Boy Aims Gun at Two Men Graffiti

I found this graffiti on a wall of an abandoned building in Hato Rey, featuring a boy aiming a gun at two men. I imagine this artwork as a critique on the pervasive violence in the island. Local authorities reveal that 70% of the 994 murders in Puerto Rico (2011) were all drug-related.

The location of this artwork is in a two-storey building near a Walgreens pharmacy and the San Juan mayor’s campaign office. The main railway of the city train also passes next to the structure. On occasion, a troupe of street performers ply their trade by the intersection.

in a random san juan street
jugglers throw bowling pins in the air,
heroin-addled human statues across them,
to entertain strangers in their cars
so you get
the dark carnivalesque humor and look away:
‘such beautiful caribbean skies..’

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La Perla Street Art

La Perla is a community right by the historic structures of Viejo San Juan. The houses sit in a slope sandwiched between the raging Atlantic Ocean and the centuries-old cobblestone road leading to El Morro, a Spanish-era fortress. Together with a friend, we coursed through the narrow streets and took pictures of the graffiti and mural painted on the walls. I took the liberty to take pictures for posterity’s sake, before these street scenes get painted over.

La Perla

What remains of Casa de los Peluches, a building across La Perla

Surfboards Somewhere in Old San Juan

Siempre Maria Bike in Old San Juan

Street artists painted murals and graffiti on the walls and houses. Here below are some of their obras:

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#11

At the end of the road is the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery. In this cemetery, Reba Stewart’s tomb has become a pilgrimage site of sorts for tourists, artists, and pagans because of its unusual design. Some Puerto Ricans call her tomb, La Tumba de la Bruja or the Tomb of the Witch. Reba Stewart was an American-born artist who had spent time studying Taino art and symbols. The fortress at the back is El Morro, one of the oldest Spanish fortresses in the world. For  more info about Reba Stewart and the popular belief surrounding her, please click here and here.

Reba Stewart’s Tomb

Local kids posing with the tomb

Updates and Rio Piedras graffiti

I’ve been busy lately with work (and the World Cup), so I haven’t been blogging as frequently as before. I will provide updates this weekend on Punta Santiago and its environs. In the meantime, I want to share some pictures of graffiti on the walls and buildings of Rio Piedras, the university district of Puerto Rico. I saw a nice surrealist graffiti also but I was not able to bring my camera that time. I’ve been scouring the streets of Rio Piedras for those surreal sketches but, for the life of me, I cannot find it. I should’ve recorded the GPS coordinates, no?

And, also, the protesting students of the University of Puerto Rico got all their demands approved. The strike is now lifted. I will be writing a blog on that too later.

El Morro: A Sentry’s Graffiti

After months in Puerto Rico, I finally decided to visit one of the island’s main tourist draw, Castillo San Felipe del Morro. This Spanish-era fortress sits right at a promontory facing the Atlantic Ocean. Viejo San Juan, the old city center of the island, is a few meters inland and is connected to the fort via a thin stretch of road that slices through a sea of green grasses.

Back when El Morro was an active military fort from 1539 onwards, it was a bastion of strength for the Spaniards, guarding the important trade routes that connected the outlying colonies to the Spanish Crown. Galleons loaded with silver, gold, spices, and other items of high value from the Pacific and Latin America passed through the Carribbean, making this island prone to attacks from pirates and other colonizing powers. Pirates like Sir Francis Drake and Roberto Cofresi made themselves legendary in these waters. Yet despite the repeated invasions, the fort was so strategically located that it was only overtaken in battle once in its centuries of history (by George Clifford, Duke of Cumberland).

Similar to the construction of the Spanish-era Philippine fortresses, Spanish military engineers filled the walls with sand and gravel and not of compacted blocks of rock. This allowed enemy cannonballs to easily penetrate the wall without destroying the structure completely. An alternative explanation could be that these sand and gravel fillers are good deterrents from collapse during earthquakes since this provides room for movement, as some Philippine local historians contend. Whatever the reasons might be, El Morro’s centuries of warfare is written on its walls.

And I am saying this in the literal sense. While casually walking about, I chanced on a conquistadors‘ graffitti. It was not on the tourist information kit so I believed that I stumbled into something nice and exciting. I was about to scream Eureka but then again, I googled “el morro graffitti” and found two sources about it. According to Rivera-Collazo, there are at least 400 ship drawings in El Morro, most likely from the 1700s to the first half of the 20th century. Personally seeing the graffittis however was very rewarding in itself, touching these etches was like doing Braille on what could have been on these conquistadores‘ mind.

I chanced on the graffittis when I walked in the tronera, a few meters from where the brass canyons were wedged. The tronera is virtually a vertical hole carved into the wall just enough for one sentry to wiggle through. The info posted near the tronera says the following:

Armed with a musket, a sentry stood guard at this post. In the event of an attack, the sentry could scurry down the narrow tunnel to a concealed firing position. Here he could fire his musket and reload under cover.

While sitting in this claustrophobic hole, I looked down and saw the first evidence of the sentry’s presence. Etched at the base where the gun might have been put were two line scratches and a hole. I thought that although these looked like Wolverine’s claw marks, there should be a  plausible explanation for this. I figured that the small hole could have been where the metal balls and gunpowder were placed while the two “claw marks” were used for striking a fire.

The hole and the “claw marks”

When I saw this, I started looking around and saw non-utilitarian graffiti written on the walls. I surveyed the walls and found three of the more than 400 ship drawings in El Morro. There were also religious symbols, badges, and outlines of a face.

Sketch of a Ship 1

Sketch of Ship 1 (same as above)

Sketch of Ship 2

Sketch of Ship 3

These three ship drawings were only visible from the digital camera’s screen. It is barely visible if one is looking at it with the naked eye because of the darkness and the burrito-like situation inside the tunnel. Aside from these ship drawings, there were other interesting sketches too:

Sketch of Face 1

Sketch of Face 2 (with only one tooth)

Catholic religious symbols and outlines of coat of arms were also found in the tronera. Which could be interpreted as visual evidence of a deeply religious sentry or a frightened conquistador. There are stories among Puerto Ricans too (or at least my partner believes it) about ghostly apparitions in the fort. These symbols might have been used as a talisman to ward off evil spirits. Or alternatively, the sentry might just have been bored and doodled anything that crossed his mind to while away time in a dreary wait for the next shift.

Sketch of a Marian Rose

Sketch of Cross 1

Sketch of Cross 2

Outline of What Appears to be a Coat of Arms

Drawing of a Heart?

These drawings are windows into the mind of the Spanish Crown’s foot soldiers. I am sure sketches can also be found in Intramuros, Fort Santiago, Fort San Pedro, and other Spanish-era fortifications in the Philippines and other former colonies. All we need is to wean ourselves from written documents and investigate the past in novel ways.

As it is, history books are often written from the point of view of the power elites of the era because historians use their official records and documents. There’s an inherent bias in choosing which sources historians rely on thus making historical interpretations perilous.  The squiggly scribbles of lowly sentries are thus critical in understanding the colonizing process, if only to provide a well-rounded interpretation of what has happened.

The time has come indeed to cast a light on the doodles of the past.