Walking down the streets of Havana, it’s difficult not to be struck by the sheer beauty of the city. The dilapidated buildings are painted all sorts of fantastic colors, from bright lime greens and oranges to deep reds and solid blues.
Bands wearing pristine white outfits play salsa music on shiny brass instruments on patios all over the city while rickety carts move down the battered streets carrying exotic fruits. Thousands of beautifully maintained classic cars coast through the streets, making the whole city look like a classic car show. This is the tourist appeal of Cuba’s capital and biggest city: impeccable weather, exciting music, unique scenery, and a charming state of decay. In this landscape, it’s almost impossible to pick out any individual source of allure. That is unless you step off the beaten path.
Walking around the touristy areas of Havana, you’ll see many statues and murals. They’re impressive, and often have entire courtyard layouts designed around them, but they’re obviously government work. The government, currently headed by Raul Castro since he formally took over for Fidel in 2008, has been frequently accused of being incredibly oppressive to the citizens of Cuba. To see work by actual Cuban citizens, art aficionados will have to go to some of the poorer neighborhoods. Aside from the distractions of the tourist areas, street art has recently become a booming part of the city’s ambiance. Many of the pieces maintain a heavy influence on more classical Latin American art. There is something different and off about the street art in Havana, though.
Over the course of my first few days in town, I noticed a recurring image of a man in a balaclava. These were usually, but not always near the expression “2+2=5”. After casually asking some natives about it to no avail, I decided to use my limited internet card to see if I could find anything on the balaclava adorned man. I found a short article about the artist, who goes by 2+2=5, and another named Yulier P, whose strange work I had also happened to have noticed on the street.
From then on, I was on the hunt for these artists, and I saw their work everywhere. 2+2=5 seemed to leave his masked man on every street around Havana. Yulier P had fewer pieces, but each one was incredibly impressive. He has a very recognizable expressionist look that you know every time you see it. His pieces have recurring elements, like amorphous or ghoulish faces and the consistently jarring dog nipples, which stand out in the lively city due to their almost disquieting nature.
US Street Art Compared
One obvious difference between Cuban and US street art is tagging. Instead of elaborate tags, many people just casually write their names like they would on a homework assignment. I saw almost no tagging anywhere in Havana. There were beautiful paintings, but they seemed to be done by a small group of people. Many people just write out their names with no art attached. Street art is pretty unexplored here. For many, spray paint is very hard to come by, as ration cards don’t cover it, and the average salary of a Cuban worker is around 687 CUP per month (equal to around $25 USD).
Non-essential items such as paint are expensive for Cuban citizens. Many Cubans resort to prostitution or black market dealings to tourists to be able to afford items not deemed necessary by the Castro regime. A guy staying with me bought sunscreen from the store for the equivalent of 16 US dollars. With that in mind, it’s easy to assume that a can of spray paint might cost half of a person’s monthly budget. There are also punishments in Cuba for vandalism, which may not hold severe penalties on their own, but when mixed with political messages (such as in the case of artist El Sexto), can lead to extended jail time without trial.
Cuba: Politically Yours
This leads me to the other thing that seems to be missing in the street art: political dissidence. In America, it is incredibly common to see political graffiti thrown up on an overpass or in an alleyway, even if it’s just primitive writing that says “Fuck Trump” or a swastika. In Havana, all of the political graffiti went along with the regime of Fidel and Raul Castro. There were stencils of Che Guevara in nearly every alleyway as well as images of him on every tourist shop t-shirt and statues of him all throughout the city. Che Guevara is everywhere in Havana. I think most of us Americans would find it discomforting if street artists here only put up stencils of John F. Kennedy or Thomas Jefferson.
That’s because street art is a medium for showing the underbelly of society. When the bottom of society only echoes the sentiments of the top, it loses much of its purpose.
There is, however, plenty of pro-regime art on the street, from huge writing next to a crowded overpass saying “Continuamos Defendiendo La Revolucion” to murals of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara staring down Spanish oppressors. These pieces are, obviously, put there by the government. It’s almost uniquely Cuban to see propaganda of a revolution used to suppress propaganda of newer revolutionary ideas.
Political Art in Havana, Cuba
This is where artists like Yulier P and 2+2=5 come into play. While not overtly political, the artists leave you with a strange sense of malaise in a city that tries to project an out-of-time socialist utopia. Because tourists see and enjoy them, the government leaves them up. It’s only obvious after you walk by a few times that there may be more secretive meaning to the name “2+2=5”. If you stare long enough into the formless mass of faces painted on a wall behind a bus stop, it’s easy to think about a saying the black panthers made famous. “The revolution will not be televised.” In a city where Che Guevara’s disembodied head litters every street, it’s easy to wonder whether or not it should be.