Honduran Street Artist Paints A New Image For His Country

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In Honduras, there's a masked man on a mission to change his country's violent image. He calls himself the Maeztro Urbano, the "Urban Master." By day, he works in advertising; at night, he covers city walls with pictures of weapons turning into balloons or fat bureaucrats spending money on art, not guns. This story originally aired on Morning Edition on July 23, 2013.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Thanks for tuning in to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Here's a story now about a masked man on a mission to change his country's violent image. That country is Honduras, and the man, well, he calls himself Maeztro Urbano, the Urban Master. By day, he works in advertising. At night, he covers city walls with pictures of weapons turning into balloons and fat bureaucrats spending money on art instead of guns. NPR's Carrie Kahn has his story.

CARRIE KAHN BYLINE: It's dusk in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, and Maeztro Urbano loads two full trays of spray paint cans into the back of his late model SUV. The 27-year-old self-proclaimed Urban Master or El Maestro, as he likes to be called, won't give me his name. He says for security reasons. He's been harassed by police and shot at by unknown assailants who don't like his art with a message.

On this night, he's agreed to remove his customary dark hoodie and kerchief. He says his job in advertising has taught him that billboards and publicity can affect people's attitudes. But as the country's violence continues out of control, El Maestro says he wants to do more than just promote consumerism.

EL MAESTRO: (Foreign language spoken)

BYLINE: He says he wants to raise social awareness. Honduras, located smack in the middle of South American cocaine cultivators and Mexican drug traffickers, has become a haven for narco cartels and their violence. Extortion, murder and kidnapping is epidemic. Twenty people are killed every day in Honduras. It is one of the most violent countries in the world.

El Maestro pulls over to show us a series of posters he's put up on busy streets. He made black and white replicas of classic art like "The Mona Lisa" and Grant Wood's "American Gothic." Instead of the iconic pitchfork the old couple holds in front of the barn, he substituted a neon magenta M-16 rifle. "The Mona Lisa" peacefully clutches a bright pink 9mm pistol.

MAESTRO: (Foreign language spoken)

BYLINE: From far away, all you see is the bright weapon. Closer up, you recognize the famous art. El Maestro says that's just like his country. From afar, all you hear about Honduras is the bad. But close up, there is beauty. It's getting dark, and few pedestrians dare to walk the city streets. However, Eliazar Cruz(ph), a bodyguard, is out, walking right past the poster.

ELIAZAR CRUZ: (Foreign language spoken)

BYLINE: He likes "The Mona Lisa." He says she's an image recognized around the world, and chuckles, so is that gun. Honduras is the second poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti. Fewer than 40 percent of children even make it to high school. That's a challenge for El Maestro, whose high concept art may be lost on the masses.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

BYLINE: But as he starts a new six-feet-tall installation in a high-traffic area, it's clear he has plenty of fans.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAINT CAN)

BYLINE: A few neighbors come out on their balconies to admire his work and a motorcyclist passing by stops to hire him to paint a mural.

DENNIS HERNANDEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

BYLINE: Dennis Hernandez(ph), a messenger, says in this country everyone writes all over the walls, and he'd much rather see graffiti with a message than just ugly scribbling. El Maestro's latest work is a huge drawing of his often used character, a big, fat politician. He's lounging and smoking what looks like a cigar, but it's actually a long bullet. The emitting smoke is a child-like balloon animal drifting peacefully into the sky.

There's plenty of space on the wall, and on this night, El Maestro has two other graffiti artists spraying away with similar socially conscious messages. One man, who goes by the name Carrique, draws several sticks of dynamite with a fuse ready to go off. There's a Christmas present tag on it. It reads: To the President, From the People.

MAESTRO: (Foreign language spoken)

BYLINE: He says the people can't take the situation in the country anymore and are ready to explode. El Maestro says he's encouraged that his style of art is growing.

MAESTRO: (Foreign language spoken)

BYLINE: He says: We put this message in the streets for all the people who can't because of the repression in our country. We are their voice. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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