Even if you have not heard of him, Rube Zilla is already watching you—through his ubiquitous art in the cannabis space and beyond. And the Scorpio with on a mission to find what unites us is going to help show us hope in the ashes of the pandemic.
Sensi created for the cover of this magazine. The piece invites viewers to get lost in a solar system of faces while trying to discover and interpret the 12 signs of the zodiac illustrated among the astral elements—subtle details depict the completion of a cycle, a return to our societal roots.ccording to astrology, rebirth and revival are written in the stars. According to Ruben Del Cabrera (Rube for short), they are also written in the Zodiac-themed artwork
Hidden amid a black-and-white maze of emotions depicted in Rube Zilla’s signature style are symbols representing a restart. A slogan of hope is becoming popular as so many try to make it through COVID-19: After the plague came the Renaissance. Looking at the world through Rube’s eyes, you see a modern renaissance has already begun.
It’s all in the eyes
Look around, and you’ll notice Rube Zilla eyes staring at you from all sorts of places—from large-scale murals in cities across the country, from Timbuk2 bags and custom-commissioned shoes. They look out from the Zilla Charter tour bus in Denver, in which top street artists like Dinkc lead cannabis-friendly tours to discuss their works around the city. You’ll find them on a tin of full-spectrum rosin gummies by Dialed In, in his coloring book by High Times, and on carb caps, bangers, rolling trays, and pipes.
Rube’s illustrations cover dispensary waiting rooms across Colorado and adorn the Buddy Buddy Indoor Natural in San Francisco (the California cannabis producer has even created a Rube.Zilla Kush). You’ll even notice them in New York at the Buffalo Bills game, in Miami for Art Basel, in Los Angeles for the LA Art Show, in a still-in-development-and-so-cool immersive space planned for Las Vegas. You’ll see the faces on public artworks commissioned by the city of Denver and even on the walls of a Colorado middle school. You’ll see the cannabis artist’s unmistakable style everywhere…but you won’t see a fan leaf in any of it.
“I don’t have cannabis motifs in any of my work,” Rube explains when asked what makes him a cannabis artist. “But I feel like at this point in my career, I’ve made my faces synonymous with cannabis culture.” And what lies within that association of art and cannabis is the power to propel the societal rebirth Rube envisions.
A former marine with Puerto Rican roots and a Buffalo, New York upbringing, Rube is a bit of a dichotomy—but he’s not a Gemini. He’s a Scorpio, which means according to astrology.com that he travels in a world that is black and white with little use for gray. The black and white that covers most surfaces in Rube’s world represent the illusion that we are individuals separate from others. The straight lines and the complementing curves stand for a necessary balance in structure and creativity, male-female energy, and emotion.
“Since the beginning, black and white has always represented the duality and polarity of reality,” he says as he sketches the first faces on what becomes the zodiac-themed canvas. It’s late July 2021, and we’re at his friend Jeremy’s place in downtown Denver. Jerm, as he’s known, was the first person to ever buy one of Rube’s pieces, cementing a friendship and kicking off a collaboration/representation relationship between the two. Rube’s son, Remy, watches his father work intently.
“There’s always someone watching,” says Rube, who laughs as he draws another face. The eyes specifically are inspired by a recurring scene in Scooby Doo, one of his favorite cartoons growing up, when the only things seen on an otherwise dark screen were sets of glowing eyes peering out from the dark. “It was the creepiest thing in the world!” Rube laughs. “Just knowing that people in the dark are watching.”
What do you see when you really look?
It’s fun to watch Rube work. He doesn’t plan out his pieces; he just picks up the pen (or marker or can of spray paint, depending on the project) and gets started. He’s a thinker, a dreamer, a make-shit-happen doer as well. It’s easy to like him; it’s easier still to see why people like to be around him. He’s got the best interests of his communities in mind. He has been envisioning a more utopian future for quite a while now, and he’s doing what he can to make it happen.
Make no mistake: Rube is a badass on his way to being the badass, the guy who doodled his way into the zeitgeist and then sketched out the defining spirit and mood from within. He’s expressing himself through a defined visual identity that’s a relatively recent development. (Scroll back to the start of his @rube.zilla instagram page for the visual proof.)
