Graffitti in Santurce, Puerto Rico

Graffiti in Santurce, Puerto Rico (Pablo Samuel Torres)

Spray can, markers, liquid paints, a stencil and a surface… graffiti art is created in public places, for all to see, and is free. Its life span tends to be short: Inclement weather and the human hand may change or eliminate its existence. Its history has been painted as one of transgression and persecution, as well as rejection and praise in equal measure. Its defenders call it public art while its critics consider it an attack on public property, the law and the “good image” of a neighborhood, city or people.

Murals and writing on the walls of caves may be its predecessors, but it is in the hip-hop culture — with its four currents: rap or emceeing, disc jockeys, graffiti and break dancing — where graffiti finds its current expression. The artistic movement that originated on the walls of New York, in the 1960s and 1970s, is today a worldwide phenomenon. The Caribbean is no exception. In fact, people from the Caribbean were tied to the birth of graffiti in New York through the sons of Caribbean immigrants, the Puerto Ricans or Nuyoricans, and other minorities gathered in the Big Apple.

García Canclini states that graffiti, as a transcultural medium, has been a vehicle used by marginalized social groups that lack public expression and representation and have used it to tell their story. Therefore, according to García Canclini, graffiti artists create their art in public places with a lot of traffic to appropriate those spaces, in one form or another.

At least in New York, Caribbean syncretism — such as that which molded the Haitian and Cuban cultures — also influenced today’s graffiti through street names and the “tags” (the labels that serve as pseudonyms) that various artists use to hide their identities from police authorities while revealing their authorship in the graffiti artists community.

Although graffiti did not proliferate in Caribbean societies to the same measure as in parts of Europe or the United States, that does not mean that Caribbean society has not been a part of this discursive practice. In fact, Best argues that the Caribbean derived much of its inspiration for graffiti from forms in the United States. The omnipresent defiance of graffiti arrived in the Caribbean setting in the 1980s, with full awareness of the reprisals that graffiti artists in the United States had faced in the previous decade.

To understand the writing on public spaces requires an understanding of the art’s discourse, which reflects the voice of generations of young people who cry out in the form of pain against the establishment and the political and social inconsistencies they witness. Hip hop has bravely brought these compositions of vibrant colors to signs, walls, mailboxes, trains and the public transportation system buses despite anti-graffiti campaigns of painting over graffiti or the risk of the act itself under the law.

"Tag" on a street in Old San Juan

“Tag” on a street in Old San Juan (Pablo Samuel Torres)

In the Bahamas in 2006, for example, the police arrested 18 people for painting on public and private walls. Lundy reports that the Bahamian authorities declared a policy of zero tolerance for markings left on sites such as schools and churches. In fact, an inspector asserted in an interview that the graffiti artists and another 45 persons being sought could not be considered “artists” but rather writers of graffiti.

As a result, in 2008 the Department of Education, the Police and the Bahamas National Gallery announced efforts to create a mural competition and thereby reduce the proliferation of graffiti on various elementary schools because, according to a representative of the Department of Education, the walls “are not made for graffiti,” but rather for “better purposes.”

Aerosol against censorship

Today, graffiti continues to claim the city and use its spaces to draw attention, although in ephemeral fashion and against all the sanctions that can fall on those who practice it. Graffiti makes a nod to advertising, both in its aggressiveness and in its use of common spaces for display and promotion. Unlike advertising, which is identified by a brand that differentiates it from the competition, in graffiti a “tag,” the signature of the artist, is used because of the nature of the act. Martínez states that the tag is the mark or trail left by the artist on the space to avoid putting the name of the artist behind the art.

In San Juan, Puerto Rico, the graffiti artist known as “Bik” or “Bik-Ismo” — whose true name is Joshua Santos (1981) — was identified by his tag (Ismo) and later was charged and faced an arrest order for allegedly painting toasters on a bridge of a busy highway. In a news release that “Bik-Ismo” issued as a result of the controversy, the artist defended freedom of expression and his art, which has gone beyond the streets and has been shown in local and international art exhibits. In his attack on the San Juan municipal government, particularly for criminalizing youths who created graffiti and for not supporting a trip to Japan to exhibit his art, the graffiti artist concluded by saying: “All because I paint with a spray can and not with a brush, like the government likes.”

Ismo also played a role in another dispute related to graffiti in 2006 as co-author of a mural about the death of Popular Boricua Army leader Filiberto Ojeda Ríos. On that occasion, residents of the Manuel A. Pérez public housing project, where the mural is located, filed a court case to stop the government’s plans to erase the art criticizing the killing of the political leader by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In the end, the community won the case and the mural remains untouched. Controversies such as these have caused debates in Puerto Rico about graffiti, giving it a privileged space in academic discussions and in a variety of circles.

