastie Boys’ MCA.
But Pao says that her image of Prince seems to get special attention, perhaps because it’s positioned closest to the sidewalk, but also it was painted while the world was still reeling from His Purple Badness’ sudden and shocking fatal overdose on the prescription drug fentanyl at his Paisley Park compound in Minneapolis.
“That look he gives (from the mural) has been brought up to me all the time. When people are turning the corner, he’s the first one they see,” Pao says.
This mural is the second that Pao, a native of Nicaragua raised in Miami, has done on the wall outside the nightclub Respectable Street, as part of a local collective called Street Art Revolution. Pao, who specializes in portraits and even body art including makeup for the annual “Fright Nights” event at the South Florida Fairgrounds, was asked to submit artwork, and then given a choice of which icon to paint.
“Prince was the one who stood out to me,” Pao says, both musically and because she felt he was the artist she’d be best able to get inside and represent. As a portrait artist called on to recreate the images of strangers, she says she was particularly excited to try to interpret the essence “of someone we know so much about.”
However, she wasn’t as inspired by the original image of him that she was presented as a template. The determining factor, unsurprisingly, was the eyes.
“They were closed,” she remembers. “I was like ‘No. You have to see his eyes, that stare. That was very Prince.”
In keeping with the singer’s signature androgyny, the image features both his strong jaw and perfectly curled eyelashes - “You can kind of tell he’s wearing eyeliner,” Pao says. “That was important.”
Pao also worked hard on the musician’s facial expression, pairing that intense stare with lips curled “almost into a little smile,” part serious, part seductive.
The result, she says, “made me very happy. It’s like, ‘Look at the way Prince is looking back at us!’”
While she and other artists worked on the mural, there was a running audio loop playing of the music of those artists, including Prince, which was “inspirational,” she says. Also inspiring were the “people constantly coming up to me and asking questions about what we were doing. One day there was a food truck event on the street, and there was a small crowd around us. They were so interested.”
Even since the mural’s painting, Pao says she has seen people stopping to look at that blue/purple tribute, which she loves. She hopes that with the anniversary of Prince’s death, fans might want to visit the image, which will soon be replaced in coming months by a different mural in the Street Art Revolution series (“I’ll miss it,” she says.).
“He’s on people’s minds,” Pao says. “They like coming here.”