Painting the Town Red | Havana’s Exploding Street Art Scene
We speak to two of Cuba’s best street artists about the inspirations and challenges behind their work
Remarkable as it might sound, until about ten years ago, there was no such thing as street art in Havana. Actually, that’s not strictly true. There have long been images painted on the walls of Cuba’s capital, images that reflected the changing times – from the faded capitalist advertising of the 50s, to the later political slogans calling Habaneros to continue the Cuban revolution. But there wasn’t any street art in the sense that we know it. No ‘proper’ graffiti, no pieces, no intricate tags.
In the past few years, however, pieces have begun to appear on walls across the city, which in itself signifies the changes afoot in Cuba. There is now a small but growing community of dedicated artists working to create an alternative to the artless political sloganeering of the past.
Their work is slowly becoming more and more accepted, but each piece you see still represents a hustle. Materials are hard to come by. Spray paint is rarely sold in Havana, and as such the majority of their work is done with regular paint. And for all that it’s increasingly visible, the work these artists do is still technically illegal.
Two of the best (and best-known) artists go by the monikers 2+2=5 and Mr. MYL. The pair work independently, but have both worked with international artists in the past, and recently collaborated on a collection for Havana’s first streetwear brand, Centro Apparel. Ahead of the launch, they sat down with us to talk about the scene, their inspirations, and what would happen if they got caught.
For a long time, fear held us back when it came to street art in Havana. We have delayed development in terms of our underground culture. For example, skate culture only came in the 2000s, and rock in the 1990s. But whereas other cultural scenes give you fame and recognition, street art doesn’t, so it’s been less popular as a result.
Hustling, and looking for material and paint, is part of the game. You can find the material in the most random of places. But it’s hard. We do have ‘Santa Claus’ friends coming from abroad who bring us materials as well though.
We both paint recurring characters; they’re not really political – but at the same time they are, because graffiti is always political. Supermalo [the balaclava-clad character of 2+2=5] is hidden to the world. He is saying what he wants, but with a mask on. My [Mr MYL’s] main character is called Caníbal. This refers to the Caribes, the people who live Caribbean. I think my characters are like portraits of the people in Havana.
The rise in tourism has helped develop the scene in the last five years. There have been more international artists coming to Cuba, creating street art in the community. Also, the internet has played a big role in us being able to see outside work from around the world. But it’s still a small scene – there are probably only about ten Cuban street artists working on the streets of Havana.
European and South American street art is a big influence on us, and our opinions of the world. We love collaborating with international artists. In 2006 some German artists came, and we learned a lot from them. They learned stuff too, like how to paint in the light – they usually paint in the dark to avoid detection.
Cuba’s revolutionary iconography is also an important influence. It was the only thing that was there before our street art. In the 60s, the revolutionary street art was really interesting, and the history is interesting too. When the Soviets came with their propaganda slogans, they actually used the same local artists from before the revolution – the guys who did the advertising for American companies that were based here in Cuba.
Street art is becoming more accepted, and we’d love to see it becoming more popular and growing. But it’s still illegal. If you got caught you’d get taken to jail and then they’d fine you 5,000 Cuban Pesos or US$200 which is a lot of money here, considering the average monthly wage is US$40.
Henrik von Celsing is a part of the team behind Centro Apparel, and is based in Havana, Cuba. [Editor's note: Since this article was first published, the name of the brand has changed from Dirty Havana Apparel to Centro for legal reasons - the article has been amended accordingly]
Centro Apparel is inspired by the incredible urban community of skaters, street artists, and hip-hop musicians that populate Havana, and aims to give a platform to these Cubans to collaborate and share their creativity.
Mr MYL & 2+2=5’s first collection with Centro is coming soon. Visit centrohav.com for details.