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The Art of Packaging Safe Sex

Health: Will attractive packaging 'de-stigmatize condoms'? The sponsor and winners of a design contest, including an L.A. teenager, are counting on it.

June 25, 1996|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Picture this: It's prom night. You've waited all school year for this special evening together.

Between dances, your lips meet in a sizzling kiss. She sighs, and extracts from her evening bag a beautiful parcel the size of a dance card. When you open it, a latex prophylactic falls out with this romantic message: "Don't forget to wear a condom."

Thanks to a group of inspired young artists, safe sex is suddenly avant-garde.

And "Prom Night"--18-year-old artist Ulysses Garcia's winning entry in the Public Art Works' Prophylactic Artifice contest--may soon be in the back pockets, wallets and purses of thousands of Los Angeles teenagers.

Garcia, a recent graduate of the Catholic boys school Selesian High in East L.A., already has distributed nearly 400 of his unique "Prom Night" accessories. "I couldn't announce it at school or anything, because, you know, church policy and all. . . . So I just give them out to friends or anybody who hears I have them and wants some. They are very popular."

Garcia's sister and girlfriend helped distribute the packages to girls who wanted them for their partners. And, nobody--so far--has objected. "No one makes a big deal of it because they know it's for a good cause," says the soft-spoken artist.

The front of Garcia's package design is a dreamy depiction of a couple in formal dress dancing beneath a mirrored ball. "Tonight is the NIGHT . . . " is the breathless caption. Inside is a Kimono PS Plus condom, with spermicide.

The East L.A. art student is one of four winners statewide in a contest staged by Marin-based Public Art Works, a nonprofit group that commissions socially conscious art for public uses. Other winners include Maria Argyropoulos, a 24-year-old Disney artist from Northridge; Cindy Lucas, a 15-year-old student from Corte Madera, and SaraJane Robinson-Retondo, a 20-year-old Sausalito artist.

Argyropoulos' entry was a computer-generated underground rave tunnel. The Lucas design features a pastel portrait of a brown dog with a gold earring, two puppies and the motto: "Keep the population regulated. . . ."

Robinson-Retondo's condom package is a geometric Native American design.

Garcia, who was named for the famed Greek warrior of mythology, began his personal odyssey as an artist before he could read or write. "I've always loved to draw, and more recently, to paint. I love cartooning, and I'd sculpt if I could afford it."

"Ulie," as he signs his work, created his gentle "Prom Night" couple with vibrant Pentel markers on a drawing table in his bedroom. It reflects his passion for his favorite color--"yellow--every, every single different tone of yellow"--and his favorite deceased artist, Michelangelo.

He and the other contest winners won $100 each for their efforts, plus the exposure that mass production of their designs will bring. The last time Garcia's art received public recognition was for his work with a group of young muralists at Boyle Heights' Academia de Arte Yepes.

Their soft portrait of the Madonna and Christ Child was selected for a White Memorial Medical Center Christmas card. A few months later--on Valentine's Day, the start of National Condom Week--Garcia entered the condom art contest.

Northern California artist Dino Colombo was commissioned to produce the contest to find "cool" condom covers worthy of the pickiest Gen Xers as a way to "de-stigmatize condoms." Although some critics said the contest trivialized the issue of teenage sexual activity, contest sponsors said the artful package designs "stimulate a healthy awareness of the need for safe sex."

A recent White House report suggests that half of all new HIV infections in the nation are among people younger than 25. Properly used, latex condoms with spermicidal lubricant can significantly reduce not only the risk of pregnancy but also of contracting AIDS and other diseases that can be sexually transmitted.

Last week, at the request of Garcia, Public Art Works Director Bill Morrison came to Los Angeles to meet with health educators to map ways to use the colorful condom covers to bring the safe sex message to young people in Southern California.

Morrison brought 7,000 of the winning package designs to share with White Memorial Medical Center's "Building a Healthier Community" project and other neighborhood health groups, including the Avance Human Service and its bilingual AIDS Hotline. The condoms themselves will be donated by health groups and manufacturers.

"We take calls all the time from people who want to learn how to use a condom, and I have to go the whole nine yards explaining what it is and how it works," says Avance official Veronica Lopez. "When people say giving out condoms just invites kids to have sex, all I can say is that we frequently get kids on the line who are 13 or 14. At the end of our conversation, they're still planning to go through with it. Sometimes, there is nothing adults can do to stop it."

Or as Garcia puts it: "It's just easier when friends provide contraceptives to friends. It's a real gift. And for my friends, they don't just get a condom. They get a piece of my art to go with it."

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