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Today’s storytellers of the streets take it one mural at a time

These art pieces go beyond vandalism and rebellion. With their striking colors, graffiti epigrams paint the plight of society for all to see.

In the dark of the night, she stands intently in front of a blank wall. With determination on her mind and coffee in her system, visual artist and self-proclaimed “anthropreneur” Venazir Hannah Martinez focuses intently as she conceptualizes her next masterpiece. As music flows through earphones, a call from the distance disturbs her. But it wasn’t a mere spectator appreciating her piece—it was the police. “Binabaan talaga ako ng mga police nayun,” she recounts, “very aggressive sila talaga when it comes to vandalism.”

(The police searched me thoroughly; they’re really very aggressive when it comes to vandalism.)

Street art in the Philippines does not have a clear cut definition. For cultural worker Archie Oclos, there are multiple genres that can be classified as such. “May mga characters na cute…tapos, meron ding murals…na  public spaces,…tsaka, protest art…‘yung mga kung anoanong klase na panlaban sa estado,” he expounds. As many as they may seem, they all strive to translate sociopolitical messages into the public sphere, whether blunt or otherwise. But tucked behind these colorful and thought-provoking pieces are the people who risk their lives just to mount these pieces to life. 

(There are cute characters; then, there’s also murals found in public spaces; and protest art, any kind of art that resists against the system.)

Visions of reality

Life was never the same again for Martinez when she pursued her passion, taking Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines (UP) – Baguio. Putting ideas into action, Martinez shares that her creative process is spontaneous. Her main creative process is “individuating,” which basically refers to taking short strolls to observe her surroundings and brainstorm ideas. 

It is through this act that she reminisces about her time in UP-Baguio, an institution that emphasizes the cultural awareness of IPs. This irresistible presence empowers Martinez to immerse herself in the roots of the Philippines. Aside from her prized work Gayaman, a series of emblems inspired by a centipede tattoo, she has also painted segments of the walls of the City of Pines’ Carantes Street for Sining Eskinita, a culture and arts festival. 

Of course, conjuring up an idea is no easy task. “‘Pag street artist ka, you have to start with an idea and you have to do proposals,” she shares, before quickly jesting, “Para siyang thesis.” It is here where the artist must properly assess how one must go about the project and the things needed to make it happen. 

(When you are an artist, you have to start with an idea and you have to do proposals. It’s like working on a thesis.) 

Meanwhile in Manila, Oclos dives into the reality of graffiti in the country. A graduate of Fine Arts in UP-Diliman, he had been exposed to the various plights of the oppressed, particularly of farmers and other IPs. An artist for more than 15 years, Oclos has had his fair share of experiences of the fulfillment of creating his specific brand of street art. “Parang sobrang malabo pa rin talaga kapag sinabi mong Filipino identity;…bukod sa geographical na location ng bawat isa, ‘yung paniniwala saka kultura, relihiyon.” For him, painting the struggle of the oppressed is one of the most powerful ways to get his ideas across. 

(Even now the Filipino identity is really blurry due to Filipinos greatly differing in locations, beliefs and value systems, culture, and religion.)

Driven by the motive to amplify the voices of the indigenous children in Surigao, Oclos painted their story. Roughly 70 meters tall, Oclos’s Bakwit was painted on the wall of the College of Saint Benilde-School of Design and Arts. “I hear their stories about displacement, killings…so I told them that one day I will paint their story,” he shares in Filipino. After 20 days of hard work, Oclos finally finished his masterpiece, with the goal to uplift the spirits of the oppressed. 

Going beyond the walls

One must still recognize that in the eyes of others, what’s painted on these walls is prone to be misunderstood as vandalism and misconduct. “People [may be judgemental,] but eventually you’ll prove them wrong once you finish your work,” Martinez recalls in Filipino, mentioning that there were instances where the police and passerby would scold her whenever she painted in public spaces, “I think as a street artist, you have to sign an invisible contract…[because] street art is ephemeral, it’s not permanent.”

Street artists also deal with the possibilities of red-tagging, especially for works that call attention to sociopolitical issues. Oclos shares that there were instances wherein they’d have to take into account the worst-case scenario. “There were cases where they think that my spray paint is a bomb and they would confiscate it,” he shares in Filipino. “You’d need a strategy, as much as possible, because we’re aware it’s dangerous.”

Even when both artists have to face numerous risks, they acknowledge that the perseverance pays off when they see that the public is engaged with their work. Despite the critique and misconceptions others might have, Martinez emphasizes that the medium “[is] really about an exchange of knowledge.” She believes that these creations are designed for their communities in Baguio—a purpose that seems to be overlooked.

“Street art is also used as a supplementary tool for learning—it’s an educational platform,” she accentuates. 

He describes this art form to be site-specific and considers relevance as one of the key factors in accomplishing his work. “Kumbaga nandun na ako sa punto na, paano nagkakaroon ng sinseridad yung pinunta ko dun sa mga subject matter na tinatackle ko?”

(Radical street art can help minorities amplify their voices. I’m at this point where I think, how can my work be sincere in the locations I go to and the subject matters I tackle?)

Streets as the storyteller

Martinez believes that having these works accessible to the public entails a sense of community, a channel for the artist to connect with people. Of course, the choice of presenting these works on a massive scale is up to the artist themselves. “Street art is the best medium for me because it’s not really enclosed within a gallery…your canvas is the world [and] the walls of cities,” she expresses. To that, Oclos declares, “Kung gusto mo ma-educate mo sarili mo, i-educate mo; kung gusto mong gawin ‘yun, gawin mo.

(If you want to educate yourself, do so. If you want to immerse yourself in it, do so.)

Both Martinez and Oclos remind that a street artist’s role boils down to one responsibility—being storytellers who wish to make unheard narratives accessible to the public. They believe that at the end of the day, the surfaces they paint on hold messages that go beyond the two-dimensional walls. “I hope artists themselves would recognize their responsibility as part of their community…that they have to have a sense of urgency to give back and to be a service for others,” Martinez articulates in Filipino. 

As to how communities have shaped Oclos’s craft in ensuring that their stories are shared in public spaces, he ends, “Ang lansangan ang magtuturo sa tao ng mga aral sa pangarawaraw.” As these artists amplify what goes behind working on these murals, it is crucial that people continuously share the meaning of their works—that subversion takes place in the streets.

(It is the streets that teach people lessons for everyday life.)

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