Honduran Street Artist Paints A New Image For His Country

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.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We're going to hear a story now about a masked man who is on a mission to change his country's violent image. That country is Honduras. That man 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.

Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Its 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE)

KAHN: 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)

KAHN: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

KAHN: 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 nine millimeter pistol.

MAESTRO: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: 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 up close up there is beauty.

It's getting dark and few pedestrians dare to walk the city streets. However, Eliazar Cruz, a bodyguard, is out, walking right past the poster.

ELIAZAR CRUZ: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: 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. And that's a challenge for El Maestro, whose high concept art may be lost on the masses.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING AND TRAFFIC)

KAHN: 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 SHAKING OF A PAINT CAN)

KAHN: 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)

KAHN: Dennis Hernandez, 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 is a Christmas present tag on it, it reads: To the President, From the People.

MAESTRO: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: 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)

KAHN: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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