When fame, power and money aren’t enough

Sid Tapia is a handsome guy in the South American style, with an impressive array of artistic and physical talents, along with a fine intellect and a poetic way with words.

Born in Sydney to Ecuadorean parents, he became a famous skateboarder who was courted by sponsors in his youth, then made his name as a graffiti artist and mural painter on the Sydney urban scene. It seems that everything he turns his hand to, he conquers.

Case in point, earlier this year he won a prestigious portrait painting award, Western Australia’s Lester Prize, for a small but incredibly detailed picture of a homeless man he befriended in Sydney, and with whom he has pledged to share the $50,000 prize.

So perhaps it’s understandable that when Sid went looking for the meaning of life, he based his search on what would make him better, more powerful and more famous.

“When it came to sponsors, I was very popular in magazines, TV shows and commercials, so there was a lot of these external things that were upholding my sense of character,” he tells Eternity after a morning of outdoor sketching near his Sydney home.

“What was elevating me was my gifts, my talents, my looks, the style I had, my dress sense – all these very worldly, superficial things, which are fleeting – sustaining me and giving me a lot of reward.”

For years he fasted and prayed several times a day, seeking freedom and enlightenment but “obviously falling short all the time, simply because all these different ways would be leading me to all these things I had to do. And it was this rule of constant struggle.”

But “when the curtains closed,” he still felt like the vulnerable child from a broken home who had endured constant abuse, violence and insults growing up. In the absence of a father, he searched for guidance from friends, seeking out all the good things they were doing and trying to emulate them.

“I’d hear other people talking, ‘Oh, that guy is so good at what he does.’ This word, ‘good.’ Like, why is it something that I keep wanting to search out and adopt that good thing that they’ve got in order for me to attain it?”

Soul-searching, Sid started reading intensively about different religions and their leaders, as well as a lot of new-age books.

For years he fasted and prayed several times a day, seeking freedom and enlightenment but “obviously falling short all the time, simply because all these different ways would be leading me to all these things I had to do. And it was this rule of constant struggle.”

When Sid asked himself what he was really searching for, it all centred on himself, his mind captive to the world’s creed of self-belief.

“I was on a search for ‘me,’ like I want to be better, and my idea of being better was to be more famous, better at my talents, better at all these things that I already do, but to somehow manage them to a point where everyone can just applaud me for how good I am.”

His search for the most famous person in the world and the most powerful thing in the world eventually led him to Jesus. He reasoned that love was behind everything – even the quest for money and power.

“People want money so they can give it to the ones they love or they can be pumped up for people to love them. I guess people want power because they want more self-love or they want to be able to have a greater sense of power for themselves. That’s twisted love. So, ultimately, it’s all leading back to love and I thought, ‘ah, this love thing is definitely the most powerful thing in the world.’”

“I came across one thing that Jesus said which put me off completely.” – Sid Tapia

Searching out the best teacher on love, Sid looked up Jesus’ words in the Bible “and, lo and behold, I was like, ‘hold on, everything this guy’s talking about is love.’

“I thought I’d hit the jackpot. I thought I found the most famous man in the world and he’s talking about the most powerful thing in the world love. ‘Okay, cool.’ So, I started really reading the Bible a lot – Jesus’ words, in particular.”

If this story were to follow a predictable course, you would expect that the power of God’s word would soon lead Sid to become a disciple of Christ. Unfortunately, there was a lot of crazy trouble and strife to come before that was to happen.

“I came across one thing that Jesus said which put me off completely,” he confesses.

“I said I’m going to become this guy’s student, but then there’s a moment where he says, ‘if you want to be my disciple, you’ve got to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.’ That’s where I pulled the brakes. I was like, ‘hold on, deny myself? I’m here to better myself. I’m here to get myself out there more, to be more famous, to be more about me, so I don’t really agree with that.’ And that challenged me to the core where I was like, ‘there’s gotta be something else.’”

Unable to get past Jesus’ words about denying himself, Sid started doing even crazier and wilder things, going out with multiple women and cheating on them.

“A lot of people saw me as a really good-looking bloke and I had that ego-driven sort of thing that ‘I’m the man,’ so to speak, but ultimately it’s because my heart was just so black.

“I was broken, broken. I’d always fought with depression through my upbringing and it started getting worse through breakups, and I was getting very, very suicidal.”

“I was about to end my life and I had something happen where God definitely intervened.” – Sid Tapia

At one low point, Sid actually prayed the sinner’s prayer at the front of a Good News Australia Bible. But after another relationship breakup, aged 25, he hit the skids again.

“There was a moment where I was about to end my life and I had something happen where God definitely intervened,” he says.

