Bombing of a Nation: Manila Street Art Breaking Down The Walls

How in the world did Filipino graffiti get to where it is today? The artists behind the subculture of vandalism and defacement of public and private property are just as baffled.

by Paolo Enrico Melendez , photo by Johann Bona

You could not have entered Post at Cubao Expo last September 11 (2016) even if your entire street cred depended on it.

The crowd that crammed the gallery spilled out onto the pavement and well past the Expo’s gate. A staccato of rude language peppered a haze of cigarette smoke and the scents of booze and body odor. Overheard on Romulo Avenue, the slap, bang, and grind of skaters doing rails on the cement gutter.

If you were as desperate as I was to get into Pilipinas Street Plan’s (PSP) tenth anniversary exhibit, standing on tiptoe outside Post to rubberneck was enough to get by while waiting for the crowd to thin.

Through the windows I saw anthropomorphic ticks, drawings of tattooed lumad, alien brains and monster pineapples, the stencils of samurai mask and nightmare balloon and eyes made to look like hearts and hearts made to look like eyes. Someone behind me started playing a rap joint on his phone, an old one, both the song and the phone.

This was the art gallery scene snatched from the prim set and proper clique, the patron patrol and vernissage VIPS. Street art had come of age in a decidedly youthful way. And the crowd had still not thinned enough for me to get in by the time I decided to leave for home.

That the crowd was huge wasn’t surprising. PSP, after all, is one of the largest street art communities in the Philippines. Egg Fiasco, one of the country’s most prominent street artists, and a second-generation member, tells me that the Post exhibit was the third of the year, with two more lined up, to celebrate the group’s 10 years. “Diverse ang grupo,” he says, and enumerates the members that include graphic designers, photographers, and college professors, aside from the usual graffiti bombers and visual artists.

“UST boys, tapos nahikayat iyong iba,” says visual artist and music video director Jay Pacena of the beginnings of a small group called Manila Street Plan, which would congregate in places like Louie Cordero’s indie gallery, Future Prospects. Pacena clarifies that he was more supporter than practitioner, given his conceptual idea of street art: “Pag lumabas ka sa kalye, ikaw na yung art,” he laughs.

But the group, with founding members and now-prominent artists such as Mark Salvatus, Mark Barretto, Mutation Nation (now known as Okto), Buen Calubayan, Wesley Valenzuela, and Cos Zicarelli, did just that, and soon attracted like-minded individuals from other universities and cities in Manila and across the country. With artists representing Cavite, Cebu, and Davao, the group changed its name to reflect its nationwide status.

 

And nationwide it has become. You and I have seen it, on alley walls and building facades. Under bridges are inscrutable squiggles in reds and whites, the letters brought to the farthest logical compressions and extensions that design can imagine. There are stenciled rabbits on Julia Vargas. Small footprints starting suddenly and ending nowhere along Sampaloc. The question “Why?” in elegant script spray-painted on plant boxes along EDSA and Chino Roces Avenue, Makati.

Once a subculture lumped together with other forms of public disturbance, street art has become so accepted that it is now part of daily language. Hell, after hearing about this story I was writing, my mother asked me which “collective” I was talking to as a primary source. And she used that word as comfortably as she sat on the sofa, her favorite primetime videoke singing contest blaring on TV, Miley Cyrus and Alicia Keys and Adam Levine spouting cliché after sparkly cliché.

How in the world did graffiti in the Philippines get to where it is today? It’s a baffling turn, when one considers the roots of the form. For one, it started out as an individual thing. “Paisa-isa lang, tapos walang pangalan,” Pacena says of the early days. More significantly, it used to be taboo. University of the Philippines Los Baños sociology professor Raphael Villaseñor considers graffiti, in its strictest sense, an act of deviancy, since “It’s done in a place where it is not meant to be done.”

And indeed, in other countries, graffiti is of a decidedly confrontational bent. Protesters under repressive regimes tag walls with political caricatures as an open expression of dissent. In its most cynical form, gangs use it to mark territory. Egg Fiasco admits to previously having a similar mindset. “Destroy kami dati e,” he says.

Villaseñor cites the Broken Window Theory as one argument used by authorities against graffiti. “It states that if petty crimes are allowed, this would give way to bigger crimes being committed,” he says.

Crackdown is thus tough. “’Di ko na mabilang,” Egg Fiasco says of the number of times he has been accosted, confronted, or straight up busted. The penalty is usually light—community service, bribes—but some PSP members have been caned by night watchmen or pistol-whipped by cops. Security guards are the most aggressive. “Bukas, ‘pag nakita na ‘yan ng amo namin, wala na kaming trabaho!” they growled to Egg Fiasco mid-scuffle.

So it is usually up to the artist to get creative when it comes to getting out of the bust. “Nagbreak kasi kami ng girlfriend ko e,” Egg Fiasco would tell a cop, who would then dispense avuncular advice before setting the artist free; Egg Fiasco would be back to bombing that same night, in a different location.

