Often mistaken as mere vandalism or graffiti, street art is the physical manifestation of the imagination and philosophy of artists who lift the context of their work from the elements of the streets. Archie Oclos, a Filipino street artist, explains that street art is usually situated in an urban setting. “They could be two-dimensional works on walls; installation art like sculptural pieces—street art could be considered as an umbrella term that encompasses the art you could find in public places.”
Before it evolved to what it is today, Filipino street art was inspired by American graffiti during the 80s and 90s. One of the pioneers of graffiti art, Jayo “Flipone” Santiago, took inspiration from graffiti in New York City and brought it to the Philippines. But street art is not merely graffiti and as for the notion that it is just vandalism, Archie says, “Nagsulat kami sa ganitong publiko, tingin niyo vandalism siya. Pero [nakakakita] kayo ng maraming billboard sa EDSA, hindi pa ba vandalism yan? Katanggap-tanggap ba ang isang pag-vavandalism kapag nabayaran siya over sa isang pangalan lang na sulat-sulat?” (We create in public, you think it is vandalism. But the billboards along EDSA, are they not considered vandalism as well? Is vandalism only acceptable if it has been paid for and it is not just a scrawled name?)
(While this artwork was not created by artists Archie and Aleli, the art manages to capture the attention of those who pass by the Arrow Food Park along Pablo Ocampo Street.)
What is in a space?
Street artists like Archie and muralists like Alelia Ariola creatively fill the streets with the narratives of the underappreciated and oppressed members of society. Sometimes, Archie finds himself collaborating with Alelia. Magsasaka or Farmer—which was done on May 2016 along Rizal Avenue in Bonifacio Global City—may give the impression of abundance as the farmer is surrounded by grain. However, Archie, as a person from a farming family, wanted to remind people of the cruel reality of our farmers through the piece.
Where some create art for art’s sake, others like Alelia use it as a way to create a cohesive and thought-provoking narrative. Alelia mentions, “Artists aren’t just creating aesthetics and beautifying walls. They also want to reach out, help, and uplift the people with art.” She and Archie believe that street art is still evolving and that it is a medium that can uplift and change things.
The canvas breaks free
By bringing the canvas out of the gallery, art is liberated from the confines of the elite and becomes more accessible to a wider audience. They believe that art has the power to engage and change society. Alelia believes that the effect of street art is different from the art in museums. For her, the art in museums is only available to certain individuals; namely, those who can afford to go to museums.
The beauty of street art is that anyone can appreciate it; the artist cannot control who can see it once they’ve painted it someplace permanent. “We—at least I— make sure that my message is important and that it comes across. It is up to the people what they make of it. Think of the art as an opener to further discourse,” explains Archie. Archie and Alelia frequently go out of the metro to the provinces to create art for the communities. “Street art becomes something else when you bring it to the community— it becomes community art.” The art is then immersed in the people, and the art is more powerful because of that. He elaborates, “Dinadala mo yung mismong art, dinadala mo yung mismong subject matter sa mga totoong subject.” (You bring the art, the subject matter to the actual subjects of the art.)
He recounts again another story of one of his artworks, Para sa iyo, apo, which means “for you, my grandchild.” A painting he did on plywood that featured an elder Aeta carrying her grandson. He was visiting the Aeta community just as they were fighting for their home. The artwork stood between the Aeta community and the bulldozers meaning to displace them for a quarry. “So kung titignan mo yung art, harang siya para hindi mag-push through yung bulldozer. Pero kahoy lang siya. Pag sinagasaan siya, masisira diba,” he explains. (If you look at the art, it was to stop the bulldozers, even if it is just wood.)
Other artists commented on how it was a waste that the art was destroyed, but he replies that it isn’t the case. “Hindi siya sayang; it served its purpose. Kung baga yung mismong art, nanindigan siya na mag-stay dun hanggang sa end ng life ng art para ma-protect niya yung mga Aeta.” (The art wasn’t a waste because it served its purpose of staying there until the end of its life to protect the Aeta.) The nature of street art is inherently ephemeral; it’s destruction as evidenced above is easier than an artwork protected within the confines of a gallery. But Archie asks, “Isn’t all art ephemeral?” It is just street art’s ephemerality that is more evident.
“Ikaw ang na-consume ng art.” (It is art that consumes you.)
Neon reflector vests, orange traffic cones
In their efforts to avoid the law, street artists have come upon many creative ways to breathe life into the walls of corporate buildings and sidewalks without getting caught Archie and Aleila laughingly share how they often choose to paint during the day. They explain that “anything you do in the evening or in the night is suspicious. But anything done during broad daylight would seem legal.” Street artists would wear neon reflector vests of construction workers and place orange traffic cones around the area they’re painting—no one ever thinks that they weren’t actually on official business.
Many artists choose to take a pseudonym—they choose to hide their names not because of a desire to seem mysterious but because of the real risk if their identities were to be discovered. Artists like Archie and Alelia use their art as a way to raise awareness about socio-political issues: they want their art to start a dialogue and to encourage others to speak up. However, Archie and Alelia don’t use aliases. “Hindi kami nag-alias kasi wala naman kami tinatago na masama,” Archie says. (We don’t use aliases because we have nothing to hide.)
Alelia believes that artists must stand by their art. “We want to be brave—artists kami. Ito yung mga role ng artists—to be brave enough na isiwalat kung ano yung totoo.” (We want to be brave—we are artists. This is our role—to be brave enough to reveal the truth.) But the risks are real.
On experiences of harassment
Archie and Alelia have already experienced harassment because of their art.
Archie shares that he received mysterious calls around a month after he painted his Lumad piece. A few days later, while on his way to work, he was suddenly grabbed by a man with a military haircut. Another man was waiting near the entrance to his building—luckily, he got away. But not without a souvenir, they gave him a brown envelope that contained photos of people he knew, his family, and even Alelia. The men wanted him to identify the people in the photos—he refused. He went to the police to report the incident but they brushed him off because “no harassment happened.” But he says, “does one need bruises to verify that it is truly harassment? Shouldn’t psychological and emotional harassment count as well?”
Street art can be called the scars of our country; they are pieces that bring to light the stories not everyone sees. They immerse you in it’s narrative; their story consumes you. The subjects never stay frozen on the mural as they walk among us. You’ll see them on TV, they are in the headlines—they are beside you.
“Nakita mo na yung effect ngayon ng street art. Eto, kayo ngayon. Nakita niyo yung mga gawa namin, kayo naman ngayon yung storyteller.”
(You’ve seen the effect of street art. This is it. You’ve seen our works, now you are the storyteller.)