What’s surprising is that he’s relatively new to the whole art thing. After spending 10 years in the military, he settled in Denver and began working in finance. He was bored out of his mind. He had been doodling since he was a child, and he made the risky decision to pursue art full time rather than stay miserable in a “more stable” career. He took a job at a hotel in downtown Denver, “just working overnight security, hours to burn,” he says, “and I would doodle, I would draw.” The position afforded him the opportunity to just create, to see where his mind took his markers on the paper before him.
His now-signature style soon began showing up—its faces—in his drawings. The motifs struck him as “hauntingly beautiful,” so he began working on their structure and form. He had only been at it for a few days when one night as he was arriving for work, he had the traumatic experience of witnessing a man jumping to his death. “A moment like that will change you,” Rube says.
“I relived that moment every day for a year,” Rube says, feeling trapped in the trauma—and it was through drawing mazes of augural faces depicted by the stark black lines and curves of a Sharpie that he mapped his way out. The night of the incident, he stayed at the hotel. “I just grabbed a stack of computer paper and a box of Sharpies and I just kept drawing faces over and over,” he recalls. “In a way it was to just process emotion—just to find a way to move through it. It’s funny how if you follow these patterns—follow grooves and stay the course—it’s like seeking a new plan, finding your flow. And it ends up creating these once-in-a-lifetime moments.”
Bringing everything together
Cannabis has been a part of the healing process as well. The night of the incident, Rube smoked a joint with “the valet kid,” a young guy named Jerm (see above). Jerm now runs Enigma Projects, representing a community of artists, including Rube Zilla. “We went from this thing that happened—the birth of these emotions—and we were able to ride that energetic transition to the light, in a sense.”
Jerm commissioned a custom piece by Rube, asking him to deck out a Timbuk2 bag with his illustrations. While in San Francisco a short time later, Rube wore the bag to an event attended by the brand’s CEO, and it caught her eye. “Shoutout Patti Cazzato!” Rube says. “That night, she said to me, ‘I’m going to change your life tonight, young man.’ And she didn’t lie.” “One of the most beautiful things is knowing that folks can connect to what I’m doing,” he says.
“We’re constantly operating from the space of asking ourselves, ‘How is this project tied to cannabis bringing everything together? How is everyone winning?’ What I feel we are able to do through art and cannabis is build a communal relationship,” he says. He sees his work as attacking stereotypes and stigmas by winning people over at a core value standpoint by connecting.”
“Cannabis and art have always had a connection,” Rube says. “Smoke weed and holy shit you talk to god, you go paint on walls and now they call it hieroglyphics—cave dwellings and whatnot.” Rube feels that we are at the start of a second renaissance. “Real talk though: ‘After the plague came the Renaissance.’ It was the artists that gave life back to the world. People came out to see the murals, they couldn’t wait until Michelangelo was done with the [Sistine Chapel].”
Rube is a walking, talking art history lesson, focusing on the Medici family—also known as the House of Medici—which first attained wealth and political power in Florence in the 13th century. It was the family’s support of the arts and humanities in the 1400s that made Florence the cradle of the Renaissance, according to History Channel editors.
Rube’s lesson is a little less formal: “There was a family that was like, ‘Yo, we got all the gold and jewels on this side of the world. We got money. So, we control now. We want to control then and the future.’ So how do you control history? You tell the story. The Medici family understood that they needed to tell the story, so they asked themselves, ‘How do we support the people who will carry on for the next generation?’ So they supported the artists.”
In the renaissance we are entering now, Rube suggests that the arts can be supported not by a single family or house but by an entire industry that’s already focused on changing the world—the industry focused on the cultivation of a ceremonial plant that is used to open minds, heal bodies, and bring people together.
“The cannabis industry can be the Medici family,” Rube says. “Think about that. It’s not a family, it’s an entire industry that will have limitless bread—all the golden jewels in the entire universe. What if we’re able to support and uplift the people who are telling the story about why cannabis is important? Then we control the history of it.”
A successful cannabis industry “can’t be why we have more space billionaires,” he says. “It needs to be why we have more community sustainability. It’s all about passing the joint, passing the kinetic energy, the success, and bringing it back to our circles at the end of the day.”
The people are ready for it, he points out. We’re collectively hungry for art, culture, and connection. He cites Crush Walls’ urban art event that took place September 2020 amid Covid. “What did people do? They pulled up to the streets, smoked weed, and looked at art. That didn’t stop. That happened in the renaissance.”