In 1997, my partner Ken and I were living in Oregon when we had a pivotal discussion about everyman’s dream: quitting our jobs, buying a boat and sailing to the Caribbean. A self-taught artist in my spare time, I dreamt of painting for real on some tropical isle like Gauguin. I knew virtually nothing about boating, but the idea sounded so appealing (and romantic), that four months later we were proudly sitting on our 33-foot trawler, renamed Ruff Life.
After a grueling 4 month cruise we landed in Puerto Rico. Weary and shell-shocked, I promptly declared my cruising days over. Ken jumped right in to the community and opened a kite shop, while, for therapy, I painted on anything I could find. Weekends found us wandering around the many craft festivals across the island. We were amazed by what we saw: carved wooden saints, fabric dolls, and delicately painted feathers, interspersed with seed jewelry, paper maché masks and homemade candies. And the relaxed-looking artists appeared to be having a good time.
One day, a friend introduced me to the local variety of calabash gourd, found throughout the Caribbean and known in Puerto Rico as the higűera. I knew nothing about gourd art, or the typical uses for this hard-shelled fruit. Other higűera artists fashioned traditional items such as masks, maracas, and simple tableware; what could I do that was different?
“Why don’t you paint on them the way you used to paint on plates and furniture?” Ken offered. Tole painting with a Caribbean twist? Why not? I eventually decided I wanted to participate in the festivals I’d only visited. I navigated my way through the process of becoming licensed and attending shows all over the island. Over the years, people have asked me how I managed to do that despite my lousy Spanish, so here are firsthand experiences and some pitfalls to avoid.
So what exactly IS an Artesan?
By the mid-20th century, many of the island craft forms were in danger of disappearing altogether. In the 1970’s, a dedicated group of artists worked tirelessly to reverse this trend. Together with the Institute of Culture, they organized and promoted craft festivals, which the public enthusiastically embraced.
The ranks of the Artesan swelled so that by 1995, in order to maintain excellence and integrity, the following list of qualifiers was mandated into law (No. 166, dated August 11, 1995):
1. The artist’s work must be produced in Puerto Rico.
2. The artist is of Puerto Rican decent, or a bona fide resident of Puerto Rico.
3. The artist is encouraged to utilize local materials.
4. The work must be produced by hand or with tools, equipment or instruments which supplement such labor.
5. The work must be the original designs of the artist.
6. Molds, or other methods of mass production, must be of the artist’s designs only.
7. The theme of the work should be inspired by the diverse aspects of the Puerto Rican culture, such as its history, fauna, flora, symbols, traditions and customs.
8. Additional themes of universal appeal, such as love, fraternity, peace and other inspiration from the personal life of the artist.
Artisans are not restricted by traditional art forms. Stainless steel sculptures and blown glass are exhibited next to coconut coffee cups and hand-rolled cigars. So, inspired by the beauty which surrounded me, I practiced on my higüeras until I felt comfortable enough to make a pitch. My stained-glass artist friend, Evelyn, also wanted to become licensed and suggested we head for San Juan together. Thank goodness, because I didn’t know where to go, who to call, or what to bring.
The three main agencies working with licensed artesans are the Institute of Culture, the Tourism Department, and the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company, or PRIDCO, responsible for economic growth on the island.
PRIDCO will be your first stop to getting licensed. Call for an appointment, usually granted on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company (PRIDCO)
Oficina de Desarrollo Artesanal
Ave. F. D. Roosevelt 355, Hato Rey,
P.O. Box 362350, San Juan, PR 00936-2350
Telephone: (787) 758-4747
Open Monday – Friday
Take at least 5 samples of your work, a picture ID, and your Social Security card, not just your number. You will be informed at the end of the interview whether or not your art is acceptable.
If it is, you will be issued a photo ID. If your work is not approved, your interviewer will tell you why not and offer suggestions for re-applying.
I wondered if I had a chance in Hades. I did. My interviewer was delighted with my new style of gourd art, and one hour later I was a licensed Artesana. Evelyn was, too. We were thrilled, and on the way home congratulated ourselves on our good fortune and yet-to-be-discovered talent! As we whooped it up, we discussed our individual interviews. Turned out we didn’t receive quite the same information, but between the two of us we figured out what to do next.
Congratulations, you are a certified Artesan! Now what?
After PRIDCO, you should visit both the Cultural Institute and the Tourism Department and ask to be added to their Artesan lists. Why go to all three?
Because each sponsors their own shows.
El Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña (Cultural Institute) by far organizes more shows around the island than any other agency. The Institute is located in Old San Juan, in the Museum of Casablanca on San Sebastian Street. It’s in a
picturesque part of Old San Juan, so why not spend the day?
