The co­nun­drums of graf­fiti: Is it art?

Cebu Living - - Front Page - By JOSEPH DAX VELOSO Images by RYAN RACAL

“’ 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.

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