illicit creations are a means of touching on social issues in a
coded way, ranging from fear of expressing oneself freely in
public to growing materialism on the Communist-run island.
Graffiti was until recently uncommon in Cuba's tightly
controlled public spaces. Its emergence reflects greater scope
for critical expression under President Raul Castro and
increasing influence of international culture as the country
Like Cuba's young bloggers, who are pushing the boundaries of
what has been allowed in the media by starting news websites,
its graffiti artists do not consider themselves dissidents and
have been mostly tolerated by authorities.
"I want to create a social conscience with my work, an awareness
about what we are turning into," said Yulier Rodriguez, whose
alien-like creatures often look malformed, with limbs protruding
from heads, and malnourished.
"A large part of society is going down a dark path," said the
27-year old, criticizing Cuba's ailing, Soviet-style economy
that forces Cubans to turn to illegal activities to get by.
Locals joke, for example, that the only reason to work for the
state, given the average monthly wage of $30, is to steal
produce to sell on the black market.
Inspired by British and American street artists Banksy and
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Rodriguez said his creatures often have no
mouth, representing Cubans' reluctance to publicly express their
discontent for fear of reprisals, such as losing jobs.
The same idea is behind the balaclava-clad men of artist Fabian
Lopez, whose alias is 2+2=5, meaning something is not quite
The 20-year old stepped into the spotlight recently for a
graffiti showing his character holding Donald Trump's head,
reflecting Cubans' anger over the U.S. president's attitude
toward opening U.S.-Cuban relations.
Havana officials quickly painted over the image.
Like other graffiti artists, Lopez faces more practical
challenges. In the absence of common spray paint, for instance,
these artists use industrial spray paint designed for metals in
"The other day I finished a work with oil when the black paint
ran out," said Lopez, who creates as many as seven graffiti a
day, keeping a record of them on Instagram.
NOT FOR FAINT-HEARTED
On an island renowned for its culture, street art is not new.
Havana is dotted with colorful state-sanctioned murals and
projects like Fusterlandia, a neighborhood decorated with
mosaics reminiscent of Catalan modernist architect Antoni Gaudi.
[to top of second column]
But, unlike the rest of Latin America, graffiti artists making
pointed social critiques are pioneering the art form in Cuba.
William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert and professor of government at
American University in Washington, said certain forms of cultural
expression such as films were always given greater latitude for
critical expression. He said the scope of what was allowed "within
the revolution" had expanded since Raul Castro succeeded his brother
Fidel in 2008.
All the artists said they had been questioned by police about their
political intentions, beyond accusations of vandalism that are
commonly leveled against graffiti artists around the world.
They said they do not directly challenge the government. Artists who
do risk accusations of being counterrevolutionary and being
"About five years ago, we realized that there was a bit more
tolerance," said artist Osmany Carratala, 28.
Known for his "happy zombies" symbolizing his view that Cubans,
traumatized by past poverty, are now slaves of materialistic dreams,
he said graffiti artists have kept up their guard because they do
not know "when authorities could put the pressure on again."
One of Cuba's first prominent graffiti artists, Danilo Maldonado,
emigrated to Miami in January.
Known as "El Sexto" ("the sixth") after spreading that tag around
Havana to mock "the cult of five Cuban spies" sentenced to prison in
the United States in 2001, his critical work led to several
"It doesn't make much sense to stay somewhere where you cant do your
art," Maldonado, 34, said in a telephone interview.There is growing
acceptance, however, for less overtly political graffiti. While
state-run media have eschewed the phenomenon, the governmental Casa
de las Americas hosted an exhibition of photos documenting it last
And many Cubans welcome the graffiti in public spaces.
"This place was basically in ruins before," said musician Raul
Prades, 54, pointing to the wall of a crumbling warehouse in Old
Havana, plastered with graffiti. "And now, it's covered in art."
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Toni Reinhold)
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