A Look at Graffiti and Street Art in Manila, Philippines

It was at around midnight; the skies were pitch black, and the streets were empty, save for a few jeepneys that roared every now and then. A few lampposts lined up along the sidewalks; their white lights somehow fell down on me and put me in the spotlight. I was wearing black jeans that had paint stains on each side, and sneakers that had drops of paint on them, the sides of the rubber soles that were once white were now dirty gray. I had a zipped up hoodie on, and a camo backpackwhere rattling sounds came from as I walked on. I had no particular place to go to. I just kept on walking, looking, spotting―tagging.

Clack, clack, clack, clack, clack, I shook the aerosol can in my hand, and pffsshht,pffsshht,pffsshht, it went. I tagged on the cream-colored wall of some commercial establishment.“Pch”

It was in 2008 when I began bombing, and “Pch” was my writer name. Essentially, it was the infamy accompanying graffiti that drew me to it, the feeling of seeing my tag on public spaces; on walls that I pass by every day, on spots that make people think, “How did he do that?” I would place my name on anywhere as long as there was a chance that a lot of people could see my name. Bio, a graffiti writer featured in the documentary, Bomb It(2008), defines the roots of graffiti: “When you go to the very essence of the graffiti movement, it’s all about the signature and the tag.” And Pose2, another graffiti writer also featured in the documentary, describes the method of bombing, a term used by most graffiti artists who affiliate their style with the illegality of tagging and hitting hard-to-reach places known as “hotspots” in the silence and darkness of the dusk. He says: “Bombing is just all out destruction, going all out; you know, bombing? Justlike dropping a bomb.” Graffiti, by nature, is done illegally on public walls and spaces such as trains, police cars, bridges, and street signs. And this illegality excited me every time I went out at night to bomb. These nightly escapes of graffiti brought me to a point that I always brought a can of spray paint in my bag, just in case I get the chance to tag on my way home.

The graffiti movement began in 1967, in the streets of Philadelphia, by an African-American tagger known as Cornbread. In Bomb It, it was shown how he began writing the word “Cornbread” on the hallway walls of the juvenile institution that he was in; where cornbread was served on their plastic platters every lunch, instead of white bread, and he thought that it had a ring to it. Everybody in the jail talked about his “name,” and he figured that if he had been getting this much attention inside, what more if he wrote “Cornbread” outside. “The more they talked, the more I wrote, the more they talked, the more I wrote,” he says.

 

cornbread
Source: Bomb It

I was unaware of Cornbread and the history of graffiti when I began doing graffiti, or “writing,” as graffiti artists are also known as graffiti writers. It was the video game, Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 that got me into graffiti, because aside from playing the game as a professional skateboarder, there were side-quests that involved tagging hard-to-reach areas. What I realized when I began to hit the streets was that I wasn’t the only one doing it. I started to take note of the other names and symbols that were spray-painted on walls. A lot of other writers were really “out there,” with their tag names being visible from Pasay to Taft, from Taft to Quiapo, and from Quiapo to Quezon Avenue—main thoroughfares in Metro Manila for public transportation. It was a challenge for me to become as visible, to get noticed, and to become better. And that was when I began to look at photos and watch videos of famous American graffiti writers and bombers, such as Augor, Saber, and Zeser.

I was surprised when I found out that graffiti has been a part of society for quite some time, at least in the United States. A summarized history or at least a brief insight on how the movement of graffiti spread in the U.S. can be read from Sarah Graham’s “Graffiti in Urban Space: Incorporating Artists into the Policy Realm”:

“According to community organizer, writer, and graffiti artist William UpskiWimsatt, the United States has experienced three separate waves of graffiti. By 1970, the tags of New York and Philadelphia teenagers were common sight. By the early 1980’s, the trend had spread to other large urban areas: San Francisco, Miami, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Baltimore were among cities affected by the second wave. The third wave took place by 1990; this phase represents the infiltration of graffiti into smaller cities, including Birmingham, Alabama; Madison, Wisconsin; St. Louis, Missouri; and Austin, Texas.” (Graham 10)

In the Philippines, there were writers who began as early as the 90s, such as the SBA cru and Pinoy Style Insight or PSI, but I can say that graffiti has been in the country for a much longer period of time, most likely due to the relationship it has with gangs. But the actual “boom” of graffiti art was back in 2004-2006, and it involved a group of writers from different crews who had been acknowledged as the first wave for beginning the movement and establishing the scene.

