Don’t call it graffiti: Daniel Fila is a professional fine artist who paints murals all over Miami

Before Art Basel made Miami Beach a world-renowned destination for modern and contemporary art, artists like Daniel Fila were laying the groundwork for Miami’s exploding street art scene. “In the early ’90s, graffiti was blowing up and we had our own authentic art culture,” Fila says. He was attending Design and Architecture Senior High (DASH), one of the country’s most respected art schools, but remembers skipping school to hop on buses and go paint in warehouses when he became fascinated with urban culture and public street art. Even when he was a teenager, Fila, who uses the street name Krave, had no doubt that he was going to make a career out of being an artist. “It was my focus in school, it was my hobby. I didn’t really do anything else BUT that. I was going to make this happen.”

He credits his success to his family for always being so supportive of him. His father is a commercial artist who owns a design firm, so Fila grew up knowing that art can be a self-sustaining career. “It wasn’t just painting for fun,” he says. “Dad was doing work with his art. I knew early on it could be a way to survive, not just a passion.” His grandfather was also an artist. “It’s always been something in our family.”

Born and raised in Miami, Fila started sketching as a young boy. He was accepted into Magnet programs for the Arts before attending DASH, then earned a B.F.A. from Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, one of the oldest and largest private arts and design colleges in the country, where he studied illustration. With a serious fine arts pedigree, he returned to Miami after college, applying everything he learned in school to the street. “Pretty soon Art Basel came; it was just really good timing,” he says. “The city was becoming a mecca for street art. Wynwood [the Wynwood Art District] was blowing up all while I was starting my career as a street artist, an urban artist.”

“Street art,” particularly public murals, is a contemporary art form that has rapidly gained respect from the arts community and the public from Basquiat to Banksy, but it wasn’t so long ago that any kind of street art was widely derided as mere “graffiti.” It was then that Fila was coming up as an artist. “It was always a fine art; it wasn’t just graffiti,” he says. “Every day I was carrying a sketchbook around and documenting the world around me. I was just a kid developing his perspective and putting it all down. I’ve always had confidence [in myself and in the art form], and am kind of validated now.”

He continues, “It is museum-level now; it’s global. It has exploded. We never thought it would be that good in the ’90s. Now I’m doing my own thing, I’ve got my own gallery. I’m thankful every day. I work my ass off. I work every day like it’s not going to last.”

Fila is a prolific multidimensional artist whose work includes murals, figurative and abstract paintings, animations, and urban sculpture. His work is extremely varied, ranging from the more obviously “street art” pieces with brightly-colored cartoon characters – like his signature character “The Fresh Monkey,” which he subtly incorporates into much of his work – to more muted pieces like the South Florida landscape scene in the SLS Hotel lobby and the beautiful and haunting “Ladies in White,” a tribute to the non-violent freedom fighters in Cuba. He regularly transitions between different styles and techniques.

“I have a very individual process of doing artwork. Some illustrators work the same technique forever; that doesn’t work for me. I like doing dimensional stuff, like using found objects, painting with a lot of washes and layers. A lot [of my painting] is on wood because I love the texture of wood and how beautiful wood is. It’s kind of exploratory and abstract sometimes.”

Graffiti artists have historically been accused of committing acts of vandalism, and there are certainly countless many “taggers” out there who give street artists like Fila a bad reputation. Ironically, Fila’s first brush with street art fame came in 2004 after his mural “Erin,” a 13-foot female nude viewed from the rear on busy Biscayne Boulevard, was considered offensive by a passerby who then (illegally) decided to buff it. This, in fact, was the actual act of vandalism. “I didn’t try to offend anyone, I just really wanted to paint them and put them up. It was like, ‘Oh my God…’ when I first did it, but now it’s normal. It’s not shocking.”

Undaunted, Fila repainted the mural, this time with the woman facing the “crowd” and looking surprised to discover she was being watched. Since then he has continuously updated the mural, adding a man and renaming it “Adam and Eve,” adding foliage, changing the woman’s facial expression and hair, and finally giving the couple a baby. “Every year I keep going back to that wall and adding things to it,” he says. “I love adding things to the wall so people drive by it and notice something’s different.”

Miami residents typically aren’t so easily offended, and Fila hasn’t had any issues with censorship crusaders since the early days of “Erin.” Another semi-nude that has brought him some notoriety is called “The Sunbather,” showing a topless woman lying on her stomach in the sun. “It’s very Miami; that’s exactly what you see on the beach,” he says. Fila remarks of the highly visible spot on Biscayne, right on the highway, “It’s absurd how many people have seen [that piece]. It’s the most visible piece I’ve done. That’s a prime real estate wall.” One person who saw it just so happened to be Hollywood producer and director Michael Bay, who then used it in his movie Pain & Gain. “It was really cool to see Mark Wahlberg standing in front of it!”

As a professional working artist, Fila hasn’t done a lot in terms of grant-seeking. While he has received “a couple of small mom and pop grants” over the years, like being included in a public parks art grant for Miami-Dade County, he mostly sticks to what he knows – selling paintings and selling commissions. “The Sunbather” was an exception – for that he raised sponsorship money, pre-selling 12 pre-production canvases and putting the names of all the benefactors on a plaque on the wall. He raised $5,000 to create the piece, which has now been seen by easily millions of people. “I need to [create art] but I can’t do it for free,” he explains. “I’m not the greatest businessman but I’m better at it than some. It is a sustainable occupation if you do it right.”

Fila’s studio was located in the increasingly chic Wynwood Arts District for about nine years until last year, when he decided to relocate to the more affordable Little Havana. “[I couldn’t] be there anymore,” he says of Wynwood. He says Little Havana will be the next boom area. “It’s a very cool area, very inexpensive, with great culture and food.” Here Fila is once again part of an emerging scene. His combination studio space and gallery also has a retail space and courtyard. He hosts open mic events in the courtyard with musicians and comedians, and is constantly collaborating with other artists and open to people pitching him concepts for use of the space.

Fila also works a lot with area youth, working through the Museum of Contemporary Art with kids at Overtown Youth Center and through the Cushman School to teach students about street art culture. Fila was invited by Cushman to be an artist-in-residence in December 2013. He introduced 72 middle schoolers to the concept of “The Tree of Life,” and over the week each of the students painted their own trees, which led to him creating a tree for the school, a collaborative effort between him and the students which was unveiled with an original song Fila hired a musician to write. He hopes to have more opportunities like this in the future.

From murals of semi-nudes to cartoon monkeys, surreal illustrations to delicate mixed media painting installations, and working on the streets to working with kids, Daniel Fila has had a wide-ranging repertoire and a diverse career as a fine artist. Which just goes to underscore the point that street art is fine art, and vice versa.