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A Hard Knock Life For A Pinata Maker's Art

Imagine spending a whole week sculpting a work of art. Then, just hours after it's finished, someone at a party whacks it to shreds with a stick.

Such is the life of Romeo Gilberto Osorio, a San Francisco-based artist who makes his living making pinatas.

Pinatas shaped like animals, monsters and cartoon characters were a part of Osorio's childhood in El Salvador.

"That was our passion, you know, when we were kids. Not because we wanted to break a character [like] Mickey Mouse or something, [but] because of the treasure inside," Osorio says.

Osorio's passion is art. He's a serious sculptor and local San Francisco galleries display his Mesoamerican and pre-Columbian inspired art. But it's not his art that pays the bills. It's his pinatas.

Michael Jackson Party

His small Excelsior neighborhood studio is called Pinata Art.

Giant paper mache footballs, mouse heads and turtles dangle from the ceiling. Five-foot tall princesses, robots and superheroes line the walls. And front and center in the store window stands Osorio's latest commission, one he's been working on all week: a 5-foot-tall Michael Jackson wearing a red jacket with yellow epaulets.

Osorio makes about 15 pinatas each week. He dedicates each day to a different step in the process. By Friday, the glue is dry, and the pinatas are ready to go.

"Because I do custom-made pinatas, I hardly have any competition," he says.

Osorio created this pinata for 7-year-old Ramona Mauroff's Michael Jackson-themed birthday party. It took partygoers about 15 minutes to beat it enough to reach the candy inside.
Stephanie Martin for NPR /
Osorio created this pinata for 7-year-old Ramona Mauroff's Michael Jackson-themed birthday party. It took partygoers about 15 minutes to beat it enough to reach the candy inside.

Osorio says most pinatas sold in the U.S. are small cheap ones, made in Mexico or China; his cost up to $75. But customers are willing to pay that much because they are works of art. And they hold more candy -- up to 10 pounds.

They're also harder to break, so everyone at the party can get in a few whacks.

'Art Is Ephemeral'

The Michael Jackson pinata makes a big entrance at a birthday party for 7-year-old Ramona Mauroff. Ramona's father David Mauroff climbs onto a deck above the backyard and begins swinging the pinata from the end of a garden hoe.

About a dozen first-grade girls, dressed in glittery hats and gloves, take turns clobbering it with a plastic baseball bat.

Justine Underhill, Ramona's mother, says she knew the pinata would be a big hit at her daughter's Michael Jackson-themed party.

"There's been a Michael Jackson obsession spreading through the first grade at Ramona's school. I think the kids became aware of Michael Jackson when he died," Underhill says.

The pinata is indeed durable. But finally, the girls break through its middle, sending an avalanche of candy to the ground. It takes about 15 minutes to destroy Osorio's pinata.

Back in his studio, Osorio is philosophical about the fate of his creations.

"Art now is ephemeral in many ways, you know. You can do a performance and never repeat it in your life, but you can become famous," Osorio says.

Still, there are those customers who can't bear to break their pinatas. To them, Osorio says, remember the treasure inside. Better yet, buy two pinatas -- one to break and one to save. That means more money for him to pursue his art -- the kind that doesn't pay the bills.

Copyright 2010 KQED

United States & World Morning EditionAll Things Considered
Stephanie Martin