Once, while bombing an abandoned bank in New Manila, Egg Fiasco heard the whoop of an approaching patrol car’s siren. Summoned, he got a talking to from what looked like a newly graduated cop, who was polite, but nonetheless condescending. “Ang tanda ko na, nagpapasaway pa ako,” Egg Fiasco thought as soon as the cops drove away. He resolved to go out exclusively in the mornings, choosing only the dingiest spots, and adjusting his design so that his work gave the surroundings much-needed character.

Egg Fiasco tells me that crews have unwritten laws. “Turn off kami kapag may graffiti artists na nagta-tag sa private vehicles,” he begins. “Or religious monuments. You have to respect that stuff.” Schools and burial grounds are likewise off limits, unless consent is given. “Iba kasi kapag may paalam.”

If that incident in New Manila was Egg Fiasco’s personal turning point, Pacena cites a communal one: critical practice. Whereas things used to be all about design—how to fit a work, make it nice and noticeable—“few really challenged themselves,” Pacena says. This changed when practitioners such as Salvatus were given the chance to bring graffiti to more formal institutions such as schools and museums. “Nagkaroon ng mas malawak na discussion about the practice of street art,” Pacena says. He cites one particular intervention of Leeroy New, in which he draped Napoleon Abueva’s iconic UP waiting shed in a canvass dotted with New’s signature spheres of otherwordly design. This pushed graffiti artists to a new appreciation of what they were capable of. “Pagkakataon ko ito. Kailangan may makuha sila sa trabaho ko,” says Pacena of the radical mindset. To his estimation, this aesthetic conversation has been almost two decades in the running, which explains why the form feels so ripe these days.

With this new maturity comes an unprecedented acceptance in the neighborhoods where street art is performed. PSP members have interacted with the people who live around their artworks. “Natutuwa na sila,” Egg Fiasco says. “Kung pupunta ka sa tindihan, landmark mo na ‘yon.” Tricycle and jeepney drivers have even asked members of Egg Fiasco’s crew to touch up their rides.

Villaseñor agrees, particularly on street art with a more progressive messaging. “I feel happy because that kind of street art tells me that the struggle is alive, that what I discuss inside classrooms is also mirrored and echoed out in the streets, highways, in public places—even in the face of increasing gentrification by the private sector of these spheres that are meant for the public to commune with in the first place.”

Some pesky notions persist. “Sino nagbayad sa ‘yo para diyan?” is still a question people frequently ask Egg Fiasco, who has no simple answer. “Materials pa lang, mahal na,” he concedes. “Pero unselfish e. Usually, when we do art, it’s for ourselves, a personal thing. Sa street art, iba.”

And if the public has become more welcoming, so have the curators and the galleries. Pacena says the maturing critical practice has given the community the aesthetic depth needed to make the gallery breakthrough. PSP has been the first group to be invited to exhibit at the National Museum, the Lopez Museum, and at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. It also helped that street artists have widened their scope to include other media, such as toy making, T-shirt design, tattooing, and even designer furniture crafting. This helped others get picked up by the more adventurous curators, such as Bigboy Cheng of Secret Fresh. Other galleries have followed suit.

As of press time, most of the PSP founders are on residencies abroad: Dubai, Sweden, and the United States, to name a few. Pacena leaves in a couple of weeks for Japan. Other PSP members are being shown in concurrent exhibitions at Blanc and the CCP. And Egg Fiasco himself has two ongoing exhibits. In fact, he has been so busy representing the Philippines abroad that he admits to having little graffiti output for the past three years or so.

But that’s all good. Filipino graffiti, or street art, or however you want to call it, is a fine example of a successful grassroots art movement. One that addresses the institution not in an escapist way, or a confrontational way, but in my estimation, in the manner Russian poet-activist Kirill Medvedev once put the ideal way, “a flexible, open, occasionally provocative, but, mainly independent, true to yourself and your ideas, alternative within the larger, general, social space.”

It’s not all roses, of course. Like all legit things, it stands to be co-opted by the clueless. Take the attempts found along the perimeter of Camp Aguinaldo or the South Cemetery, the clunky boxes of color the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority calls art: flat, didactic things that miss the point entirely. And then there are the more militant of minds, who think that going to galleries is a form of selling out; one of the most prolific graffiti artists has gone so far as to use a gender slur to delineate graffiti from street art. To them, street is street, and the rest is kitsch.

Thankfully, these do not faze the likes of Egg Fiasco, whose bottom line is still the thrill of the practice. Finding that perfect spot, that ideal weathered texture of surface, the visibility to passersby, choosing the colors, ignoring that nagging knowledge that weather and authorities and fads stand to obliterate all your hard work—the immediate, impulsive, risky business of it all. And going on to work, despite, or because of, everything.

“We think of ourselves as a sharing community,” Egg Fiasco says. “Uy, nakita ko work mo,” street artists will often say to each other, without even being privy to real names. It’s like saying “What’s up?”

Towards the middle of our talk, Egg Fiasco tells me that he can’t wait for the rainy season to end so that he can go out and bomb. By the end of our conversation, such is his enthusiasm that he amends his earlier statement: “Gusto ko na tuloy i-ditch mga trabaho ko.” Which sounded strange in a great way to me, because if all this were anything to go by, nobody did any ditching in the first place.

This article was originally published in the October 2016 issue of Rogue.