An artist known for using sand to draw messages and images on the streets of Coronado has died, his daughter told NBC 7 Thursday.
Alberto Avila, 65, died Wednesday night at a hospital in El Paso, Texas, his daughter Elena Avila Zermeño said. Avila was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer two years ago and had been in remission. Zermeño said her father’s health had taken a turn for the worse after this past Thanksgiving. He had lost a lot of weight and, recently, his organs had started failing.
Avila, originally from El Paso, moved to San Diego as an adult, spending much of his time in waterfront communities, most recently Coronado. He moved back to El Paso to live with his daughter about five years ago.
During his years in San Diego, the Sandman was known for using sand to draw art on the streets. Zermeño said Avila began creating sand art about 15 years ago in Chula Vista. He then moved on to Mission Beach and, finally, Coronado.
"He would say God told him to do this and he just loved it," Zermeño told NBC 7. "He loved talking to people; he loved how his art made people feel."
Zermeño said her father was an expert in creating spirals, circle formations, hearts, characters and lettering using sand as his medium. He would use a broom to meticulously push the sand into shapes.
When he first started doing sand art in Coronado he would create large-scale pieces on a cul-de-sac near the Hotel del Coronado featuring cartoon characters like The Simpsons and Winnie the Pooh.
"That was his spot," Zermeño fondly recalled.
Sometimes, people would stop to take photos of the Sandman’s work.
Avila loved that.
"He wanted to feel like he made a difference, like he opened people’s eyes," Zermeño said. "The main thing about my dad was that he didn’t want to be forgotten."
But, while the Sandman was beloved by many, his work also created controversy on the quiet, seaside island of Coronado.
In July 2017, some Coronado residents including Neva Kaye raised money to fly Avila from Texas to Coronado for the community’s Independence Day parade. The group knew Avila had been diagnosed with cancer and wanted to honor him by gifting him with the trip.
They pulled the money together using a GoFundMe page created by Kaye and Avila was able to make his way back to the island. He took to the streets to draw with sand.
However, not everyone in the community saw the Sandman’s work as a positive thing, including the Coronado Police Department.
On July 7, 2017, Avila was given a citation after he used sand to draw on the street in front of Dale’s Swim Shop on Orange Avenue. Coronado police said they thought they had worked out a compromise with the Sandman where he agreed to only create his art near the beach.
A few days later, Avila used sand to write an anti-police message in front of the Brigantine restaurant in Coronado.
After that incident, Avila spoke with NBC 7 and said he misunderstood what he had talked about with police. He said he never agreed to keep his art in specific areas. He also said police asked him to stop making his art for several days but he did not want to do that.
"I didn’t say nothing, I just looked at him (the police officer) like that, but I was gonna say, 'I’ll stop when hell freezes over and you’re coming with me,'" Avila said laughing.
Zermeño described her father as "stubborn" and "feisty," which is what would sometimes get him into trouble. She said she "could see both sides" of the controversy in the July 2017 incident including why the police didn’t like Avila’s work.
"Sometimes he crossed the line and I would have to tell him, 'Dad, you can’t do that; you can’t say those things,'" Zermeño added.
However, at the end of the day, she said Avila didn’t want to hurt anyone with his art, he only wanted people to pay attention.
"I feel very proud that he spoke his mind and what he felt," she said.
Since moving back to Texas, Zermeño said Avila had been creating his art on the streets of El Paso, often using gravel instead of sand. She said the police there didn't seem to mind, even posing for photos with her dad from time to time.
She said he lived happily the last couple of years, still doing what he enjoyed.
Avila leaves behind his daughter, three grandchildren, brothers, and extended family. His brothers who live in San Diego are now on their way to El Paso to help make arrangements for Avila’s funeral.
NBC 7 spoke briefly with Kaye Thursday who said she created a new GoFundMe page to help the Sandman’s family cover those expenses.
Kaye said Avila would be "remembered for bringing smiles to many with his beautiful street designs."
"Thank you, Sandman, for all the years of waving to us while driving into Coronado. It always brought a smile to my face," Kaye said on the fundraising page.
Sleep well, Sandman.