PART I: Why Kacho López Mari Became an Artist
Kacho López Mari is a legendary and iconic Puerto Rican graphic designer and Latin Grammy award-winning self-taught film director. His art combines film direzction and music while communicating political statements that expose strong social issues. López Mari, 48, is also the co-founder of the production company Filmes Zapatero, which he founded with his wife and executive producer Tristana Robles. The day he was interviewed for this story, he had been notified that Bad Bunny’s music video turned documentary “El Apagón – Aquí Vive Gente”, which López Mari directed, was nominated for MTV’s Video Music Awards in the Best Video for Good category. This is the story of an extraordinary artist.
Kacho López Mari was born in 1975 in the city of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Born into a family where the arts and social awareness are part of their everyday lives, López Mari’s journey in the arts began when he was fifteen years old and started dancing in a television program in Telemundo. It was his mother who first introduced him to the art world through dance. His career as a professional dancer continued until he was 19 or 20 years old.
As a dancer, he was always immersed in music, which is also a great part of his essence as an artist. His first experience in music started when he was in charge of organizing special events and parties during the 1990s. It was a time when he was producing parties for the Underground, which is the name given to reggaeton before it was called reggaeton in Puerto Rico. During that time, specifically between 1994 and 1995, López Mari was participating in these events set in Puerto Rico’s “caseríos,” or public housing for low-income families, which often consisted of marginalized people.
“During that time something very hard happened. We were producing events there. One of my best friends at the time; a friend since fifth grade who helped me with the productions. He was the one in charge of counting the money,” López Mari said. “Due to a confusion in a place, he had borrowed a car, went to the place, and was murdered. They killed him because they thought he was an enemy.”
The death of one of his best friends was a very painful and sad event that deeply marked López Mari. In the wake of this loss, López Mari started to look for the deeper meaning in life. During that inner search, he found expression through graphic design. It was the first time where he actively chose the path of art, so he started working at his parents’ graphic design studio.
“That’s where I choose to study graphic design. I had already been in the University of Puerto Rico studying finance after I graduated from high school,” López Mari said. “It was not my thing. There was no click and I was like one or two years out of college. Then, I went back to college to study graphic design. It was there where I consciously chose art as a path.”
That decision led López Mari to move to Miami in 1997 to study graphic design at the Miami International University of Art and Design: The Art Institutes. He found an art style in graphic design that he defines as everyday art, and he excelled during his time as a student. He graduated in 1999 and moved back to Puerto Rico with the intention of settling there and launching professionally as a graphic designer.
At this point, his path as an iconic artist began to forge itself. López Mari began working with the Puerto Rican reggae band Cultura Profética by designing four of their album covers. He also worked with other emerging rock bands in Puerto Rico and then started working with a music and extreme sports magazine.
“A lot of brands advertised themselves in the magazine. The creatives from those publicity agencies and brands collected those magazines,” López Mari said. “My work was in the eyes of Puerto Rico’s publicity [agencies]. That’s what a video production company called me. They wanted me to design their new logo.”
From Graphic Design to Film Direction
And just like that, magic ensued for López Mari in a very unexpected manner. He was then offered a new professional challenge when he was just starting his career as a graphic designer.
“The executive producer and owner of the company offered me a position as creative director with the purpose of becoming [a film] director,” López Mari said. “I did not have that in my plans. I did not study film. I did not have any experience in that, but he somehow wanted to transform what I was doing in graphic design into visuals in movement in advertising filmmaking.”
His career in film direction began with the creation of public service commercials for an anti-drug campaign. As time went on, López Mari took on more tasks and started producing television ads. At this time, his first opportunity to direct a music video arose. An executive producer from the company told López Mari that his son was in his room listening to some rap. His father asked him what he was listening to and it turned out the son was listening to Puerto Rican rapper Tego Calderón.
“He asked his son for a copy of the album he was listening to, brought it to the office, and played it for me. He tells me: Kacho, listen to this. If you find Tego, we’ll do a music video for him,” López Mari recalled. “I started listening to Tego's first songs. I loved it since the first one. I hadn’t heard him before and that was when I gave myself the task of finding Tego wherever he was. I didn’t even know who managed him.
On the Quest for Tego Calderón
López Mari then went on his quest to find Tego. He searched in his contacts from the time he organized the Underground events and he called his friend Richy, who was very well-connected. Richy told him that Elías De León was Tego’s manager for the White Lion Records label.
López Mari, who was 25 or 26 years old at the time, then calls De León offering him a free music video for Tego. De León was a bit suspicious, so he set up a meeting with López Mari to confirm that it was really happening. Once De León confirmed it was true, he mentioned to López Mari that they were going to publish Tego’s debut album El Abayarde.
“They very well thought: if you’re going to give us a video, then it should be from this album. And they told me: since you’re going to give us the video, then you choose the song,” López Mari recalled. “Play the album, choose the song, and do the music video for whatever song you want. We played the song in the office. The first song was “Abayarde” and it was hip-hop. It was a rap, which is my favorite music [genre]. When they played it, I said: that’s the song I want to do.”
With a firm decision, López Mari directed the video for “Abayarde” at a time when he had no idea what reggaeton would become in the future. Not only was it his first music video, but it was also part of an iconic moment in the Puerto Rican music scene. It was the video that served the purpose of cementing Tego as an important artist in the industry. This initial collaboration landed López Mari more work with Tego in different formats including visuals for his concerts and documentation of live shows.
As a result of López Mari’s “Abayarde” music video, a new challenging, and exciting opportunity came through. His life was about to change in a huge manner that he did not expect at all. The beginning of an artistic path to becoming a legendary film director for iconic moments in Latin American music was just starting for López Mari.
To find out how López Mari began his path as a legendary film director working with iconic Latin American artists read PART II.
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