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Inspired by the pandemic, a pediatric dentist creates piñatas that are too pretty to smash

Photo: Park Slope Piñatas

NEW YORK CITY (SBG) — Having lived in Brooklyn for just shy of a decade, I'm certainly accustomed to encountering conspicuous displays of eccentricity and creativity, but I can't claim to be entirely desensitized to such occurrences. So when two people carrying an enormous spherical object affixed to a pole crossed my path in Prospect Park, my curiosity was piqued.

The gray and red mass dangling from the rod was a depiction of the coronavirus — or more specifically, it was a three-dimensional realization of the iconic coronavirus image that two illustrators at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created last year. That much was clear. For even though the concept of color loses all meaning when it comes to objects as small as viruses, the widespread distribution of the CDC's fruitful attempt at giving the public an easily comprehensible "beauty shot" of the invisible virus ensured that a gray blob with red spikes would forever be recognized as COVID-19.

Still, I had questions. But as I carried on with my day, I accepted that the mystery of the sculpture's backstory and purpose would remain unsolved, as is the case for many of the city's passing peculiarities.

It turns out, however, that I was far from the only one intrigued by the sight of a larger-than-life virus on the trails of Prospect Park. A tweet containing a photo of the very same coronavirus model I had witnessed in the park garnered a considerable amount of likes in late April. By chance, that tweet ended up on my laptop screen in early May, and with it came answers. The enigmatic object was, in fact, a piñata on its way to meet a violent but well-deserved fate at the hands of several partygoers seeking a means of catharsis.

Without a doubt, smashing a coronavirus piñata to smithereens is a befitting response to the unprecedented turmoil and destruction that has accompanied the pandemic, and the trend has taken off not only in Brooklyn but across the globe. For some, the activity has been a way of releasing anger and frustration. Others have used the piñatas to celebrate their own victories in beating the virus.

Before the coronavirus piñata, there were cancer cell and tumor piñatas of a similar intention. A blogger dubbed hers a "cancerñada" in 2010, describing it as a lumpy red ball with blue veins and streamers; it was filled with chapstick and hand sanitizer. At the opening reception of a 2016 exhibition at a Houston art museum, a mastectomy survivor destroyed a breast-shaped piñata to reveal candy, confetti, and notes from breast cancer survivors. And in 2017, Canadian artist Meaghan Kennedy made a cancer piñata for a friend who was undergoing treatment in Vancouver.

"I feel victorious. I feel like cancer can be beaten," the friend said post-demolition.

The first coronavirus piñatas, or coroñatas, as they've come to be called, started popping up on social media as early as March of 2020. As the lockdowns dragged on way past the point where baking sourdough still seemed like a novel idea, the New York Times catered to the bored-at-home crowd with a guide on how to build your very own papier-mâché coroñata. And for piñata makers struggling to keep their businesses afloat in a world of canceled birthday parties and postponed social gatherings, adding coroñatas to their repertoires offered a stronger chance at survival. If people weren't ordering comic book characters or Disney princesses anymore, perhaps they would still appreciate the opportunity to pulverize an enemy far more threatening than any fictional supervillain.

While the pandemic posed a challenge for preexisting piñata makers, it simultaneously prompted a pediatric dentist in Brooklyn to try her hand at the craft.

Sara Fikree's intentions in creating her first piñata had nothing to do with initiating a career change or even launching a side hustle. Instead, she was simply hoping that a handmade piñata could add a special element to her daughter's November birthday celebration. At that point, eight months had passed since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in New York City, and Fikree had witnessed her two school-age daughters' healthy social lives turn into several months of complete isolation, followed first by socially distanced stoop hangouts in the summer and then by outdoor playtime in the company of one other family with whom Fikree had formed a pod.

An extra-special birthday was certainly in order, Fikree decided, and she set to work on a piñata in the shape of a unicorn's face, complete with a rainbow mane and a golden horn. Of course, if the seven-year-old daughter received a unicorn piñata for her birthday, the nine-year-old would need one as well. Quite a bit larger than the first, Fikree's second creation was nearly the same height as her eldest daughter, as if the children were meant to crawl inside to discover the candy, rather than freeing the piñata's contents with the swift swing of a bat.

