The death of football icon Diego Maradona late last year was a landmark moment for the whole of Argentina, and the entire soccer world mourned the loss of the former Boca Juniors, Barcelona and Napoli forward. Maximiliano Bagnasco’s experiences since that day show how much Maradona still means to his home nation, more than three decades after he led them to glory at the 1986 World Cup.
Maradona, who had been battling health issues, died on Nov. 25 of a heart attack aged 60 at his home on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. News of his death devastated Bagnasco, a 39-year-old artist from the Argentine capital. As he reflected on what it all meant, Bagnasco began doing something he had done countless times: paint Maradona’s likeness.
“I recorded the whole process, and when I finished, I wrote on there, ‘Ciao, Diego. I also drew you on the day you left,'” Bagnasco told ESPN via phone.
The portrait, done in one sitting while Bagnasco’s grief was still fresh, quickly went viral and catapulted his career into the spotlight.
Within hours of him posting the video on Instagram, an Argentine TV show featured Bagnasco’s work during an homage to Maradona. Soon afterward, viewers of the show from across Argentina, including soccer clubs, began reaching out to request his paintings.
“I’ve done paintings of Maradona all of my life,” he said. “When I was a teenager I even did a drawing of him with his daughters and I approached his house, on the corner of Segurola and Habana, to present it to him as a gift.”
Bagnasco never did learn what the Maradona family did with that picture, but there was much more where that came from. He won his first art contest as a nine-year-old, painting reproductions of works by Vincent van Gogh. By the time he decided to make art his profession at 17, he had produced more than a hundred works with Maradona as his muse — despite not considering himself a fan of football.
“Diego looms largest in my country,” Bagnasco said. “He is what represents us most, and he was an inspiration to me.”
Bagnasco said his Instagram following has almost doubled since posting the portrait, with his reach passing from regional recognition to worldwide popularity.
Buenos Aires club Argentina Juniors, where Maradona came up through the youth ranks to make his professional debut, requested Bagnasco’s services for a portrait of their great prodigy within a shrine dedicated to the late superstar. Soon after, Bagnasco fielded calls from media outlets in Venezuela, Italy and China. The artist admits that the experience left him in a state of disbelief.
“I was seeing my name in Portuguese, in Italian,” Bagnasco said. “I never would have imagined that I would be asked to take part in a project in Qatar, or that I would be taking calls from Germany or China.”
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Following his work on Argentinos Juniors’ shrine, Bagnasco and his crew painted two more murals and even the floor of a swimming pool at a private residence – all while being bombarded with requests from all over the world.
“All of a sudden everybody wanted a Maradona mural in their house,” he said. “We talked others into having it done.”
Patio de los Lecheros, a popular Buenos Aires street food market, also commissioned Bagnasco for work honouring Maradona that also served charitable causes. The idea was to do 19 paintings and auction them off, Bagnasco said. “We did 18 at the studio and the last one there on site. I’ve had the press at my studio every day since I posted the first two.”
For the mural at the food market, Bagnasco said he wanted to capture Maradona in different phases of his life: “I wanted to pick images that aren’t common in murals. I’ve painted Diego about 30 times since he left, but I don’t get bored because each one has a different look.” Viewers can see Maradona’s journey from a young and dashing No. 10 at the 1979 Youth World Championship to, years later, the global star with dyed-blond hair clearly enjoying retirement in Cuba.
Demand for Bagnasco’s work has seen them shoot up in value. Naturally, he’s looking to strike while the iron is hot to help him secure his future, a rare opportunity for most working artists. Paintings start at 70,000 Argentine pesos (about $750) but the price depends on the details, the client’s requests and time devoted to the work.
“The prices in Argentina for paintings that take us a day-and-a-half are a bargain if you look at it from another country,” Bagnasco said. “I’m trying to find a middle ground. Before Diego, I charged and worked differently. I’ve been looking for a way to increase my output, for techniques to work faster, to meet the demand.
“Other murals had gone viral because maybe they didn’t resemble Diego and people made fun of them. But the quality of our work took people by surprise, because of how real they look. I always shoot for the same quality with all of my work.”
While Bagnasco’s short-term future involves fulfilling demand for his work from around the world, he keeps an eye on the ultimate goal for an artist who also happens to be a maradonista: painting him for posterity in Naples, the site of his greatest European club glories and where he now has a stadium renamed in his honour.
“A lot of Napoli fans wrote me,” Bagnasco said. “For me, one of the best things that can happen is to paint Maradona in Naples. It would be a dream for an Argentine to paint him over there.”