For more information or to schedule an appointment:
Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña
P.O. Box 9024184
San Juan, P.R. 00902-4184
Open Monday – Friday
La Compañia de Turismo de Puerto Rico (Tourism Company) is also located in Old San Juan, on the Paseo la Princesa. They have a large, popular festival each July (the Month of the Artesan), and together with the Municipality of San Juan, coordinate Artesan activities in several plazas in the Old City.
Every two years or so, Tourismo organizes a wonderful International Festival which lasts for 9 days and has artists participating from around the globe. Great entertainment and good crowds make for a fun show. You can find more about their activities on their informative website.
Compañía de Turismo de Puerto Rico
P.O. Box 9023960
San Juan, P.R. 00902-3960
Do not assume that once you’re on PRIDCO’s list you’re automatically included on the others. While the Big Three do interact and occasionally promote fairs together, in order to be eligible for all the major shows, you will need to contact and interview for each. Ugh. But you only have to do it once.
When can I start selling? And where?
Right away. The sooner you get your name on those lists, the sooner you’ll start getting invitations in the mail. You don’t have to become a licensed Artesan to sell your crafts, but if you want an opportunity to go to the more popular festivals and tourist attractions around the island, it is mandatory. And the area with the highest concentration of both is the capitol.
The San Juan metropolitan area is the best place to capitalize on tourists eager to take home souvenirs. But in order to sell anywhere in San Juan, including the Old City Plazas and the cruise ship docks, you must register with the Municipality. The office governing Artesan activities is located on Avenida Carlos Chardon in Hato Rey. Call (787) 347-0247 or (787) 289-0310 for an appointment and directions.
For general questions:
Municipio de San Juan
P.O. Box 70179
San Juan, PR 00936-8179
Even if you don’t plan on displaying your art in San Juan, I would definitely recommend you pay them a visit at some point in time. You just never know.
If you do manage to exhibit near the cruise ships, by and large you won’t be disappointed. These floating universes generally dock on the weekends, sometimes several a day, and tourists love to shop. But be forewarned: prior to debarking, passengers are often advised to bargain with the locals, aka, us. Many think they are visiting another third-world country; not realizing that as a Commonwealth, Puerto Rico is comparable to traveling to another state, with stateside salaries and prices, more or less. Haggling is not an uncommon practice, but you are under no obligation to comply. What I found is that the attitude of a customer generally determines whether or not they receive a discount, either from me or my compadres. When one customer became aggressive to the point of rude with a friend, Miguel simply raised his price.
Once you start going to shows, you’ll learn about other festivals from fellow artists. Organizers will come up to your table to invite you directly. There is no shortage of Artesan fairs around the island, and the number you attend is entirely up to you. Don’t underestimate smaller, school-or-business-sponsored events; I’ve made a killing at 3-hour gigs.
Another useful paper to have in your possession is a Patente Provisional, or business permit. Issued by your local mayor’s office (Oficina de Alcalde), a Patente allows you to set up and sell anywhere in the city limits in which you reside, barring any local restrictions. If anyone tries to ‘shoo’ you away, you can prove your legal right to be there. This permit is free for the licensed Artesan; otherwise you pay a percentage of your estimated income.
A friend from my town of La Parguera used to set up in the plaza on Saturday nights, demonstrating and selling her unusual spray-paint art.
Bobbie was not a licensed Artesan, but she did have a permit from the city hall. She hawked her wares in this manner for over a year until she and her sailboat moved on. Unlike your license from PRIDCO, you will need to renew your Patente each year.
This all sounds very nice, but what if I don’t know how to do anything?
I am living proof that becoming an artist is not something you embark on since childhood. What is vital is your desire to create. You can teach yourself, aided by instruction books and videos, or you may prefer to be formally trained.
The Escuela de Artes Plasticas de Puerto Rico offers courses in fine arts and crafts, including painting and sculpture, leading to a bachelor’s degree. Also available are Open Study and Extension programs for those not interested in a degree. Look at their website for more information.
Escuela de Artes Plasticas de Puerto Rico
P.O. Box 9021112
San Juan, P.R. 00902-1112
The Cultural Institute offers classes through their own Artes Plasticas programs. They will be happy to give you more information when you go register. Many artesans hold their own workshops and are willing to tutor a novice, so it never hurts to ask if you see a craft which interests you. Learning the mechanics of a new craft is the easy part; what’s harder is developing your own style. Customers are always looking for something new and out of the ordinary. When I was certified in 2002 there were approximately 4,000 licensed artesans around the island. Today’s estimates are 7,000-plus. So make good use of your imagination and try working outside the box to make your artwork stand out.