Eventually, I graduated from bombing, and moved on to the more difficult aspects of graffiti art, and that was piecing. The forms of graffiti vary from the simple tag or the signature of the writer done in a single color to the throw-up, a two-color work that is usually done in the bubble or balloon style lettering with a fill-in, and the piece, a complicated rendition of the writer’s tag name, a form of typography designed with effects, intricate letter styles, and multiple colors. This was my first piece:

first piece

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to finish that one, because it was done illegally in an abandoned house and lot, and police from the village caught. I was lucky to at least capture a photo before I’d been brought to the headquarters for questioning. I was released after a logbook confession. After this one, I got caught two more times, but was never really arrested or detained. However, that first time that I’d been apprehended made me so paranoid that I laid off the illegal stuff for a while, since I learned that in the Philippines, it doesn’t matter as much if one’s piece was done illegally or if permission had been asked. What matters is the final output, of how cleanly done one’s work is. Also, in searching for my own style, because originality is a large part of graffiti―there is no respect earned when one bites someone else’s hand-style, which is rampant in graffiti. I also ventured into“street art.” Here’s a photo of a character piece, which was done legally:

street art

I spray-painted a strawberry face on a wall of a lot filled with huge ants, wild bushes, and tall blades of grass. I asked permission from the owner of the wall, and she agreed, as long as it wasn’t anything scary, ugly, or “bad.” I promised a cute work, hence the strawberry face with its tongue sticking out. I didn’t feel the same contentment or excitement in executing this piece, unlike when I’m graffiti piecing, where by the end of a work, I can barely move my fingers. It was different for me, although some people categorize graffiti under the umbrella of street art. Technically, though, it has its own history altogether.

Street art began in the prehistoric ages,andit roots itself in the earliest known cave paintingwhich can be found in Europe, which dates back to the Aurignacian period (ca. 45,000 to 35,000 years ago). By scratching the stoned surfaces and rubbing leaves, mud, chalk, and clay on the walls, cave men were able to decorate their caves and surroundings with ancient lettering, animal-like shapes, and geometrical symbols―these were the unconscious beginnings of street art and its culture.

A notable street artist from Paris (also featured in Bomb It), Blek Le Rat is considered as the originator of using stencils in street art.He has decorated the walls of Paris in the early 1980s with a stencil image of a rat. He was inspired to create street art after seeing the graffiti in New York in the 70s, but at the same time, he wanted to introduce a new style of graffiti instead of copying the ones he saw in the United States―thus utilizing the stencilled form as paying homage to Latin art. One of Blek’s many stencilled paintings:

Blek Le Rat
Source: Bomb It

Rai Cruz, an art professor at the Mapua Institute of Technology and street artist from Cavity Collective, defines street art as “any visual art expressed on a public space. Perhaps anything that is with the intent of presenting art forms in public space (legal or not) could be considered street art.” What differentiates street art from graffiti is the way the art is produced; graffiti is mainly performed and rendered with aerosol cans, while street art is attributed to other methods of production such as: posters, drawings, and printed materials – visuals stuck onto walls with wheat paste and rollers (simply referred to as “wheat paste”), stickers, stencilled paintings, acrylic murals, and art installations. “LigawnaOrganismo” by Rai Cruz, done with latex and brush:

In Manila, graffiti writers and street artists share mutual respect and work hand-in-hand in promoting public visual art, unlike in the United States and Europe, where there seem to exist separate factions that go against each another and competing for superiority. Some Filipino artists dabble in both, trying each form until they find a certain style that they want to focus on and be known for. Roy, a graffiti writer from the south and a notorious bomber, says, “The main objective is to express creativity,” and that there should be a level of respect between both sides. He further adds that Filipinos, by nature,are jolly and friendly, so artists from both sides do get along, but at the same time, there are some writers and/or artists who are too full of themselves that they tend to brag about their art form by saying that their work is much more cooler and difficult to execute, and when their pieces or works get “beefed” (or painted over without permission) they tend to talk too much.. A photo of Roy’s piece in Intramuros:

Roy’s piece

Roy describes the public Filipino’s view on street art and graffiti as a “growing audience gradually learning how to appreciate the art, but still, the majority still sees these manifestations of public visual art as a form of vandalism; particularly caused by the Filipino society being culturally traditional and conservative.” Though many would consider street art, and most especially graffiti, as senseless vandalism, for the artists, they are, of course, valid forms of visual expression. For Rai Cruz, considering, categorizing, and understanding what an artwork is should be something relative. He comments on the value of graffiti: “Its value as art could not be determined whether it was done legally or illegally. Its value could not easily be determined even by the skill. Street art/graffiti is also subject to the multitude of considerations when evaluating art works that are normally seen in a gallery space.”

