The piñata king likes big. His royal highness, known in less formal circles as 43-year-old Tony Dominguez, makes 12-foot-tall Virgenes de Guadalupe out of papier-mâché (the ones at the Century City restaurant Pink Taco are his). He makes 2-story-tall skeletons and massive cacti and frogs and grinning suns and devils.
Those giant puppets are a form of traditional Mexican folk art called judas. For a long time, the art of making judas was lost in the United States. As demand for them died, knowledge of how to make them faded. Contemporary artisans would try, but once the puppets got to a certain size, they'd collapse.
Dominguez, however, brought the art back. His uncle was in the construction business, and Dominguez learned from him. Basic framing and building techniques that work for houses also work for giant papier-mâché puppets, apparently.
"A lot of people can't work in this scale," Dominguez says. They don't understand how to reinforce a structure, or they'd use the wrong grade of cardboard. It's also a lot more strenuous. And expensive — one of Dominguez's pieces is insured for $250,000.
The piñata king didn't always work big. He actually started small. Dominguez learned the fine art of piñata making from his baby sitter, a woman from Juarez, Mexico, who owned a piñata store. They'd make piñatas after school at Dominguez's home in East L.A.
After he grew up, Dominguez opened his own piñata store. He can't remember precisely who first started calling him "Piñata King," only that the name stuck. He was in his 20s then, even more energetic than he is now. He'd churn out 100 piñatas a week.
Going bigger was inevitable, as far as he is concerned. Giant puppets and piñatas are made of the same stuff as the small ones, after all — paper, water, flour paste. Neighborhood kids would work at his store, and soon they were learning how to make giant puppets instead of tagging walls and freeway overpasses. Dominguez had a small standing army of paper artists. He began to think of the store less as a place of business and more as a bona fide cultural institute.
Though comical and friendly, Dominguez's aesthetic draws heavily from the Mexican celebration Dia de los Muertos. There have been various projects over the years: Hollywood Forever Cemetery's Day of the Dead party (he made the puppets that they use every year), the Kah Tequila bottles shaped like skulls (he designed them), the La Muerte Vive rock opera (ongoing) and the Festival de la Gente downtown, which he ran for a decade and which regularly drew crowds of more than 170,000. "We used to shut down the Sixth Street Bridge," he recalls.
Today, Dominguez's giant paper constructions can be seen in music videos, trade show displays and television commercials. At one point he got so busy with the big stuff that he closed down his piñata store, because "artistically you need to go into your shell and concentrate."
But those patiently awaiting the return of the king, fear not: He is currently looking for space downtown to reopen the store. He has not forsaken you. "Piñatas are something you use as a kid," he says. "And we're all kids at heart. No matter what darkness the world brings you, piñatas light that up."