The sprawling, dynamic metropolis of Tegucigalpa nestles within a spectacular valley, surrounded by forested hills, and yet foreign visitors to Honduras’ largest and most populous city are notable in their absence.
For here, looks can be deceiving. Look underneath the surface and you’ll find a city choked by its suffocating pollution and, more importantly, its spiralling crime rate, where even a nip outside for a quick cigarette could be considered a dangerous death-sport. The silver laden hills, mined to bring riches to the city, replaced now by the silver of the bullets that fly above its streets from discharged weapons.
Statistically one of the most violent cities in the world, In the first 7 months of 2016, Tegucicráter , as the locals call it, was the locus for 2917 murders – almost 14 a day – mostly due to organised crime, drugs and guns. The majority of victims (84%) males aged between 14 and 35.
And here, you would think, would be one where locals would place little significance with art, and the use of art as a vehicle of change. But you’d be mistaken. For one man over the past few years has proved himself something of a white knight in the struggle against the chaos, a man who, instead of a sword, clutches a spray can as his weapon of choice.
In a city controlled and troubled by an unofficial war between gangs such as Barrio 18, MS13 or Mara Salvatrucha , walls are as valuable a commodity as the drugs and guns they sell. For to commandeer a wall is to mark your territory.
But for 31 year old Maeztro Urbano, these very same walls are for him opportunities of resistance, and he is willing to risk his life for his art.
And whether that means changing signs to show two men walking hand in hand or a woman pushing a wheelbarrow, his messages speak of sexual liberty, the fight for equality and respect in the face of such danger.
With resources at a premium, Maeztro makes his own glue, heating flour at home and mixing it with water. A simple tactic for a man who, due to his success in his native land, has been elevated to the status of hero worship. “His art can take Honduras to its limit of freedom of expression” , enthuses Bayardo Blandino, curator of the city’s Woman In Art Museum.
For Maestro, he dreams that his work can generate the necessary snowball effect that, over time, becomes big enough to encourage a positive sense of restlessness and unrest within what he calls ‘the monotony’. Especially within a nation that, for him, treats violence with more violence.
“Since I started, I have done what I’ve done for the rights of young people. Those who are the most vulnerable to violence and organized crime, and those whose problems no one chooses to talk about.”
A background spent working in advertising that Maestro became aware of just how the media itself, publicity campaigns and billboards affect attitudes in his native Honduras, especially among the young and more impressionable.
“From a young age I studied art and at university I studied advertising. In the sum of both, I found street art, plastic techniques and the potency of a powerful message. In a country where the media are polarized, and are directed by the same traffickers, politicians, and ignorant people, we are subjected to a society of misery and violence. The street is the best scenario, so that we can say what we think, what we want and what we denounce.”
But it isn’t just about educating those within the country. His modus operandi also speaks of a bigger idea, to show Honduras in a different light. One which exists outside of the statistics and violence that so often accompany the country in the eyes of the world press.
“I try to show another side of what is known of Honduras, one of a submissive people under both violence and the violation of rights. I have sought to show that another face exists; one that struggles, yet with a hope that does not drop its shoulders. Rather one that stands tall in the search of a better tomorrow, for us and future generations. There are many people working independently or collectively for a better Honduras. And few people speak of them. Here it isn’t only death and corruption. There are wonderful people here and we have a beautiful country, we shouldn’t just highlight the bad.”
Much like Banksy, Maeztro operates under the veil of anonymity (wearing a mask) as much for his own safety as a tactic to encourage people to absorb his message.
“Primarily I do it for my physical safety. But it was always my intention that my work was for those who chose to adopt it as theirs. As to not have a human face, the work belongs to the people at large, to those who want to say something. I never wanted to resemble Banksy, first because I believe that Banksy’s work exceeds mine. Second, because I paint in the most violent city in the world while he paints in London, which are completely different contexts.”
That’s not to say he isn’t a fan of the artist, even if the similarities between the two are scarce (Banksy, unlike Maeztro, hasn’t given his own Ted conference).
“I am a big fan of his work, not because of the virality that has reached his work in recent years. But by its simplicity, what I was saying before, its contextuality. Banksy is the perfect example of an image (graffiti) that speaks with a thousand words. His work has a shortcut impressive force, we must not make the mistake of seeing only a girl flying with balloons. “
The internet has served Maeztro well, and he has, since he started, been conscious of using social media to spread his message as far from his native Honduras as possible.
“I am impressed to see how far I have come. When I started, I was only a young graduate of Fine Arts, with a single dream of being an artist. One of those spoken about in books at some future point, leaving a legacy for new generations. Today different means of communication across the world speak of my work, but not because it is exquisite, or because it is the best, but because I try to be the voice of a people that will no longer find itself again on its knees.”
And in 2017, Maeztro has found himself with a new project that has taken him out with Tegus, to Europe and cities such as Berlin and Madrid, with this time his art not directed at the politicians, gangs and the media in Honduras, but Donald Trump.
“I have a project that is called ‘A Wall Of Bones.’, which is a demand that we Latinos are making to Trump. If he wants a wall that divides America, he should build it with the bones of all the people who have fell victim to the Narcotrafico trade, a trade that kept the USA afloat in the face of its most recent crisis.
The same thing happens in Europe, where exploitation and people-trafficking is the economy that enriches your nations. I think I’ve found a super strong context with which to carry out a project from Tegucigalpa to Madrid or Berlin – a city that was already divided by a wall, which only left, death, hatred and wounds that still seem to bleed.
I think it is one of my more mature works, more solid, visual, colorful and digestible , to achieve something deeper and more universal. One necessary to look further than what appears only on the surface.”
And as for future projects, he will continue to work to change hearts and minds in his country, and further afield, until such time as those conscious of his work as Maeztro Urbano tire of or fully consume his message.
“I have never decided up until what age i’ll paint. I have always seen myself as a rebel, with my cane in one hand and a can of spray paint in the other. But if I have decided as to when Maeztro Urbano as a character will have the necessary strength to continue, and his moment will come when he is no longer of use. And then we will have to decide on new strategies.”