Graffiti and street art, in general, are both projected as a form of ephemeral art, which in some way, reflects the artist or writer’s lifestyle: momentary and transitory. Given this, some people may disagree with Rai or Roy, as some “purists” believe in the real essence of graffiti as an illegal act, as an art in the form vandalism. Still, without any sacred scripture on its rules, graffiti and street artists will have their own criteria for the value or beauty of the art form. For others, graffiti and street art is just a phase in their lives, while for others, it has become their lifestyle.

Rai Cruz narrates how he encountered street art: through his students who urged him to try it out. At first, his intention was tomerely try something new, but after creating his first three pieces, he felt the satisfaction of overcoming the obstacles related to producing public art. At present, his primary purpose in doing street art is to challenge himself, to test his skills, because in creating street art, one is removed from the comforts of painting in a studio, or the safety and convenience of rendering digital art―he claims that in street art, he is pushed to expand his limits. Also, due to the economical factors in creating an artwork that does not generate profit, he is compelled to think of resourceful ways in order to sustain this activity. He personally thinks that those who continue to pursue these activities would eventually find that street art and graffiti is already a part of, if not already, their lifestyle. He says:

“Every time a street/graffiti artist gazes through a window when commuting, he is constantly evaluating the surroundings. He is already thinking of how to ask permission for a wall; or how to climb a wall; or how to paint on the wall’s rough surface. And these are just walls.”

 

The lifestyle of a graffiti writer or street artist requires one to be hard-nosed, physically and mentally―to be somewhat of a thrill-seeker, constantly testing one’s toughness, and breaking the rules and boundaries of life, society, community, or whatever it is that hinders them from pushing their selves. It has been a part of my life, when every day I dream of hitting spots that I pass by when travelling, but couldn’t because I was too scared to. I would always feel this need to surpass someone who suddenly tagged on the same spot that I did, or whenever I would see a photo of a really sick piece by a fellow writer.

The graffiti and street art scene in the Philippines is slowly growing into a legitimate venue for the visual arts, and this recognition stems from the scene itself: the artists or practitioners, enthusiasts, fans, and even the capitalists or commercialists. Rai Cruz pinpoints mainstream media exposure as one of the promulgators of the scene, making the movement seem acceptable, and bringing attention to the scene through local television features. He also cites school publications that seek interviews with street artists, highlighting them as harbingers of a new-age art form. Local brands, too, are involved in the scene, with their interest in sponsoring events and launching products designed with and are about graffiti or street art. Lastly, he focuses on the role of social media in spreading the movement, such as blogging and “Facebook-ing,” as the main driving force that creates and shares greater awareness about the scene. For artists, it is an easier platform to showcase their talents, similar to an online portfolio, as most of these days, people tend to spend much more time in front of their computers or mobile phones than strolling outside in the streets. The future of the scene, as Rai Cruz sees it, would heavily rely on “the manner by which the artists continue to be progressive and respectful of each other. Instead of continuing with schisms, the street art scene will continue to grow if most of the artists are united.”

Again, there are going to be purists who will find it unfit for writers to post photos of their pieces, tags, or throw-ups on social networking sites, such as Facebook, for the reason that graffiti should be presented in the streets, and that public space, in itself, is the writer’s gallery. The use of social media is already breaking the notion that “graffiti is meant for the streets,” so in using these platforms, these purists will say that one might as well just paint on your own wall at home, take a photograph, and upload it on your website. One could say that the internet is the future of graffiti; that it is as public as the streets.

Roy’s sentiment on the scene is similar: “The Philippines’ present graffiti and street art scene is wonderful! At least there is progression with the way it is being promoted to the public. We just have to think positively; nothing will come of us if we go against one another. It’s really all about bayanihan.” I wasn’t alone when I got caught for the first time; I was with Roy. Here’s his unfinished piece:

bayanihan.It is, however, without a doubt that the illegality or legality of a work is deemed significant to some graffiti writers because for most of these practitioners, it is the level of difficulty and the challenge of conquering fear that matters to them, while for other artists, it is more on the creativity, meaning, and connection to an audience that makes their work more valuable. And in the Philippines, both public art forms are enjoyed by the artists and the viewing public, because wherever they go, these art forms are there. Even without the spotlight on me any longer, I know that I have lived through my tags and pieces. I’ve accepted that the permanence of my art can only last for so long, but I will constantly be walking, looking, and eventually, stopping.

 

 

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