Cuban Graffiti Artist Demands Freedom With His Spray Can
Posted: 10/16/11 09:06 PM ET
It's nighttime, the street light on the corner isn't working, and no
cars go down the street at this time. A bony and agile hand quickly
pulls out a can of paint and sprays a signature on a wall, ending in a
five-pointed star. In the morning curious neighbors will read the
rubric, "El Sexto" -- The Sixth -- and wonder why someone's name is a
cardinal number. The president of the block's Committee for the Defense
of the Revolution will reluctantly undertake the task of covering over
the irreverent nickname, but the next night it will reappear, over and
over, however many times it is painted over.
Bus stops, the walls of official institutions, trash cans, and ruins
where there once were houses, are the canvas for this street artist to
create his doodles. His nickname, already a piece of sarcasm, alludes to
the government's campaign for the release of the five Cuban spies
imprisoned in the United States. Danilo Maldonado -- with his name out
of a soap opera -- prefers to call himself "The Sixth" to demand his
release, too, although his prison is not a physical one but rather the
massive enclosure of a lack of human rights.
Havana is already a 21st century city and not because the few newspapers
that circulate here display 2011 on their front pages. Rather, it is the
signs, the hints of modernity that protrude here and there from beneath
the city's ancient shell. We even have cute or cryptic graffiti on some
walks, timid marks of citizen expression that isn't about to find a
space in other more conventional media.
Some young people dare to leave their stamp, sprayed in acrylics over
templates made of cardboard, or as symbols painted on a column.
Hurriedly, they stamp their improvised seal on a city already marked by
excessive official propaganda. It is a refreshing phenomenon, and
although many see it as damaging public or private property, it is a
language that runs parallel to the rhetoric of power, a kind of scream
in the form of colorful strokes.
Where in many countries they are already accustomed to the comings and
goings of graffiti, here in Havana we look afresh at the vertigo of its
multiple possible meanings, caught between rapture and outrage at its
appearance. The ultimate master of this art, among us, is the skinny
youth known as "El Sexto," the author of more than one graphic
irreverence and even of some leaflets from where he launches his best
known phrases that seem more like fragments of hip hop. "I am
everywhere..." he shouts to us from a scrap of paper and after spreading
that message the cops see graffiti artists behind every tree, suspecting
even an infant in his stroller of hiding a spray can.
Last week in our capital city, the most playful of the artists working
on facades was taken to prison. El Sexto was forced in into a car by
three burly men; though they didn't identify themselves it was clear
they were political police. They took him to a station that could have
used a little of Danilo Maldonado's graffiti to relieve its lugubrious
aspect. And they kept him there almost four days, to make him confess
who had painted all those arabesques and flourishes. At first they
talked to him of his immaturity, of the profitable artistic career that
awaited him if he would put his spray can at the service of the official
discourse. But the stubborn creature insisted over and over that those
figures came only from his imagination and that he preferred the risk of
being "alternative" to the meekness of official recognition.
Four days after entering that dungeon they released him to the streets,
his streets, but not without making him sign an official warning. The
same night he put his signature on a newly painted wall. But it is no
longer the same.
Before, El Sexto was an anonymous presence, hidden, who painted any
space he pleased; now they know his name, address and the number on his
identity card. He has been converted into the number one enemy painter,
and the punishment they will probably give him will keep him far from
walls, sprays, from those early Havana mornings when with his skinny
hand he put some color on such a faded city.