The conundrums of graffiti: Is it art?
“’ Di naman ni connected sa topic,” mutters the graffitist when asked for a brief background. It isn’t so much a rude way to cut someone off as it is a self- protective mechanism. With his graffiti strewn all over the city, the most infamous of which is the one on a flyover in Banilad that is simply signed “BEK,” his nom de guerre, one must keep in mind that he’s defaced urban walls, government properties, and, to avoid run- ins with the law, has chosen to remain unidentified. The graffiti in question, five- foot high black letters against a stark white background— plastered on government property, no less— manifests this artist’s growing unease with the current administration.
Artist is a term used loosely when referring to Bek, as he isn’t quite sure that what he does is art. When stripped of all its elements, graffiti is just that— graffiti. It is a practice deeply rooted in vandalism and it thrives on illegality. It’s throwing things on a wall and seeing what sticks. While art and so many of its ever changing forms aspire to spark a discussion, send a message, or simply motivate, stimulate, and inspire, graffiti puts everything into a bag and defecates all over it.
But that’s not to say that Bek’s work does not provoke and evoke. “I get my fair share of mostly unsolicited commentaries from curious onlookers. You’ll have people breathing down your neck but it’s all in a day’s work.” Hecklers, he says, come with the territory. On several occasions, while vandalizing an empty urban wall, he has received scathing remarks and gibes from people who don’t agree with what he does. That is the downside to and, depending on your perspective, one of the perks of graffiti— you get the reactions firsthand.
Anonymity is a blanket of many layers, and while Bek is more than happy to snuggle beneath it, he is okay with and, to a certain extent, supports interactions between graffitist and spectator. “It keeps you in check. It’s how you learn to roll with the punches,” he quips.
Whether the notoriety surrounding graffiti is deserved or not, one can’t deny that there’s a certain kind of bad- assery in Bek’s work. That element is credited for his upward trajectory towards the general public’s attention. Venture capitalists are quick to cash in on Bek’s brand of cool. He’s been commissioned to create pieces for places as mainstream as The Social, a Singapore- headquartered watering hole that sits atop a high- security mall. When moving from vandalizing random city walls to painting for private businesses, it’s easy to lose one’s street cred. When I suggest that many lose their grit when the cash rolls in, he interjects.
“I make sure my clients know what they’re signing up for,” Bek says. “I’m basically doing what I do in the streets, only this time I do it inside a fancy place. I don’t tone things down or filter my work to meet their needs. It’s either you take my work or you leave it. That’s how you keep your integrity,” he says softly, the defiance in his voice clear and distinct.
“Work is good,” he says “but the streets will always be home.” I ask him one more time if I could, at least, get his name. He gives me a wry smile that signals our conversation is over.