Caracas’ graffiti culture

DSC00314Five years had passed since the first time ¨El Chivo¨ drew something on a wall and discovered how the adrenaline “rushes through your body when you alter public property,” and how “you feel you own part of the street when you leave your art hanging there, freely expressing how you feel.”

“I started drawing sketches on my notebooks. I erased them until they were perfect,” he said in between giggles. “I still have some of those notebooks. I can’t throw them away”

He soon learned that there was a whole culture to it; that graffiti has a history that started in the US, that there are groups that gather not only to paint but also to dance hip-hop and sing, each group slightly differing from the other and the signature in drawings marking where the artist belongs.

DSC00358Wearing a green shirt that matched a green sports hat, a pair of loose pants, and large athletic shoes, El Chivo opened a malta and sat. The Propatria shopping mall was not yet lit because it was early in the morning. “¿Como estas tú, princesa?” he said leaning his elbows over his legs. He begins telling me his story.

Back in his senior year in high school, he joined a graffiti group that signed “EVC” – Estilo de Vida Callejera.

He got involved with other groups, but after graduating, his girlfriend moved in with him, his daughter was soon born, he started working at a convenience store, and never had time to join another group again.

The mall was starting to get full. El Chivo took another sip of malta and fixed the strings on one of his sport shoes. “Epa” he shouted suddenly. A boy with a black Afro and a dark blue hat jumping down the stairs raised his arm.

“That’s Yorbin. The weón I paint with now.”

Yorbin sat down after patting El Chivo’s back. He put his handbag full of spray stains on the table. “Sorry I’m late corazon. I was in the middle of work.”

DSC00331“I was telling her that being in a group gives you status, depending on what it is known for,” El Chivo continued.

“Some groups are known for drawing mostly in the city, others in the slums, others in the most dangerous places… that’s what gives them the most prestige,” Yorbin said with a half smile. “But me and this lacra we make a perfect couple.

Chivo laughed, looked up and took Yorbin’s hat out to point at his hair. “We’ve done disasters as crazy as his hair. We’re like the supernatural duo … una cosa asi.”

Yorbin graduated two Mays ago from the public high school where they met. He still doesn’t know what he wants to do next. He is leaning toward a career in graphic design, but he thinks the field is not prominent in public universities in Caracas.  So … he dedicates most of his time to graffiti, which is what he plans to do- sometimes by request to get paid- for the next year, until he figures out what he wants.

El Chivo wants to go to college to study Criminology, but he didn’t get in when he graduated a year before Yorbin, so he started working at a convenience store to bring money to his family- his daughter is already 4 years old- while he studies to pass the entry exam. He made the decision to “take responsibility for my life and only draw in my free time,” he said.

In order to have a life away from the sprays where he isn’t judged by his work as a graffiti artist, he uses the name El Chivo when he is doing anything related to his practice, and doesn’t reveal his real name when he’s referenced as a grafitero. “My girlfriend and daughter depend on me … so I have to separate my private life from anything that can bring conflict,” he said.

998971_10201932123481773_1473527219_nYorbin’s graffiti name is Pein- like paint but written in Spanish. They sign their art “Chivopein”, a term Chivo’s mom invented once, when they were drawing sketches at Chivo’s house up the hill.

There are many types of graffiti techniques. Chivo and Yorbin mostly do “bombas piezas” which are messages written in fat letters. The most advanced artists do realism. There’s also white, 3D, and characters.

They both laughed until Chivo suddenly became serious and fixed his eyes on Yorbin. “We once got into a very big conflict because I drew on top of another guy’s graffiti.” And Yorbin nodded laughingly.

1044652_10201351666290706_1371137651_n“That’s like violating a basic grafitti code rule,” Yorbin said.

El Chivo continued. “There was no illumination because it was night and I was hurried. I did it without noticing. And then the guy started drawing on top of my grafittis and my groups’. So there was a lot of tension. We fought with coñazos until finally, the leaders of our group decided it was time to reconcile.”

The two groups gathered and the rivals drew together, as part of a ritual of reconciliation. “That’s also like part of the code. You draw with your rival to end the fight,” Yorbin said.

There’s competition between the artists even when they don’t belong to a group. They try to earn a name among their communities, and specially among the grafitero communities nationwide, through the level of risk they submit themselves to and the techniques they use. Fame comes later.

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“There’s a guy who drew there in Chacao, on a building, I don’t know if you have seen it, it says Donplein. He got on a crane and drew it. That earns you a high amount of respect among grafitteros.”