The process of creating each sizable unicorn head had been a time-consuming one, but the hours spent surrounded by cardboard and glue sticks had brought Fikree a sense of joy, as did the smiles on her daughters' faces. And so, she didn't hesitate to say yes when one of her friends asked her if she could create a monster truck piñata for an upcoming birthday.

Though Fikree is perfectly satisfied in the field of pediatric dentistry, she's unabashed in claiming art as her true passion. Fikree has no formal art training to speak of, but she does have a history of embarking on creative endeavors. When she got married, a desire to gift her bridesmaids matching pearl necklaces, coupled with a lack of the funds necessary to comfortably buy finished pieces, led to a short-lived jewelry-making obsession. Then, there was a period of time during which Fikree focused her attention on henna. And now, piñatas.

For Fikree, there's no denying her need for a creative outlet. “It just gives me so much pleasure, making something new for someone to appreciate,” she said.

And so Fikree, bound by her appreciative daughters to a lifetime of making piñatas for their future birthdays, decided that she didn’t want to stop there. Under the name Park Slope Piñatas, she uploaded photos of the two unicorns and the monster truck to various social media platforms in hopes that someone out there would be willing to pay her for a custom piñata.

For the right price, Fikree will create for you a piñata shaped like nearly anything you could imagine. She has just one requirement for orders, in keeping with her primary motivation for making piñatas at all — the project needs to offer her some level of creative freedom.

“I don’t care about materials or cost or time, so long as I can really go for it,” Fikree said.

Looking for a coroñata or an elaborate teacup? Send your request her way. For Sonic the Hedgehog and Batman, you’ll have to go elsewhere.

But Fikree stops short of equating her creative spirit with true talent.

“Honestly, what I’m making is not that impressive. Anyone can make these. It’s just that people are not wasting their time making them,” she said.

The accuracy of Fikree's assessment is up for debate. The coronavirus piñata I saw in Prospect Park, which was one of Fikree's most recent creations, seemed fairly spectacular to me, and the positive reaction that the photo had received on Twitter lent credibility to my perspective. Surely, there is a distinction to be made between a basic piñata akin to those found at Party City and one that is unique, well-crafted, and aesthetically pleasing. Both will get the job done, but only the latter will do so in style.

Plenty of DIY attempts would fall squarely into the first grouping of passable-but-ordinary piñatas, whereas Fikree's custom designs are a clear fit for that second category of piñatas with pizzazz. From a distance, they command attention through their vivid hues and inventive structural elements. Up close, personalized details waiting to be discovered on all surfaces of the three-dimensional objects become just as fun to gather as the candy that will drop to the ground after a successful whack.

Creating a piñata, for Fikree at least, is a bit of a haphazard process that involves very little initial planning. She prefers diving in headfirst and finds excitement, not stress, in having no idea exactly where she'll end up.

“I think I’m going to make it one way, but then I’m fluid,” she said. “It’s never rigid.”

Often, Fikree finds herself consumed by the craft, pulling all-nighters to finish transforming recycled cardboard from her building’s basement into a clock tower or a monster truck. And even as she becomes more familiar with the art form and more confident in each step from start to end, Fikree sees little chance of speeding up her process. “When you do it faster, they end up looking a different way,” she said politely.

Translation: They don’t look nearly as good.

Fikree’s finished products are reflective of the time and work that she puts into them, from their staggering size all the way down to the plethora of personalized touches incorporated throughout the design. On the tires of the monster truck, for example, Fikree painted the birthday boy's first and middle name in the precise location where you'd usually expect to locate the brand name. His last name went on the license plate. For a teacup piñata, Fikree pulled out her fine china for inspiration, replacing the brand's name and line with the birthday girl's first, middle, and last name. Never mind that many of these details are found on the bottom of the saucer, where they're less likely to be appreciated — Fikree strives for accuracy.

