HAVANA TIMES — The origins of graffiti date back as far as what we know as human history.
Extremely old examples have been found, such as cave paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphics or, in the Roman Empire, protests, prophecies, caricatures, political slogans, insults, declarations of love…
Children also dribble out of the blue in prohibited spaces, as a natural impulse to reaffirm themselves or to rebel against authority.
Whether it’s the drive to create and share something, to inquire about our existence, display, question, the clear objective of drawing, signing, putting up a symbol or text in a public space is to draw attention to something.
The message, which takes shape on different surfaces: a train carriage, a wall (blurring the lines between graffiti and muralism), a living body (developing such a controversial art like tattoos) or an artistic monument (in a rebellious act considered vandalism), can be cause for crime.
The graffiti movement hasn’t had the same strength here in Cuba as it has in the United States or Europe. There are very few remains of aboriginal pictographs and there are some signs that texts mixed with images were stamped onto walls in Old Havana’s trading areas during colonial times. During the obstructed Republic, city walls reflected the Cuban people’s angry protests against the ruling dictatorship.
After 1959, subliminal or direct protests have also appeared in public spaces, the latter are usually quickly covered by the authorities and this creates a climate of paranoia and scrutiny among neighbors in the area. This graffiti is dangerous two-fold because the Revolution used (and uses) political messages to death and till our eyes bleed.
Rebellious graffiti artists have suffered police abuse and prison sentences, such as El Sexto who wrote “se fue” (he’s gone) and his signature on a wall of the Habana Libre Hotel, after Fidel Castro passed away. Another example is young Yulier, who paints gloomy figures on crumbling buildings. Pressured by the authorities to cover up all of his graffitis with black paint, he refused to do so and was protected by alternative media outlets and a declaration in his favor from Amnesty International.
Rock and hip-hop culture, some religious movements, alternative art representatives, ecologists and ingenious graffiti artists have left their mark on Cuban walls. But, the most repetitive form of graffiti found today are teenagers’ tags at bus stops and on buses, there’s no doubt about it.
Now, at least in Havana, there is a new trend which is maybe trying to emulate the function of social media online. The first significant record of this new genre of graffiti was a written warning which appeared all over Vedado in the ‘90s:
LINA, CARLOS IS STILL LOOKING FOR YOU
Many of us who read those words were overcome with anxiety for the author, to the point that we wanted him to get back together with his ex-partner.
However, this new wave of borderline scandalous messages (because of their tone and dimensions, and because of the inappropriate place they’ve been written most of the time) don’t create the same effect.
Maybe we could discern Carlos’ need in that old message, while these new ones are driven by showing off.
The State’s monopoly on everything that isn’t a rental home (or a private business maybe) has created an unhealthy indifference in Cubans towards public decoration. There is an underlying rebelliousness in marking walls that aren’t your own, just like throwing waste outside of garbage cans meant for this purpose is.
“If I don’t matter to you, I don’t care about you (the State),” these selfish acts of transgression cagily say.
And we have to admit that this growing trend of using public surfaces as a message board for anonymous lovers is becoming quite frightening.
From declarations of love, oaths to stay together forever, forgiveness pleas, desperate attempts to get back together, or the simple graphic drawings of boundless passion which the public seem to need to see.
The crisis maybe pushed the same State to saturate our spaces with political propaganda, and how do we contain it now? If only we had faster internet or internet access were cheaper, or there were better leisure activities, or real prospects for fulfilling ourselves, maybe these would give this “creative energy” a better outlet.
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