The desiccating walls and slumping street corners of Havana were once only decorated with slogans and portraits of Che Guevara exalting Fidel’s 1959 victory. But a spray paint revolution is brewing in the Cuban capital. You don’t need to look far to find wild creatures, dazzling birds, cannibal heads, and coded expression splashed across shutters, doors, pillars and walls.
Most of the eye-catching graffiti and street art by local and international artists is found brightening the southern lanes of Old Havana. But I joined Cubanía Travel’s guided bike tour to graff hunt across the city’s neighborhoods taking in public spaces and hidden corners.
“Street art and graffiti has only emerged in the last few years,” my cycle guide Jackson tells me. “The younger generations want to say something, and they’ve realized if you express yourself very directly there are consequences. So, the way they’ve found is to express themselves in art.”
We pedal up the broad, tree lined Paseo avenue in upmarket el Vedado, turn west along Calle 15 and travel all the way to a produce market that features the colorful skull heads of Swedish artist Ola Kalnins. Kalnins’ signature vibrant ‘skullnins’ emblem is also emblazoned across nearby doors and windows. There, windows replace the eyes of Kalnins’ skull heads.
At Fábrica de Arte Cubano, Havana’s buzzing entertainment venue, we pull up outside to gaze at murals climbing all over large walls and doors. A prominent depiction of Eleggua dominates. Eleggua is the orisha who opens the roads for followers of the Santería religion, widely practiced in Cuba.
Street art and graffiti has only emerged in the last few years. The younger generations want to say something [and have found a way to do so] in art.Jackson, Cubanía Travel cycle guide
After a mango juice boost and a caffeine hit at a bike-friendly café on Línea Street we checked out the Havana street art inside boutique hotel Malecón 663. Owners Orlandito Mengual and his French wife Sandra oversee a buzz of creativity inside their three-story Spanish colonial townhouse right on the city’s ocean road, the Malecón. Since Malecón 663 opened in 2016, a huge roster of artists has been invited to paint, spray, tinker and decorate. Step in for a drink and check out the work on the walls. A fragmented heart – Corazón Cuba – chilled by a blue background and centered by a red star by Mexican artist Jorge Prado (https://www.instagram.com/jpradoart/) fills a wall by the bar.
Two works by Fabian Lopez, whose Supermalo character is found lurking all over Havana, adorn the walls of 663’s small patio. This signature figure is always drawn with a grey balaclava over his head, a speech bubble or two, and the tag ‘2+2 = 5’.
“The Supermalo slogan doesn’t make sense, and doesn’t have much logic,” Jackson tells me. “And it pretty much describes Cuba. When you stay here long enough you realize that a lot of things that happen in this country don’t have much logic. He’s saying something isn’t working. It doesn’t add up. No tiene lógica…”
Down on Calle Cárdenas in a jumble of streets in Old Havana that empty out opposite the railway lines of the main central station is an ornate colonial building daubed in a frenzy of graffiti art. Supermalo’s screaming head is partially obscured every time a resident slides open a door. Therapy Zombie’s ‘spinning skull’ dominates a pillar. The ‘Keep Planet Clean’ skull-labeled spray can is another. A gorilla’s face sits next to a portrait of a woman surrounded by pretty hummingbirds. And a giant head with a red mohawk cut with diamonds as eyes and its mouth stuffed with gnashers by street artist Myl (@mr_myl on Instagram) animates a wall. This is one of the most colorful street canvases outside of San Isidro barrio.
As we pick out the art and search for the tags, Jackson tells me: “You’ve got to go for it. You can’t start going through the motions to get a permit you know if you’ve got to get your inspiration on the wall. That’s why many artists work underground. At the same time it also gives your work an adrenaline rush like what you’re doing is illegal.”
Close by, down in the streets of the emerging San Isidro Art District, walls along a network of tight, balconied streets in southern Old Havana have been transformed into alfresco art galleries by Cuban and international street artists.
…[W]alls along a network of tight, balconied streets in southern Old Havana have been transformed into alfresco art galleries by Cuban and international street artists.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s sketchy San Isidro was home to Havana’s largest red-light district. Alberto Yarini was king of the pimps. In 1910, Yarini set his eyes on a French girl but she, unfortunately for Yarini, belonged to a rival pimp of French origin. Following a fight over the girl, Yarini was slain.
“The neighborhood is very well known for Yarini,” says Jackson. “There’s a play and a film about him. A lot of people who lived here then worked at the port. It was very seedy. Even in the 80s and 90s, it was a little edgy.
“But Cuban actor Jorge Perugorría launched an art gallery here,” Jackson tells me referring to the Galería Taller Gorria (GTG) that showcases the work of Cuban contemporary artists, and commissions and curates street art on the wall opposite the gallery.
We pedal to GTG. Opposite, a fresh set of murals has been painted. Work tagged by Fabian Lopez features, as does art by @delphine.delas, @azul._._._-, @fulanaletal, @moya.cuba, @mr_myl, @jorigioia, and @kadir13pmt (all on Instagram).
Meander around Old Havana, though, on bike or by foot, and you’ll find ephemeral street art creeping beyond San Isidro’s streets.
The artist known as Myl is probably the most prolific street artist in the city. He started out in the city dabbling in black printing ink mixed with petrol before changing up to vinyl paints, black market colors, and spray paint. He collaborates with other street artists, too, paints abroad, and takes on commissions (check out hole-in-the-wall restaurant/bar Jíbaro on Calle Merced). Find his jungle forests, fantastical creatures, characters, and grinning cannibal heads all over the city on garage doors, street corners, and shutters.
My ideas are rooted in urban graffiti which plays with repetition – an icon or a word – and mine is the head or a diamond. Over time that has become a Cuban cannibal.Myl, Havana graffiti artist
I caught up with Myl after the tour and asked him about his sharp-angled heads depicted with cut gems for eyes and those fearsome toothy jaws.
“My ideas are rooted in urban graffiti which plays with repetition – an icon or a word – and mine is the head or a diamond,” he told Startup Cuba. “Over time that has become a Cuban cannibal. The reason,” he says, “is that there was some confusion in our history with the people of the Caribe being confused with cannibals. There were Taínos here and other people but the Caribs were known as the fiercest in all the islands. I liked that association and the idea.”
And those sharp-cut eyes?
“It’s about the view,” Myl explains. “What we see can also deceive us. The diamonds have value as a precious gem, but they also function as a prism through which you can see different perspectives.”
Those mixed points of view are written into this fresh Havana urban culture, a touchstone for new ways of expression of urban art, life on the island, and the way of the world.
Keen to know more? Check out Havana street art aficionados on Instagram @painted_walls_havana.