Cuban artist faces threat of prison if he doesn't remove all of his work

Cuban government threatens graffiti writer with criminal charge

HAVANA – Yulier Rodriguez Perez was born in Florida. Not the state in the U.S. He is from Cuba's Florida, a municipality in the province of Camaguey.

Getting spray paint and materials isn't easy for graffiti writers working on the Communist island. Despite the challenges, the 27-year-old abstractionist said he has painted at least 200 walls in Havana since he moved there about three years ago. 

His deformed creatures are hard to miss. In one small wall, a thin layer of ruby red paint surrounds the charcoal drawing of a shouting head. In another, blue and red blend into purple, as two floating figures reach out for each other. 

"I think that graffiti is an artistic work," said Rodriguez, better known as artist Yulier P. 

While in the U.S. walls with high visibility are an advertising gold mine, in Cuba the walls with visibility are reserved for the government's propaganda. Rodriguez defied the norm. Authorities kicked him out of his art studio. He was arrested Aug. 17 and he was released on the evening of Aug. 18.

For graffiti writers worldwide, the boundary between being a vandal and an artist is not clearly defined. Rodriguez said he is an artist who has been beautifying crumbling walls. The Cuban government disagrees and ordered him to cover all of his 200 paintings in Havana by Friday as a condition for his release.

Rodriguez's supporters believe Cuban authorities set him up for failure with an impossible task. His troubles began after an interview with 14 y Medio last year. The website is part of a wave of illegal independent media critical of the government.

"My pictures are like fables, a portrait of people's experiences ... we are souls in a purgatory called Cuba," Rodriguez said during the 14 y Medio interview.

Cuban activist Yoani Sanchez, who has also been the subject of censorship and harassment, started the news site in 2014. 

Rodriguez claims Cuban authorities also harassed him and intimidated him after he came back from an exhibit in New York in July. He visited the Museum of Modern Art and he left his mark on a corner in Brooklyn. It was a black and white piece of unnatural figures connecting like Salvador Dali's "Premonition of Civil War." 

Rodriguez fears authorities are getting ready to move from a penalty over vandalism to a criminal charge of "dangerousness." It's a criminal charge designed to punish someone's potential for crime. Critics of the law say it is used to limit freedom of expression. 

The news of Rodriguez's arrest was disturbing to Danilo Maldonado, a 34-year-old Cuban artist known as  El Sexto. He moved to Miami in January after he was imprisoned over his political graffiti after the death of Fidel Castro. It wasn't his first time in prison.

Maldonado and Rodriguez are among the new wave of Cuban artists who belong to the lowbrow art movement, which has deep roots in New York's and Los Angeles' hip-hop and punk cultures. Supporters believe graffiti needs to be decriminalized worldwide as a form of expression on decrepit and abandoned urban areas.

Amnesty International has been following Rodriguez's case and also followed Maldonado's case when he was in prison.


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