Yorbin is more into adrenaline than Chivo. “I tried to draw on a lamppost once and de pana it’s really dangerous. I came down without drawing it. If you fall down you can be hit by a car you know.”

Sometimes graffiti artists only put a signature without a drawing, which makes it seem to outsiders like if an author would write his name on a blank piece of paper. But, as El Chivo explained, it’s a way of gaining presence.

541679_10201577043845004_1967092893_nChivo said prestige also comes from the drawing being interesting, from displaying a technique that others cannot copy. “Both are important. Getting a risky place and doing a cagada is stupid, it makes no sense. You have to do it right.”

“Yeah sometimes instead of making the place look better you make it look dirty, and that sucks,” Yorbin said.

They both agree that the aim is to make the urban environment more enjoyable. They don’t consider it an act of vandalism when it is done in a dirty abandoned wall, or with permission, or by request. They said it makes people happier because they get distracted by the art instead of by the negligence of obnoxious walls.

“I think it’s important that you include in your thing the history of graffiti. Maybe that way people can understand us better,” Yorbin said. “You know, I’ve learned the importance of our background from the guys that have been training me,” and he looked down to the table, bending his eyebrows to concentrate.

“It all started in the US. There was racism so the black people used graffiti to, like, defend themselves, like a revolution, a sort of means for protesting. They signed and there were gangs and they had tags to represent them,” Yorbin said putting his hat back on, bringing parts of his afro down to his eyes.

“So now you can see it as a sort of means for protesting. Now that things have changed a lot here in Caracas because we have the support and permission of the government. But it’s still a way to show society how you feel, so you know, it can still be seen as a sort of protest,” Chivo said.46875_10201577042644974_1665675912_n

He stood up to avoid the sun hitting his face below the hat. “It’s all about the drawing itself. How you erase your mind and your problems, anything you’re going through. I don’t only want to have fun, which I do, but I also want to give a message you know,”

“People tend to associate us with drugs and crime. But that’s a generalization. It depends on each person. For me, it’s a healthy hobby, an art that I enjoy both because of the freedom of sharing it and because of the adrenaline of doing it,” Yorbin said

“Our moms got used to it eventually. They’re okay with it if we don’t get in trouble, they prefer if we do it with permission,” Chivo added.

He means “permission” from the community or from the government. Earlier in their practice, about four years ago, it was more problematic because “there was not a lot of graffiti culture then and “people and the police fought us hard,” Chivo said.

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They were once drawing on a subway wall and a Policaracas pointed a pistol at them. He dragged them outside and said they had to buy lunch for him or he would take them to prison. “We didn’t want that so we bought a pair of hamburgers for him.” They got out of that one.

But another time it was worse. They were coming up the Avenida Bolívar in Catia, and a National Guardsmen vehicle saw that they were holding sprays. They dragged them into the car and kicked them for fifteen minutes nonstop. “They said it was to give us a lesson,” Yorbin said. “It did hurt a lot.”

But that has changed. Now the government is their main supporter. It pays them with sprays in exchange for advertising, for putting on walls certain Chavista fanatical phrases, or for drawing with prearranged sketches on the walls of popular streets.

DSC00422They said that now guards are very unlikely to stop them from drawing even when they’re not working for the government.

Chivo searched something on his cellphone and showed a picture of a woman’s leg covered in black, green and red graffiti letters. “That’s my girlfriend. I draw on her frequently. She likes it. I can do it on you some day if you want,” and he looked up nonchalantly.

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“Right now the only reason I don’t do it during nights is because she says it’s too dangerous to walk around when it’s dark. Because there’s insecurity you know,” El Chivo said.

The only really dangerous thing to do is to draw on someone’s property- their door of their yards, the walls of their garage. “Because people get angry. Only months ago we drew on the door of a house and owners came out to insult us harshly. Thank god we could cover it to avoid problems,” Yorbin said. The government chose Yorbin to coordinate the grafiteros for advertisement. “I only work because sprays are expensive. When I started drawing three years ago I paid like 8bs for the spray. Now they’re worth like 180bs,” Yorbin said.

 

The sun was starting to hit the stairs. A waitress came to prepare the tables. Chivo moved his seat back to give her space. “We don’t do it for the ideology, if Capriles’ people calls us, we would do it for them too,” he said and Yorbin nodded.

The community also asks them to draw on certain places. “They normally ask us for things that leave a message like say no to drugs or bajale 2 a la violencia.”

They also draw by request for people in their houses and stores. “In the fourth level here I did a mural for a shoe store with the name of the store and a little monster. They paid me with money and I kept the material. I charged like 400 Bs.” Yorbin said.