The 5-Letter Word
Taxes. In 2006, Puerto Rico instituted its first island-wide sales tax.
El Departamento de Hacienda (Treasury Department) requires artisans to register with them to determine whether or not they are required to charge the 7% sales tax. Known as an IVU, you must either carry or display this certification. If you’re at a fair and asked to produce it, you may be subject to a fine if you can’t prove you’ve registered. I attended a show in Old San Juan when one unfortunate Artesan was charged $1,000 for not having his IVU. Ouch! To apply, download a copy of Form #SC 2914, Solicitud de Certificado de Registro de Comerciante y Certificado de Exenciόn from www.hacienda.gobierno.pr, or pick one up at the Hacienda office in your town. Hand deliver or send two copies to:
Departmento de Hacienda
Registro de Comerciantes
P.O. Box 9024140,
San Juan, PR 00902-4140
Fax: (787) 722-0489
You should receive your IVU Certificate in approximately 4-6 weeks. I highly recommend hand delivering the completed form to your local office; they will take one copy, and stamp and return the second to you, proving that you submitted the paperwork. While you wait for the IVU to arrive, make sure you have a copy of your application in your possession when you attend shows! I’ve been asked to prove I registered for taxes more often than to prove I’m an Artesan.
Artesans with larger production operations must collect the 7% island tax and any local taxes (some towns have instituted their own nominal tariff). Most of us are exempt from charging anything. Whew! You’ll have to present your IVU status when you register with the San Juan Municipality, so make sure to get this done before you go on your interview. Please remember that this tax information is only a guide. Contact Hacienda for full details.
You should get something for all your efforts, right? Right!
#1: The first $ 6,000 of your income is tax free! It’s true; it’s the law (No.14, dated June 20, 1970), a copy of which may be obtained from PRIDCO. I always include a copy of this and my Artesan certificate when I file my PR taxes, and I recommend you do, too. I had an issue with Hacienda years ago because this deduction was not entered into their database. I wrote a letter and included copies of my license and the law and it was cleared up, but save yourself some grief and automatically include it with your return.
#2: Artesans are entitled to approximately $1,000 worth of equipment. There’s a long waiting list, so PRIDCO requires you wait for a year before even applying.
Last year I finally received a band saw, scroll saw and belt sander. It costs some time and paperwork, but if you don’t apply you’ll never get it. Learning to wait is an island thing…get enough sand between your toes and you’ll mellow.
#3: Exemption from Import tax. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to afford a new vehicle, you may not have to pay the import tax, which can be substantial. Quite honestly, I never met anyone who actually took advantage of this perk, but PRIDCO can give you more details.
Another pleasant surprise is that most shows you are invited to are free of charge, and you only need to bring your table, chair, and sometimes a tablecloth. If you get a permanent spot in one of the San Juan locations, you will need to supply your own canopy; otherwise it’s not really necessary.
Do I have to speak Spanish?
No, but it helps. Many locals speak English, some understand and speak remarkably well, and a few just won’t utter a word. Trust me; your sales will improve along with your level of Spanish. I have never been good at languages; even after a decade my Spanish still stinks. I fumble my way along, but most people are patient with my botched verbiage and appreciate the effort. Occasionally a “no-English” speaking customer will, after suffering my mahlo Español for awhile, start speaking English and spare us both further agonies. For months after I started attending festivals, I relied almost exclusively on my neighbors to translate. You have no idea how many ways there are for someone to ask, “Do you make these?” It was, and still is, embarrassing. So if someone asked me if I could change one thing about my time as a Puerto Rican Artesan, it’s this: I would have signed up for Spanish classes at the local university as soon as we dropped anchor back in 1997.
A Different Kind of Lifestyle
Living what I jokingly call the ‘carny-life’ has its share of ups and downs. Spending long hours at shows, scrambling for cheap accommodations, and not having a regular paycheck, are offset by the camaraderie among artesans, the freedom to set my own hours and living in paradise. Attending shows around the island has allowed me to meet more diverse people than any other job I’ve held. I’ve experienced Puerto Rico in a way few Norteamericanos have, and I can state, without reservation, that opportunities exist for all. So get inspired, get creative and get going!
Please visit www.andreajansendesigns.com for Artesan links, photographs of gourd art, pertinent Puerto Rico links, free newsletters and more articles about expat life on board the trawler Ruff Life.
For an expanded addition of this article, including forms and contact information for show organizers, visit www.andreajansendesigns.com/artesan.html.