Amidst the aesthetically-basic, monochrome store fronts and faded neon lights of the West Covina Mall resides the Piñata Design Studio, a little shop in a corner of the massive shopping center that brings much-needed color, life, art and a sense of community to the mall along with a revolutionary twist to an old and beloved cultural item.
“We were the first to do the movable limbs,” says founder and owner Yesenia Prieto, matter-of-factly, as I sit on a couch next to a piñata of Spider-Man. Its head, arms and legs are attached to its torso with string giving the piñata the mobility of an action figure. It’s a simple addition to an old formula that gives the classic piñata new life and one that has attracted everyone from the folks at LACMA, the Howard Griffin Gallery, the PAC-12 Network, Eva Longoria and Rihanna.
Prieto is the third generation of piñata makers in her family. "According to my aunt, we were one of the first families to bring the art to L.A. or the trade," she says. Both her sets of grandparents were piñata makers in Mexico, but it was her family on her mother's side that taught her and her brother everything they know about the craft. Her great-uncle did well for himself selling party supplies in the US. Eventually, his brother — Prieto's grandfather — turned his back on his music career to join him in the business. They passed their trade to their next of kin who then passed it down to their children who then taught Prieto and her brother when they all lived together for some time.
Unlike the rest of her family, however, she and her brother Josue Prieto are trying to revolutionize the art and craft of piñata-making by embracing change. Apart from introducing movable piñata limbs, Prieto has also experimented with adding developing talking piñatas that “speak” as they are pummeled.
Her drive to break the proverbial piñata mold sowed the seeds of discord between her and her family. Her family, specifically her cousins who she had come to disagree with on how to run and continue the family business, eventually shunned her and asked her to leave the family business.
“I eventually ran into problems with my cousins that didn’t want to change,” she explains. “I started going to school for business because they didn’t recognize me as an artist…because I wanted to at least be of some value. Personal things got involved and I was not okay with that.”
Prieto has many happy childhood memories of her living in a house filled with stacks of paper maché, cardboard, and loads of piñatas waiting to be completed then sent to their new owners. Unfortunately, she also has plenty of sad memories filled with images of family members slaving away in a thankless industry.
"Making piñatas is not an easy thing and a lot of people don't realize these struggles," she explains. "I would define it as a slave labor trade. We were working for wholesalers like six days a week and there were four people on the assembly line. The assemblers, the people who do the paper maché, and the dressers…every person for one piñata, you get one dollar. That's $60 a week!
"At the end, the piece itself would sell for $10. Sometimes we would get custom orders and it would be between eight to fifteen hours for a piece and we only get paid $15 for it. You have to learn how to hustle and at the end of the day you have to work so hard and so much just to barely make ends meet."
Ultimately, this indignation is what led her to carve her own path five years ago as she worked on piñatas, worked full-time and studied business full-time. The catalyst for Piñata Design Studio happened at the Anime Expo in Los Angeles in 2012. Undeterred by her family’s abandonment, she soldiered on, purchased table space at the expo and designed 100 piñata-style piggy banks, which she still makes today, and received tons of positive feedback.
She eventually built a workspace in her father’s backyard with her brother’s assistance and later began working out of other people’s stores. “I’d create things and they’d let me sell at their stores,” she explains. “The owner of the stores [Geeky Mamas] is one of my mentors as far as business.”
It was only a few weeks ago that she was finally able to open a space of her own — a piñata wonderland — which she shares with her brother Josue, her assistant Mia Baez and fellow artist J. Salvador. The store is literally covered from top to bottom in every color of the paper maché rainbow with piñatas hanging from the ceiling, on every wall, and smaller ones sitting on shelves. Most of the piñatas are of pop culture characters and icons such as Star Wars, DC Comics, and Marvel Comics.
Two large trees made of piñata material greet customers when they enter while a widescreen TV located under her studio’s piñata logo, a small donkey, plays videos from the studio’s YouTube channel and also serves as the hub for Nintendo Wii U video game tournaments. A section of the store is reserved specifically for Salvador’s art. A set of small tables contains blank sheets of paper, crayons and coloring pencils so anyone can enter and draw with no purchase necessary.
Speaking of which, their piñatas are a tad pricier than other locations but are still priced as to be affordable for anyone. Prieto emphasized that her studio’s piñatas are custom-made but not luxury-priced as she wants everyone to be able to appreciate her studio’s work.
She hopes their work can raise people’s appreciation of the amount of labor and skill required in crafting a piñata as well as changing people’s perception of piñatas beyond some temporary, crude, and cheaply-made object to be destroyed and discarded after a single use.
“This art that we make, even if it is going to be broken, there is some sort of piece of interactive art,” she explains. “Let’s take it a step further: nothing lasts forever and doing what we do, not only do we create a beautiful piece that people can enjoy and take pictures with but we create a piece that everyone gets involved together in destroying and we provide a service of this special experience. If you go to any parties, everyone loves that part of the party! I feel so blessed and grateful to be able to contribute to something that brings people together like that. I love people. My whole thing about what I do is for everyone else.”
Thousands of people worldwide of various backgrounds can attest to the high quality of her work. The folks at LACMA commissioned her to recreate the work of Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami in piñata form. She built seven massive heads standing at nine feet each for the Howard Griffin gallery’s show featuring the work of street artist Giacomo Bufarini, a.k.a. RUN. She built a piñata jukebox with working lights. The curators of Long Beach’s Music Tastes Good festival have commissioned her to create three giant hands for use at the festival.
A lot of her personal work is influenced by science-fiction, pop culture, and Japanese art and animation. The walls, shelves, and even ceiling of Piñata Design Studio are adorned with the likes of Spider-Man, Chewbacca, a massive Millennium Falcon, the Joker, and various characters from the works of Hayao Miyazaki. She also creates masks using the same material.
She also designed the studio with the community in mind. People who enter the studio aren't just prospective customers; they're members of a community invited to partake in artistic activities such as helping to build the tall, paper maché tree centerpiece in the store. They offer workshops and small, DIY kits for children to create their own small piñatas. Their YouTube channel includes piñata building tutorials so people can learn the process of creating a simple piñata at home.
The piñata serves as the climax to various festivities, most notably in that of children’s birthday parties. It’s the object people of all ages gather around and underneath of after hours of anticipation. It’s the focal point in a celebration of joy yet, in a cruel irony, those responsible for creating that object are invisible to most people, their labor unrecognized, their work devalued and their lives nonexistent.
It is for these reasons why she set out to create more artistic, custom piñatas of all sizes: to push people’s limits of what a piñata can be and grant the piñata makers the respect and recognition they deserve while inspiring others to pursue their own dreams and ambitions.
"I really want to serve as an inspiration that you don't have to work in a 9-to-5 slave labor job," she explains. "If you really have the passion and the drive you can turn anything into something, you can help create and inspire others so they can do what they love too because this world is pretty depressing especially with how everything is being monetized and taken over by machines and the majority of those jobs left are just customer service jobs. What's going to happen? What's going to be left afterward? Art. People creating. That's going to stand the test of time."
Top Image: Piñata Design Studio | Ivan Fernandez