WATERLOO, Iowa — Lying on industrial scaffolding, his legs dangling high above the ground, graffiti artist Paco Rosic reaches for a can of Leather Brown paint. With a quick, rattling shake, he squeezes the nozzle and adds subtle highlights to the hand of God reaching for Adam.
Rosic is using 12-ounce cans of spray paint to fulfill an almost lifelong obsession: to re-create one of the world’s greatest artistic works — Michelangelo’s frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling — in his own street style.
Rosic, 27, and his family have spent their life savings, and his parents have taken a second mortgage on their home to buy a dilapidated building in downtown Waterloo, a city about two hours northeast of Des Moines.
They paid $67,000 in January for the two-story, 1870s brick building that once housed an antiques store. The shop’s ceiling wasn’t curved, so the family replaced it with a plaster one that, at its highest point, is gently arched 14 feet above the ground. Rosic had 2,511 square feet of blank space.
The family says it is spending several hundred thousand dollars to turn the rest of the building into a jazz club. A cafe, opening in November, will be installed under the ceiling.
Rosic spent the past four months reproducing a nearly half-scale replica of the fresco illustrating the creation of man and early Biblical history, including nine scenes from the Book of Genesis and seven Old Testament prophets. When he started, he carried a sketch of the Sistine Chapel ceiling onto the scaffolding. Now, it sits at home; he has memorized it.
Michelangelo, who was commissioned to paint the chapel ceiling in 1508, finished in 1512. Rosic is almost done.
His reproduction is smaller, more vibrantly colored and has far fewer details: The eyes and cheekbones of the figures are made with broad lines of paint instead of tiny, delicate brushstrokes.
Some of Rosic’s Ignudi, or the naked males painted in the corners of the creation scenes, are surrounded by garlands of oak leaves, just like Michelangelo’s. The emerald-green garlands, like the folds in the prophets’ robes and the gentle sway of Noah’s beard blowing in the breeze, were painted freehand.
But Rosic said he left out thousands of tiny acorns clustered around the figures because “it’s too small of a detail. It would look like a big blob.”
So far, he has drained more than 2,000 cans of Krylon paint, regularly wiping out the stock of every Wal-Mart, craft store and hardware shop in a 10-mile radius. With each can costing about $4.50, Rosic estimates he’s spent $9,000 on paint supplies alone.
He needs more.
“My friends thought I was crazy,” said Rosic, a Bosnian who emigrated to the United States with his family nearly 10 years ago. “So did my family. But this has been something I’ve wanted to do since I was a child.”
An agnostic raised by a Roman Catholic mother and Muslim father, Rosic said his focus is more on reverence for art than God. But after a local newspaper wrote about the project a couple months ago, it captured the attention of art aficionados and the faithful alike.
Recent visitors, Rosic said, included art teachers from Minneapolis and an employee from the New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, Iowa. Most ignored a handwritten sign on the front door: “Please do not disturb the artist while painting, unless you have an appointment or you are the media.”
Religious groups around the world have e-mailed Rosic, asking about his inspiration. Art instructors have pestered him for private tours. And thousands have flocked to his Web site, where he has posted snapshots of the work.
His fascination with the Sistine Chapel began at age 6, when his mother, Anna, began sharing her passion for art. In the family home outside Sarajevo, Anna, Paco, and his older brother, Alen, would study books filled with the works of Pablo Picasso and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
But it was Michelangelo Buonarroti who captured Rosic’s imagination.
“He always was drawing” and asking questions about the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s work, said Anna, 45. The Rosices fled the violence in Bosnia in 1992 and settled in Germany. There, Rosic was exposed to hip-hop music and graffiti art. He began painting murals at nightclubs and tagging railroad cars.
In 1997, the Rosices arrived in Iowa, where they had relatives. Local corporations hired Rosic to paint edgy street murals and design company logos.
“He kept telling us that he was going to paint the Sistine Chapel,” said his father, Jacky, 51. “I didn’t believe him. Over time, he convinced me he was serious.”
Wanting to support their son and hoping a cafe would help pay for the project, Anna and Jacky started looking for a building with a ceiling large enough to become his canvas. Paco joined the search.
They found the spot late last year in Waterloo, population 66,400. The town is slowly rebounding from the 1980s, when scores of family farmers were driven into bankruptcy and the largest employer, Deere & Co., made deep job cuts. Rosic traveled to Rome this spring and spent four days in the Sistine Chapel sketching details. Back home, he practiced painting each panel and learning to work while lying down.
“We had a city inspector come in, and spend a long time looking at the ceiling,” said Alen Rosic, 29. “He said, ‘I like it. That man next to God? He’s naked. Don’t you think the people need more clothes?’ I looked at Paco, and we tried not to laugh.”
Trying to reach a far corner to finish a column, Rosic stands up on the scaffolding. With his legs apart, his spine nearly horizontal, he aims a can of Almond at the ceiling. With a few quick strokes, the outer edge of a column appears.
He grabs a can of white. Carefully, he uses the white to lighten the brown and create the illusion of depth around the curve of the column.
A mask protects Paco’s nose and lungs. Though the temperature in the room hovers in the 50s, sweat trickles down his face.
Interruptions are constant. His cellphone rings. It’s the fifth stranger to call this hour. When two more visitors show up, Rosic calls it a day.
He caps his cans of Watermelon (for God’s robe) and Woven Tapestry (for the snake’s tail in the Garden of Eden).
Peeling off his mask, he climbs down the yellow metal scaffolding and steps gingerly over dozens of empty cans littered across the floor. He smiles and offers to give a tour.Snapshots of the work are posted at artist Paco Rosic’s Web site: www.pacorosic.com