“Of course it’s not the same. Drawing as a job takes out the element of freedom that is practically what brings you to do graffitis in the first place,” Yorbin said.

El Chivo continued showing more pictures of their drawings on his phone. ¨Look at this beauty,¨he said pointing to a colorful mural on his Facebook profile.

After many pictures and more stories about conflicts they had had with people, the police and other artists, they both stood up, eager to take advantage of Chivo’s weekend free time. “Wanna come? We’re going to El Junquito up there,” Yorbin said pointing to the mountain.

But unfortunately it was getting dark, and, as Chivo’s girlfriend would agree, it’s risky to draw on Caracas’ walls at night.

As I was heading home, I thought about El Chivo and Yorbin, two kids about my age. We all need to express ourselves – me, through my writing, and them, through their art – but the opportunities I have been afforded to do so are way different than theirs.  Those two kids risk a lot for their art, and the opportunities to express themselves are simply not there, yet we all grew up under the same Caracas sky. Same sky, but not the same opportunities.

16 thoughts on “Caracas’ graffiti culture

  1. I like graffiti but when it’s done right and not on someone’s door or like the stupid cunts that do it terrible or lazy tags all over the place unwarranted.

    There are many talented street artists, I guess some of you have heard of Banksy and also BLU, who makes impressive stop motion graffiti:

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    • Banksy, and BLU, and OsGemeos, and many others that are internationally recognized as urban artists today started out as stupid cunts doing terrible tags on the streets of London and Berlin and São Paulo… of course people have a right to not have a graffiti on their front door if they don’t want one, but I also think that most people overreact to graffiti.

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  2. I always enjoy the adrenaline that rushes through my body when I reclaim public property with a pressure washer, These people are NOT artists. They’re narcissists.

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  3. I have to agree with John. It cost us lots of money to replace the stone on the front wall of my building. And like that there are 100’s that are ruined. Many won’t get fixed because of lack of money. If they want to express themselves, they can paint the inside of their homes. There’s no excuse to ruin someone else’s property. Those who like this “form of art” would probably change their minds if their homes were the ones being painted.

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    • try something different. here in SP, I have seen some houses and businesses with signs that say something like “the money that we do not need to spend re-painting over graffiti on our front wall is donated every month to a charity, copies of the receipts from these donations are available upon request inside the store”

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      • For many businesses that money would be the difference between profitability and no longer being an employer. How about the artists donate the money they would have spent on paint to charities instead? That would be an honest donation, your suggestion is more like blackmail, since the potential costs of vandalism on brick and mortar or a stone wall could be in the tens of thousands.

        A real alternative is graffiti walls.

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  4. “Yorbin graduated two Mays ago from the public high school where they met. He still doesn’t know what he wants to do next. He is leaning toward a career in graphic design, but he thinks the field is not prominent in public universities in Caracas. So … he dedicates most of his time to graffiti, which is what he plans to do- sometimes by request to get paid- for the next year, until he figures out what he wants.”

    Another contributing member of society.

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  5. There is a place for good graffiti, but the idea that these guys are working for the government, or whoever, seems to defeat the whole point. Like the regime itself, it is the simulacrum of rebellion. It is easy revolution bought with money. It is a bunch of moribund dinosaurs trying to purchase authenticity. It is the maladrification of bureaucratic suenos.

    Two thumbs up for the reporting though. Graffiti is a huge part of the urban landscape in Venezuela. Some of it is still free and authentic and can turn your head. Most of it is propagandistic crap.

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  6. “My girlfriend and daughter…”

    Shouldn’t that be “wife and daughter…”?

    If not, why not?

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  7. The way some of CC readers speak make it sound like you’re a bunch of bitter, elitist and entitled snobs who frown upon anyone who dares to think or act differently to what you consider apropriate. Those are some of the terrible character flaws we criticize in the chavista government and it makes me sad to see it in many of the people who oppose said government.

    I’m not saying you are elitists snobs but you know how the saying goes, if it walks like a duck and it quacks like duck you can be damn sure it’s not a god damned chicken.

    BTW… you are missing the money quote of this great article

    “As I was heading home, I thought about El Chivo and Yorbin, two kids about my age. We all need to express ourselves – me, through my writing, and them, through their art – but the opportunities I have been afforded to do so are way different than theirs. Those two kids risk a lot for their art, and the opportunities to express themselves are simply not there, yet we all grew up under the same Caracas sky. Same sky, but not the same opportunities.”

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