Philip Paraan is a cultural organizer, freelance writer and programmer of Kanto Artist Collective. He writes articles on culture for various print and online publications, as well as exhibition notes and texts for catalogues for different galleries in Manila. He also works with Media Arsenal, a start-up design studio-PR management focused on arts and culture.
Effectively, these outdoor works of art continue to be alternative ways to feel the energies, to know the city’s stories, which often reveal themselves in contradicting narratives or strains. As if a makeover, these arts from the fringes, whether installed or painted, certainly give parts of Metro Manila a new life, suspending them from an insistent decay; or they just come as a whiff of fresh air to an urban jungle with the grayness of concrete and other unsavory features of tired cities.
As someone who promotes street art and marginal practices in art, I am particularly excited to be part of a generation personally witnessing the flourishing street art in this side of things. I’m promptly directed to imagine how they are made, their back stories or the ideas they represent – or have the issues they confront changed much over the years?
Of course, no one would certainly know how street art started in this side of things but graffiti, tags and political slogans, murals and other earlier precursors can be immediately attributed to earlier generations of Filipino punks, gangs and activists, who all had in common their rebellion and who lived and purveyed a certain counterculture. Like other street art movement, it is a collective voice, processed over time by different generations. Indeed, there is a continuously growing community behind it, making itself more felt in nearby cities outside the capital and it is evolving at the same time as the art it produces.
Street art is a youthful creative process and as expected, a lot of the artists belong to younger generations of Filipino artists. The most identifiable names in the community of street artists and those who have achieved a certain level of resonance include PSP, KST Cvity, GSM, Boy Agimat, Garapata Hepe, Nuno, Blic and Qudo. Some of them, I have already met, some of them remain anonymous and their presence is more felt in the streets and neighborhoods. For sure, they can be found in Marikina, Katipunan, Taft, Edsa, Makati, Pasig, Parañaque and just about everywhere there’s an empty wall and space that incites them to do their stuff.
To mention I a few whom I follow, there’s Rai who is one of the forces behind collective Cvity, street artists mostly based in the South of Manila. They work in the areas of Las Piñas, Parañaque, Cavite and anywhere, but mostly in the South. Meanwhile, the art collective Gerilya is known for their murals that reflect social and political realities. They employ cultural iconography that is rooted in our culture and psyche. Another street artist, Blic, depicts personal and social experience as his creative response, expanding and collapsing, to the yearning of public spaces. He brings to life “sub-cities”, familiar and storied public spaces, with his street art icon, a hand or a pair of hands, which hints at a language of its own.
Following the tradition of street art of the West, we’ve also seen the rise of crews like Pilipinas Street Plan (PSP), Lokal Bandals Crew (LBC), Tiger City Mother Fuckers (TCMK), Show Down Freaks Kill, Nose Bleed Krew,(NBK) Go Smoke Mary (GM), Manila City Disorder (MCD), all of which comprise this self- organizing movement, they are all organized yet loose. Rai said that a lot of groups and random painting sessions were organized online, social media played somehow a part in connecting artists and promoting their work. According to him, some of the past years have been very prolific, a lot of art going but there has been a decline in the past three years. In Western urban environments, art is seen differently, and this translates to significant support for cultural activities. Here artists live in ever more precarious conditions. In a Third World country, where the artistic profession is evidently precarious, it is unfortunate that often most artists have to turn their backs on their creative duties and do something else just to pay the bills. The same thing goes for artists who choose the street as their canvas.
Here we realize that economics sometimes plays a role in creating this art and street artists are at the same facing quotidian problems as much as they struggle to create, find their voices and negotiate with the ideological notions of space, and dissent and resistance.
Are most street artists gritty and rebellious, since the platform they chose is more daring, or are they rebels without a cause? Street art is a venue of expression, from personal to social statements, but it would be wrong to think that all street artists are political, certainly not. Some are just creative daredevils who are mired in existential struggles to express; preoccupied with the guilty pleasures of spontaneity and so, for them action takes the lead more than content does. Once in a while, I still see some struggling to make clever statements, and I read anything political, except for very generic slogans like: Peace Not War! Of course, if we compare them with political radicals and activists, they don’t have more coherent analyses of and prescriptions for social liberation like “Down with Imperialism!” or a line that incites passersby to armed struggle.
But I always knew that there were political artists long before the coining of urban art as an aesthetic concept and practice has long taken to the streets to denounce injustice. But before the fad of street art took shape in the streets of Manila, political activists and artists had long been making their marks all over the metropolis and often, they skillfully created art while a big demonstration was moving. Otherwise it remained a very clandestine activity, usually done under cover of darkness and out of sight of patrolling policemen. Organizations like Ugatlahi, Concerned Artists and Karatula have always been producing politically charged art in the streets and continue to do so.
Needless to say, expression is a great deal. For someone exposed to the local art scene, I see how a lot of artists are marginalized in the gallery system, there is not just enough space to accommodate the ideas and artistry, especially of the younger generation, whose art we expect to be more deviant and different. From here also springs the heated debate whether or not artists should just stick to the streets or whether they should embrace the streets, galleries, art spaces and traditional institutions to convey their statements.
Most people consider their work vandalism regardless of the styles and media. Yet awareness of the rules of street art has not changed. Despite the evolving style and finesse of street art, much of it still has not passed the concept of it being illegal and dirty. Faced with the anachronistic perception, a lot of artists in this practice still furtively do their art in the most discreet manner; in our own street language, it’s called the ninja moves. Some artists take on walls outside Manila, where authorities are not that keen to apprehend them.
As noted by earlier observers, no art movement in human history has so thoroughly confounded the deeply held concepts of public-private property. This is particularly true of graffiti. Many of the artists that I meet and talk to say they still get harassed by property owners, policemen or tanod (community police) or night watch.
As always, street art is often measured by the scale and the difficulty of sites where they are produced, which reveal the performative value of the daring and rebelliousness of this public art form. Because of their transient nature, I often miss some of the artworks, some of which are painted over or just completely faded by their exposure to the elements, but I remain curious as to what others think of them.
When I see busy pedestrians just pass by these artworks, oblivious, mindless of the art around them, I sometimes also wonder if that daring, the feat and creative labor of the artist was worth it. In a country where giant controversial billboards of naked men and women get talked about, I wonder when street art will get the same buzz. Most street art, beyond its techniques, reflects contemporary issues.
While I reflect on the different cultural and artistic motives of artists, street art is often framed as “gentrification”, often seen as opportunities for our cities to make themselves beautiful and engaging and to put on a more cultural façade, there must be more beyond that relates to the sense of the malleability of identities and spaces, why some art works are permitted and others are not. Interestingly, street art in the capital evolves in parallel realities and reveals the complexion of cities and its social make -up; they thrive on sides : urban poor areas, the ghetto districts– iskwater and the business districts or rich residential enclaves which both see this art.
For someone who grew up and lived in Manila I’ve seen new cities built and some parts of the old ones left to decay steadily. I walk a lot and if I do not, I take public transportation; it is my way of deeply knowing the city and its energies. This borrowed culture- art form has turned universal and has yet to be noticed and fully embraced, but we should be glad it’s here, in the sweltering heat and maddening traffic, and indeed, every time I pass by one of these open air galleries, a conversation starts in my head as the art flashes and flares before my eyes.