BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI
There is the product.
There is the mask.
And, of course, there is the name.
Each stands out on its own. Combine the three and you come up with Isaac Coronado, who has drawn from his heritage, his personal history and his love of Transformers to create one of the most popular and iconic brands in the card-art field.
Coronado, 48, is the man behind the mask and the Optimus Volts brand. His work, which features aspects of his Mexican heritage such as Dia de Los Muertos, is easy to spot. Coronado has created thousands of cards over the last 20 years featuring, among other things, sugar skulls that make for a wonderfully macabre take on the world of sports.
His brand name combines his love of Transformers, his street name [Volts] as a teenager and his heritage. His logo is a combination of the Autobots symbol and the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, giving Coronado one of the most unique and identifiable identities in what has become a rapidly crowded field.
“I was a big Transformers fan in the Eighties,” said Coronado, who lives in San Diego. “That cartoon resonated with me. Volts is my old street name growing up around the gangs. I was pretty tall and I hung out with the gangs but every time I got to the point that they would try to get me in, I was like ‘No, I’m cool’. It was never to a point where I was 100 percent in but I backed them.
“I had some fights and some scars from some knives. I also knew that [life] was not for me. I had a sawed-off shotgun pointed at me from 15 feet away when I was probably 17. When it got too rough I thought ‘What am I doing?’ and got the hell out.”
And, if all that isn’t enough, there is the luchador mask he dons for the final touch, making his persona complete.
“I love my heritage and my culture,” he said. “I loved lucha libre growing up and it [the mask] is my alter ego. When I put the mask on, I am not afraid, I’m not a timid guy. It makes me not be afraid of awkwardness and not be a shy person. I usually wear it at art shows or special events. I recently did a grand re-opening of my studio and wore it.”
Coronado has always been interested in art, incorporating whatever he could find to create unique and one-of-a-kind pieces. He was doing gallery shows and pop-up shows in the late 1990s and was a fixture on Southern California’s underground art scene. He would use common cards as mixing pallets but then began painting on the cards.
He began with little characters such as Marvel or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles but then began to focus on Dia de Los Muertos. He kept up that work for quite a while as he continued selling art prints. It wasn’t until a friend suggested that he show the cards and incorporate them into his work that his popularity began to rise. That was just over a decade ago.
“That’s when things started growing for me,” said Coronado, who also owned a baseball card shop at the height of the 1990s junk wax era. “Before Covid I started posting on Instagram and that’s where a lot of people were finding me. [Fellow artist and collector] Donnie B contacted me and told me that there was another artist that is wearing a mask and that’s when KardKiller came about. He loved my work and I loved his, along with Donnie’s, and they started promoting me, saying that I had been doing it before all of them.
“I wasn’t the first, though. The first person would probably be a kid in the 1950s drawing a mustache on a card or blacking out teeth. That’s kind of how it started. Now, I’m showing cart art in galleries here in San Diego and Los Angeles and Riverside, stuff like that.”
Coronado has created thousands of cards, about 70 percent of which he says are baseball. He grew up loving the Padres but he also had an affinity for the mid-80s Mets, a raucous group that featured the likes of Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. Strawberry was his favorite until “you find out as a kid what cocaine is”.
It was around that time Coronado began drawing and painting. He eventually went to a local community college and took some art classes and was offered grants to attend art schools in San Francisco but never wound up going. While his tuition would have been paid for, he couldn’t afford rent and food because he was living paycheck to paycheck.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a firefighter or a baseball player,” Coronado said. “Then when I was a late teenager turning into a young adult, I wanted to be a gallery artist. At the time, I was studying the greats like Jackson Pollock, Anddy Warhol, Monet, Van Gogh, all of them. I was going to galleries and had a great teacher/mentor that was trying to tell me to get out of the gang world and get away from the streets.
“He would offer me his time and show me how to paint and draw and make money while helping me make a portfolio for a design firm because back them artists were getting hired for advertising firms.”
Coronado continues to produce more traditional art but gravitating toward cart art has gained him a national following. He took a chance and decided to make art his full-time job about two-and-a-half years ago and the gamble has paid off. He recently moved into a bigger studio and is largely revered in the industry.
He usually charges between $50 and $150 per card depending on the piece’s complexity and the amount of time it takes to complete the project. Coronado works with acrylic paint and his cards are six layers. He can do multiple cards at once, working on one then moving to another as the others dry. He estimates that he has sold thousands of cards.
“I probably have 10 or 15 cards in front of me and I work a layer at a time,” said Coronado, who has also expanded to working on bobbleheads. If I really timed it, I could bust it out pretty fast, less than an hour.”
Some of Coronado’s recent creations a Dave Parker with a cobra wrapped around his bat [for his nickname, The Cobra], a Fernando Valenzuela as a toreador and Andre “The Hawk” Dawson. He even did a series with animal prints on the backs of the cards.
“I’ve started doing portraits and bigger stuff, too,” he said. “I did a Sandy Koufax where I did my own style but only in the crowd and not the player. That was a big poster-sized piece. I’ve done a lot of Padres players, too.
“I just do whatever comes into my head. Sometimes I pick up a card and like the pose. Or I’ll pick up packs here and there and think, I like that card, I’m going to paint on it unless someone commissions me. Then I paint on the card in my style and send it back.”
There is the product.
There is the mask.
There is the name.
He’s Optimus Volts. And once you see his work, you likely won’t forget it.