Five 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.
Wearing 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.”
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
Chivo 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.
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.
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.
They 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.
“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 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.