A Sofía Maldonado graffiti in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico

A Sofía Maldonado graffiti in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico (Dalila Rodríguez Saavedra)

Freedom: creative complaint

Since its emergence, graffiti has fought against all odds to vindicate its role in society. Best explains that on the island of Barbados, for example, this form of artistic expression dominates various public spaces, reflecting on the walls a range of sentiments that share the social fabric as well as the state of mind, the moods and the horrors of society. Another quality that the masses see in graffiti is the vigorous use of color. In Barbados, the graffiti that appear on the walls of numerous communities show the predominant use of the color red. According to Best, this color gained relevance in the early 21sth century on the island during a time of increased crime.

This pictorial technique can also serve as a strategy for marking a territory or calling the attention of the masses to an issue in the public arena. Both approaches have been observed in places such as Honduras. On one hand, gangs in Honduras have used walls to communicate a warning to other gangs, to keep them out of claimed territory. On the other hand, the blogs and graffiti of the country — particularly on the walls of the capital, Tegucigalpa — served as forms of denunciation and protest against the coup that occurred in June, 2009, against President Manuel Zelaya.

Since the fall of the dictator Fulgencio Batista and the ascension to power of the Revolutionary Movement and Fidel Castro, graffiti in Cuba has served as a bulletin board for revolutionary slogans. These statements are intermixed with other forms of expression such as performance art and installations such as those done by the Cuban group Arte Calle.

Jean Michel Basquiat

Jean Michel Basquiat

Women write, too

Although it is essentially a patriarchal movement, graffiti has also had important women participants. Sofía Maldonado (1984), a Puerto Rican with a Cuban mother, portrays in her works both women and the aesthetic that surround them in the urban environment where they live. The colors and movement distilled in her graffiti — developed mainly in cities in the United States such as New York — show undeniable tones of the Caribbeanlandscape. In murals such as ¿Qué pasó mai?, Maldonado privileges her own conception of the Latina woman with an entire amalgam of symbols that characterize her, such as long fingernails, tattoos, curlers, and crucifixes within the problematic framework of the female gangs in Hartford, Connecticut.

In Puerto Rico, Maldonado has also portrayed her aesthetic in sites such as El Yunque, the Caribbean National Forest. The Bowl consists of the transformation of an abandoned swimming pool in that natural setting into a space for skateboarding with a resonant purpose: to revitalize a neglected spot with the artist’s typical lines and paint. Consciously or unconsciously, she and many other graffiti artists respond to detractors who consider this urban practice an act of vandalism.

One of the most prominent graffiti artists at the international level is, without a doubt, Nina Pandolfo (1977) of Brazil, whose work has been acclaimed since she erupted in 1992 throughout the streets and the walls of the Brazilian capital, São Paulo. She is considered one of the pioneers of urban art in Brazil, in addition to being part of the group of artists who took graffiti from the streets to the exhibit halls of museums and galleries. Viewing her works is an experience of lightness, in contrast to the hard aesthetic that often dominates in the graffiti culture. Nature and a range of girls with large eyes populate her aesthetic, which has transcended the street and has been part of various collective and individual exhibitions.

The trajectory of urban art 

If there is an artist who personifies the trajectory a graffiti artist can experience from a wall on the streets to a gallery or museum it is the legendary Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988). The artist, son of a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, displayed his particular vision, intermixing varied symbols of African cultures, on the walls of Manhattan.

Ramos Collado notes that the artist erupted anonymously from the walls of the city and eventually became part of the collective imagination, using his pseudonym SAMO — a shortened form of Same Old Shit — on walls in SOHO and the East Village of New York. His graffiti bore witness to his SAMO discourse and, later, his own voice, through his legendary tag, a golden crown. His dizzying rise ended at 27 years of age, the victim of a drug overdose, but that did not invalidate his passage through the art scene, which led him to exhibit his drawings and paintings on paper and canvas from California to Europe, nor his legacy to a generation of youths who longed for the voice he represented. In fact, the Brooklyn Museum asserts that Basquiat was a cultural hero for young artists of the era.

He and the many other graffiti artists of the past and present remind us that although graffiti originates as a discursive and aesthetic proposal from the streets, its importance is palpable, for better or worse, in the history of world art on the road from the marginal to the central.


Author: Carmen Graciela Díaz
Published: April 13, 2012.

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