2006-10-01 04:00:00 PDT Waterloo, Iowa -- Lying on industrial scaffolding, his legs dangling 13 feet 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.
Paco is using 12-ounce cans of spray paint to fulfill his lifelong obsession: To re-create one of the world's greatest artistic works -- Michelangelo's fresco on the Sistine Chapel ceiling -- in his own street style.
Paco 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 this sleepy Midwestern downtown, 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 hired workers to tear it down and create a plaster one that, at its highest point, is gently arched 14 feet above the ground. Paco ended up with 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, is being built beneath the ceiling.)
Paco has spent the last four months reproducing a nearly half-scale replica of the fresco illustrating the birth of man and early Christian 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's memorized the painting.
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 Paco'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 without the aid of stencils or tape.
But Paco 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, Paco estimates that he's spent $9,000 on paint supplies alone.
He still needs more.
"My friends thought I was crazy," said Paco, 27, a Bosnian who immigrated to Waterloo, Iowa, with his family nearly a decade 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 Catholic mother and Muslim father, Paco said his focus is more on reverence to 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, said Paco, have included elderly women from Des Moines, art teachers from Minneapolis and a staffer 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."
"This is unbelievable," said Kathy Snider, a visitor from Davenport, Iowa. "I'm a Catholic, so of course I've seen pictures of the Sistine Chapel. This is probably the closest I'm ever going to get to see the real thing."
Religious groups around the world have e-mailed Paco, asking about his inspiration. Art instructors have pestered him for private tours. And thousands of people have flocked to his Web site, www.paco-rosic.com, where he has posted snapshots of the work in progress.
Paco's fascination with the Sistine Chapel began at age 6, when his mother Anna began sharing her passion for art. In the family home outside of 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 that captured Paco's imagination.
"He always was drawing," and asking questions about the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo's work, said Anna, 45. The Rosics fled the violence in Bosnia in 1992, and settled in Germany. There, Paco was exposed to hip-hop music and graffiti art. He began painting murals at nightclubs and tagging railroad cars.
In 1997, the Rosics arrived in Iowa, where they had relatives. Anna and Jacky, Paco's father, landed jobs at a grocery store. Alen studied photography at Hawkeye Community College here. Local corporations, including a sushi restaurant and a Web-hosting company, hired Paco to paint edgy street murals and design company logos.
"He kept telling us that he was going to paint the Sistine Chapel," said 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 next to what was once Grandpa Harry's Antiques and Collectibles in downtown Waterloo (pop. 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. But even in a place hungry for innovation, Paco's idea was considered crazy.
The artist didn't care. He traveled to Rome this spring and spent four days in the Sistine Chapel sketching details. Back at home, he practiced painting each panel: Paco hung the frames from wooden rafters in his garage and learned to work while lying down.
The Community National Bank here loaned Paco and his family the money to buy the building, and pay for construction costs and the paint. Family friend Gary Kelley, an illustrator from Cedar Falls known for his murals with Barnes and Noble, served as a mentor.
"He has a passion and a focus that most artists his age don't have," Kelley said. "I knew that once everyone saw his progress, people would be intrigued."
Even critics have offered ideas for improving history.
"We had a city inspector come in, and spend a long time looking at the ceiling," said Alen, 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, Paco stands up on the scaffolding. With his legs apart, his spine bowed nearly horizontal, he aims a can of Almond at the ceiling. With a few quick strokes, the outer edge of a column appears.
A faint, brownish haze floats around his slender, 5-foot-9 frame. He grabs a can of white. Carefully, methodically, he uses the white to lighten the brown, and create the illusion of depth around the curve of the column.
A filtered black mask protects Paco's nose and lungs. Though the temperature in the room hovers in the 50s, sweat trickles down the side of his face.
The interruptions are constant. His cell phone rings. It's the fifth stranger to call this hour with questions.
When two more visitors show up, Paco 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. Paco smiles and offers to give the newcomers a tour.