“One night, I was about to end my life and I had a Bible open as well, crying out, like just flooded with tears, just crying because of this breakup and just all the brokenness in my life, while on the outside, I’m one of the most celebrated skateboarders in the country. I decided that I was going to go to the bathroom to finish it all. And as I made the decision and as I stepped up to go, the phone rang.

“I was just about to end my life. But now the phone’s ringing. It was so profound because a phone meant ‘I want life to continue.’ Whereas the bathroom meant ‘I want life to end.’ And I was caught between the two.”

After a struggle, Sid picked up the phone to hear a former girlfriend from six months earlier asking if there was something wrong with him.

“She’s crying and saying ‘Please tell me what is wrong? Something’s wrong with you.’ I got scared and at the same time embarrassed. So, I didn’t tell her what was wrong.

“But obviously that’s a good thing, that’s a God thing, that’s a loving thing and that’s what our God is. He is a God of love. He’s a God of goodness.”

Eventually, God drew Christian people into Sid’s life, including his next girlfriend, a “very cool chick,” who took him to church for the first time.

“We didn’t end up getting married, but that introduced me to church and introduced me to people. I was blown away that young people go to church. I thought that was huge. Cool kids that just love life and just want to do right by others.

“This blew my mind. I just thought church was old people and a priest up there, murmuring stuff and singing strange hymns that people would just recite. I was like, ‘wow, this is something new.’ So that was my first encounter with church at age 28 and I ended up just coming to know Jesus through that.”

“Where I’m at now is so powerful that you can’t help but tell the good news.” – Sid Tapia

Twenty years later, Sid is still unable to stop telling people about his powerful encounter with Jesus.

The very morning of our interview, while out sketching, he had chatted for an hour to a woman walking a dog, sharing about the changes that only God could make in his heart and life.

“Where I’m at now is so powerful that you can’t help but tell the good news,” he says.

“When you were running dead, but now you’re alive, well, you got to tell people. It’s just so cool because it’s nothing that you did – that’s the wonderful thing about Jesus – it’s about putting your faith and trust in him. It’s not by your own works. It’s all him. That’s how it should be, you know, because if it wasn’t then we’d have pride, wouldn’t we?”


The portrait of homeless man Sia, which won the Lester Prize 2021

A measure of how radically Jesus changed Sid’s character is that when he courted his wife, he pledged not to kiss her until their wedding day because he wanted to get to know her as a person before introducing anything physical.

“He’s definitely transformed me through his word, that’s at the core of it, and the fruits of that have been from being the man who I was to the man I am today. You know, I’ve been married now for 13 years to a wife I honour with all my heart and have two beautiful young girls.

“That’s a massive transition. That’s a massive change. Like God’s working through me in marriage and family life because there’s so many ugly sides that come out in us as people and I no longer have a heart that is just okay with doing wrong. That’s how I know God has changed me as well. And I no longer have a heart for just being okay with what I did wrong or making an excuse for it or justifying it. That is wrong and it’s distasteful to me … now it grieves me and I’m like, ‘God, help me in these areas. I really need help because it’s wrong.’”

In fact, it was Sid’s sense of devotion to his family that prompted him to turn to oil painting two years ago.

“I was doing a lot of graffiti and murals that are out in the streets. And as much as I still love doing that, I wanted to make a transition because, as I get older, I want to be close to the home with a family, spend more time with them. Some murals can take days on end and that’s time away from home.”

He is greatly encouraged that his work has been recognised in winning the Lester Prize (the exhibition is on show until 21 January at St John of God Hospital, Subiaco, then moves to St John of God Hospital, Murdoch, followed by Yallingup Studio Gallery.)

“There’s something so romantic about oil painting, something so rich and authentic, especially when it comes to portraiture work,” he says.

“Portraiture work is what I love. I love people and I love creation. When you look at God’s work, I guess as an artist, I’m able to see that everything within itself has a form of life and beauty to it.

“Even if it’s something as simple as an object, if you keep looking into it, there’s so much detail, there’s so much purpose behind every little nook and cranny, which I find fascinating. Yet it’s one thing to create an artwork, but the one thing that people aren’t able to do is to literally breathe life into it. And that’s something that surrounds us on a daily basis, we’re able to see God’s workmanship in all of creation. Then when it comes to people it’s so animated and so relatable.

“So you see people for who they are, a person created in the likeness and image of God. And it’s so wonderful because ultimately, as we know, God is love. God is light. God is good. So when you see someone you relate to, you’re able to see that embodied, you’re able to see the master’s work within that and it’s alive, it’s moving and it’s very intriguing.”