The personalization of a Big Ben piñata, made for a toddler with a clock obsession, was more subtle, but the attention to detail was evident. Fikree set the clock hands to 2:56 p.m. in a nod to the three-year-old's time of birth and placed an actual bell in the top of the tower. And her COVID piñata, which took two and a half weeks to complete, also had a hidden surprise tucked inside; once destroyed, the piñata would release a strand of RNA.

Even before the pandemic put a pause on celebrations, making a living by selling piñatas was no easy feat.

In an interview with KCET, third-generation piñata maker Yesenia Prieto, the founder of La Piñata Design Studio in Los Angeles County, classified the piñata industry as "a slave labor trade." Speaking from the personal experiences of her family members, Prieto described the measly income earned by assembly line workers at wholesalers and explained that making ends meet was constantly a challenge for those workers, regardless of how hard they hustled.

"Making piñatas is not an easy thing," Prieto said, "and a lot of people don't realize these struggles."

When Fikree joined several piñata-focused Facebook groups with the aim of figuring out just how much to charge for a custom order, she was dismayed at what she found. Custom orders were being sold for little more than the standard, mass-produced offerings at party supply stores; a four-hour project might go for $10. "It’s heartbreaking. They’re basically making cents an hour," said Fikree.

Some, like Prieto, have found ways to sustain their craft and gain greater recognition as artists. The average person may be unwilling to pay the big bucks for something as ephemeral as a piñata, but there are others who will (think along the lines of celebrities, corporations, and brides with large budgets). Prieto has created piñata stage props for Coachella and life-size statues for Amazon release parties. She is Rihanna's go-to piñata artist, and she charged 2 Chainz $1,000 for a papier-mâché replica of his bulldog on the television series Most Expensivest.

Other piñata makers have capitalized on memes and current events to generate sales. There is the aforementioned coroñata, of course, which has skyrocketed in popularity over the past year and a half. Perhaps the most requested design prior was that of former President Donald Trump, which frequently sold out in both the U.S. and Mexico during his election run and throughout his presidency. In Dallas, the Trump piñata fad inspired the owners of ABC Party Headquarters to continue exploring political themes. Several of their designs have since gone viral, the most recent of which depicted Texas Sen. Ted Cruz walking through the Cancun International Airport, passport in hand.

Truth be told, Fikree isn't entirely sure that she wants to make an entire career out of her piñatas. When she's not constructing giant monster trucks and oversized teacups, Fikree channels her energy, as well as her thoughtfulness, into her pediatric dental house call business, which involves introducing nervous children to the dentist from the comfort of their homes. Without any urgency to make a living off of piñatas, Fikree's approach to running Park Slope Piñatas is just as fluid as her process for mapping out a new design. She's not sure exactly where she wants to end up, and she's willing to accept whatever comes her way.

Sometimes, the long hours of fashioning cardboard into new shapes and the messes that accumulate start to get to Fikree, and she contemplates giving up on the hobby.

"Every time I make one, I tell myself I’m not doing this again. The house becomes a complete mess, and I become a little obsessive. I can’t stop," she said.

There's something to be said, though, for the positive reactions that Fikree receives when she hands over the finished product to a delighted customer. That's the moment that brings Fikree the most satisfaction, and that's what keeps her going with her newfound passion, no matter how messy her house gets in the process.

On Instagram, the customer who commissioned the Big Ben piñata for her son commented that she was obsessed with the final result. Fikree, who doesn't seem to mind watching her hard work get destroyed in a matter of minutes by children wielding a baseball bat, replied by asking the woman to send her a video of it being smashed. But no such video existed — the family had decided to keep Big Ben intact. Their son had immediately formed an attachment to the replica of his favorite clock, and using the piñata for its intended purpose would have been a guaranteed way to ruin his birthday.

But over on Twitter, the customers who had purchased Fikree’s coroñata assured their followers that they gave the virus exactly what it deserved.