There is a pyramid drawn in chalk on the thick concrete pillar that holds up the Light Rail Transit tracks near the corner of Pablo Ocampo Sr. Street and Taft Avenue, Manila. Inside that pyramid is the all-seeing eye, watching over the stream of people and cars that hurry past the busy intersection. Underneath the pyramid written in the deliberate round letters of a child’s scrawl are the words “Hindi it biro o belo,” followed by more words that could be mistaken for concrete poetry or the ramblings of a crazy person.
Four years ago, visual artist Jun-Jun Sta. Ana was living with friends before moving into a condominium in Vito Cruz. It wasn’t long before he noticed the graffiti in the area. Interest piqued, Sta. Ana asked the neighborhood pedicab drivers and sidewalk vendors,“Sino’ng may gawa niyan?” All the street people knew who was behind it. It was Betong.
Betong “Laway” Billiones is not always there. He lives just outside the gates of the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex. All his material possessions fit in a small cardboard box. Betong is rail thin and grimy from sleeping rough, with a nest of hair and a tangled beard. He is nearing 30 years old but looks much older. On the day Sta. Ana brought us to meet him, Betong was on the floor, industriously drawing on a sketchbook Sta. Ana previously gave him. He was shirtless, bird-chest showing off his pen-ink tattoos. Sta. Ana confided that Betong had been wearing the same pair of shorts for over two weeks. He hasn’t showered since.
An equally bedraggled orange kitten pops out of Betong’s box and, curiously, traipses toward us. Betong named it Butete. Butete tries to walk on Betong’s sketchpad but Betong consistently and gingerly pulls it away. Sta. Ana asks what happened to the other kitten. Didn’t Betong have two? Where is it? “Pinatay ko,” Betong says off-hand without looking up from his sketchpad. “Nanggigil ako. Ba’t ko nga ba nagawa ‘yun?” he asks with genuine wonder.
Despite this, the street people who know Betong swear that he is no danger to anyone. His uncle, Buboy, works as an unofficial caretaker at Rizal Stadium and sometimes sneaks Betong inside to force him to shower. Betong’s mother Belen has a pop-up sari-sari store on a nearby sidewalk, selling cigarettes, candy, hardboiled eggs, and hopia wrapped in plastic. They are both within shouting distance in case Betong gets in trouble. Neither are worried when Betong goes away. He’ll either be drawing on some wall or sniffing solvent to stave off hunger pangs.
“Noong isang araw, muntik nang mabugbog si Betong,” Buboy tells me. Betong approached a group of men—decent types, looked well-bred and educated, Buboy said—to ask for charity. The men shouted and cursed at Betong and were squaring up when Buboy and other pedicab drivers rushed to Betong’s side. “Ano pa’ng silbi ng pinag-aralan nila kung papatol sila? Nakita na nga’ng may problema [si Betong].”
Betong’s problems aren’t only a product of his circumstances. His mother, Belen, tells me he used to be so smart. The youngest of her four children, Betong together with the Billiones brood all lived in Leveriza, Pasay. Betong showed promise in school but had to drop out after the fourth grade. He picked up drawing from his tailor father before the old man kicked the bucket. Back in the day, Betong was quite the fashionista. “Maporma,” Belen says. Always made sure his clothes looked good before he left the house. He used to work as a pedicab driver, earning enough to support his wife and child. But when he fell in with the wrong crowd and picked up a serious solvent addiction, his wife packed up and took their kid with her. That’s when Betong began to act strange, Belen says. He would draw relentlessly. He would sleep in the streets and refuse to come home.
I asked his mother where his friends are now. Did they leave him when things got rough? Belen shakes her head and drops her voice like she’s telling me a secret. “Nakulong na. Magnanakaw kasi at snatcher. Buti hindi sumama si Betong—hanggang solvent lang.”
Betong has his own approach to language. He barely stays on topic. He breaks into rhymes and songs, and sometimes asks riddles that only he knows the answers to. “Umaga, tanghali, hapon at gabi. Bote ang hawak, may rugby sa tabi,” he says in a sing-song way. I try to keep up. Sta. Ana tries to take charge of the conversation. But even then, it’s difficult.
Betong changes gears in mid-sentence. “Kasalanan. Ano po ba ang ibig sabihin n’un?” he asks us. He’s always polite, his sentences peppered with “po.” “May naririnig ako,” he says without waiting for a response. He cocks his head to a side like he’s listening to someone. “Kalayaan, ang sabi. Basagin natin ang salita. Ka-la-ya-an…” I wonder if the drugs triggered auditory schizophrenic hallucinations in him.Or if the solvent was used to self-medicate a pre-existing condition.
I asked Sta. Ana if he and Betong are friends. “Yes, I think so,” he says after a pause. “I like him. I’m a fan of his work. I was really happy when I found out that he knows who I am, he remembers me. One time he was screaming sa may Torre Lorenzo. I passed by and then he stopped. That’s how I know he recognizes me.”
Betong refers to Sta. Ana as “kuya” and is genuinely happy to see him. Sta. Ana gives Betong art supplies when he can and buys Betong’s work instead of giving alms. His latest contribution to Betong’s arsenal was a cheap ruler. Since then, Betong has been framing his drawings in what looks to be the interior of a room, all straight lines and perspective.
Sta. Ana grows quiet when I ask him what it was about Betong that made him reach out. “Four years ago, I was living with friends,” he said. “If it were not for them, I would be homeless too.”
Is Betong an artist? The question is a head scratcher. On one hand, Betong clearly needs help. A rehab center to treat his addiction, one that wouldn’t just let him wander away, and a mental health clinic that can truly help him instead of chaining him to a loathsome bench. On the other hand, Sta. Ana attests to the sheer happiness on Betong’s face when given art materials. Sometimes Betong chooses to draw over eating or sniffing solvent. He has a consistent and recognizable style, as well as recurring figures in his works. His canvas stretches from Gil Puyat to Pedro Gil and he sometimes makes a series of drawings. At the risk of being harassed by security guards and other authority figures, Betong climbs gates and railings to draw on walls. He signs his works as “Betong Laway.”
Betong’s dire straits make him particularly vulnerable these days, in light of the state-sanctioned war on drugs and the spate of violent killings sweeping the metropolis. Vito Cruz’s own indigent artist clearly fits the profile of the victims: urban poor, a self-confessed solvent abuser, and with no means to help himself.
That may be what makes Betong’s story particularly persistent. That we—self-styled artists and outsiders—are just a few meals and a shower away from his life. Here is a man who fell through a crack, had a bad day, or met the wrong friends, tried the wrong drugs. Would there be any coming back from that? Is there absolution for life’s bad choices?
Before we part, Sta. Ana offers to buy the sketch that Betong has been working on. “Wag muna, Kuya. Di pa tapos. Balikan mo na lang,” Betong says, dismissing us, and bends back down over his work.
This story appears in Rogue’s August 2016 Issue. Available in your nearest bookstore.