Monday, February 18, 2013

Manila's Finest



I recently landed an opportunity to interview a graffiti artist I admire greatly.  I wasn't sure how to present the interview as a post, as it was, in the end, a rolling conversation over Facebook messenger. We initially planned to talk on the mobile but for reason of his illness, this interview had to proceed by keyboard only. But as it turns out, it was still one of the best conversations I have ever had.  One of those encounters you leave with a sense of humble awe.  I decided this was definitely to be my first 'biographical essay'.

Ben Naz is what I once thought every street artist was. He is wittingly political and motivated by the cause, whether it be the Philippines, 'Pinoy' identity, freedom, equality, peace or life. As for life, he is arm wrestling esophageal cancer with one eye shut tightly in defiance and the other wide open, focused sharply on his future projects.  He faces each day with fingers crossed and is guided by one principle, and that is to LIVE LIFE WITHOUT REGRETS. His plight is to show the world the Filipino identity, his passion is art and his motivation is the state of the world, globally. I get goosebumps thinking about how awesome this guy is and how lucky the world graffiti movement has been to have him.



Photo courtesy of Ben Naz


Photo courtesy of Ben Naz


Photo courtesy of Ben Naz
Naz tells me he was born in Strasbourg, France. In 1983 as a 5 year old lad, his dad took him “back to the homeland”: Manila, Philippines. Their return saw him in a country that was under Martial Law. He tells me this was the year Aquino, Ferdinand Marcos’s political rival, was assassinated (at the airport that is now named after him).

I don't know enough about the Philippines in the eighties, but Naz does, having experienced it first-hand. In 1994, in his teens Ben Naz emerged as a graffiti artist railing against oppression and fighting for a Filipino identity and freedom. He was not well received by the ruling party who perceived his work as a vulgar attack on the state. 

Naz was instrumental in getting the political message out in Manila, at a time when all street art was considered propaganda by the rightist/rebels. His work was contentious and much of his subject matter, he explains, was considered Taboo. Naz tells me "street art was unacceptable": considered not only to be vandalism but to be a malicious mischief. 

Naz eventually left Manila when he found despite his best efforts that "there was nothing there for me". He returned to France, but ultimately settled in London, where he found his "breathing space".  It is also where he really discovered what was missing “back home” where:
 “we are taught to look in one direction like a blind guided horse”.  He calls this missing ingredient “the sweet sense of democracy” and believes this is “what freedom is all about”.

Until his recent illness, he traveled back to Paris monthly. And he tells me under cloak and dagger that he has BIG PLANS for Paris when he is in recovery but I am sworn to secrecy (I can tell you HUGE plans and that it kills me to bite my tongue).

And that is where Naz is like no other. His treatment is literally preventing him from speaking, but he has no intention to shut up. His prime motivation is to educate people about the plight of those who are not free in this world. Just last December, despite his illness and between chemo treatments, he did a piece about the Gaza conflict. When I asked him about his motivation he explained “I’m trying to educate people and make them aware of what is really going on”. He feels that being a street artist should not just be about putting something different up, but should be about placing something for history.

Naz tells me it was difficult to be a graffiti artist in Manila in the days he began and I can believe it. I am not sure any of us in the luxury of western democracy can possibly comprehend the bravery required to 1. get up as a graffiti artist and sprout anti-establishment opinion; and 2. use imagery considered to be extremely controversial.  But get up he did.  


Naz is pleased to see that in the graffiti and street art scene in the Philippines there is more freedom to express ideas and he puts this down to the power of social media, because, he explains, through smart phones people in the Philippines are able to record their work and spread their message globally.


He is not wrong, there is a strong Pinoy presence in social media, by way of Flickr, Facebook, Tumblr and Blogger.  See: Pilipina Street Plan.

So what is next for Naz? Right now, he is focused on his treatment. All going well, his next focus is his art. He has an unending desire to spread a message to other artists and the public. Perhaps the most poignant message he posted to you tube last year was his announcement about the dire-ness of his situation and his reflection on what he has learnt and what he wishes for the world.  Watch here.

If Naz seems wiser than his years I don't think it is all the illness. He has seen things none of us have seen, walked streets we can only walk as tourists, and taken risks that would terrify the most brazen urbex nut. Naz tells me "my experience as an artist and as an individual is something I'd like to share with people" in the hope that it "may help others do the impossible".  I don't yet know what the impossible is for us in the privilege of the west.I suspect his area of concern is in the east. And for Naz, as an individual, the impossible is bucking the system. He won’t be blind sided, he won’t give into cancer, and he definitely will not stop working for the cause.

He offers as this parting wisdom: “stand up for what you believe is right. Express your thoughts and feelings through your work. Show the world that we are all one”.  He adds: 
“Everything I did in my life I couldn't have asked for more. I'm so happy to share things, my experiences, my dreams and my visions for everyone to see through my works. With that I'm happy”.

I would like to thank Ben for his time and the incredible positive influence he has had on me. 
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