An American Abroad

Motorcycles & Street Art in Panama City

My two weeks in Panama were not a vacation for me. On weekdays, I stayed close to my hotel or cafes where internet service was available so I could continue working. I took a lot of photos in that immediate vicinity, namely, the El Congrejo neighborhood of Panama City. I took them on my way to and from the cafe where I spent most of my work time. And a lot of them were of motorcycles and street art. In the four years I’ve maintained this blog, I’ve put up many posts about those two interests of mine. I’m combining the two here.

I didn’t get the sense that Panama City has a booming motorcycle culture. Most of the bikes I saw were either fast food delivery vehicles or police cycles. Both tended to be Suzuki 150s.

I also didn’t see a whole lot of street art in this neighborhood, but I loved this piece that was just down the street from my hotel. The branches look something like a crown of laurels.

My favorite neighborhood eatery was the New York Bagel Cafe. One day I saw this beautiful new Vespa parked in front. There’s also a Vespa dealer on one of the more commercial streets in El Cangrejo. I was tempted to buy one and ride it all the way back to the USA.

The streets near the NYBC are lined with apartment towers. It’s a middle- to upper-middle class area, so there wasn’t a lot of tagging to be seen. So I was surprised to come across this.

Perhaps coincidentally, it was near there that I saw one of the only Harleys I laid eyes on here.

One of the most interesting works of unauthorized public art I saw was in an unlikely spot. The park that runs by the waterfront on Avenida Almador near the Bio Museum generally has an upscale feel to it. But right next door there are some modest apartment complexes where I spied this. In Spanish it reads

Somos seres humanos experimentando una forma de pensamiento que caduco hace mucho tiempo y seguimos sufriendo de ello porque tenemos medo a aventurarnos a los recónditos de perdernos cuando en realidad va estamos perdidos.

The best English translation I could come up with (which is admittedly rough) is

We are human beings experiencing a way of thinking that expired a long time ago and we continue to suffer from it because we have the courage to venture into the recesses of losing ourselves when in reality we are lost.

There were also some upscale bikes in Casco Viejo, the Spanish colonial part of town. The photo immediately below of the Yamaha is one of the finest motorcycle pix I’ve ever taken.

Murals of Indigenous Panamanian Resistance

At the edge of Casco Viejo, the oldest part of Panama City, stands a series of murals depicting the struggles of Panama’s indigenous peoples. I’ve photographed them individually to make them easier to show and comment on. I’m not well-versed in Panamanian history, but this is what I’ve been able to figure out.

The first panel is a prelapsarian ode to the Guna people. Most Guna live in the southeastern part of Panama that connects to South America; some also live on the islands nearby. The colors used in this panel are very similar to the reds, pinks, greens, and oranges still used today in traditional Guna clothing. The inscription on the jewel-like, heart-like shape to the right of the person’s head translates as “Listen to the sound of the heart.” As Wikipedia notes, singing and listening to songs are a fundamental part of the Guna social and political culture:

In Guna Yala, each community has its own political organization, led by a saila (pronounced “sigh-lah”). The saila is traditionally both the political and spiritual leader of the community; he memorizes songs which relate the sacred history of the people, and in turn transmits them to the people. Decisions are made in meetings held in the Onmaked Nega, or Ibeorgun Nega (Congress House or Casa de Congreso), a structure which likewise serves both political and spiritual purposes. It is in the Onmaked Nega that the saila sings the history, legends and laws of the Guna, as well as administering the day-to-day political and social affairs. The saila is usually accompanied by one or more voceros who function as interpreters and counselors for the saila. Because the songs and oral history of the Guna are in a higher linguistic register with specialized vocabulary, the saila’s recitation will frequently be followed by an explanation and interpretation from one of the voceros in everyday Guna language.

Next comes a triptych of Guna leaders headlined by text that translates as “1925 – 2015. 90 years of Dule Revolution.” The word “Dule” means people in the Guna language. The Dule Revolution, also known as the Guna Revolution, has been described this way:

In the 1920s, two decades after Panama had separated from Colombia, the new republic had established the objective of integrating the Guna population to the “national life”. To do this, the capital employed tactics that were used to divide indigenous communities and undermine the authority of their leaders. Given this situation, in February 1925, several Gunayala communities rose against the Colonial Police in what has gone down in history as the Guna Revolution. Shortly after, a peace agreement was signed by which the government compromised to respect the customs and traditions of the gunas, while the rebels agreed to accept Panama’s sovereignty and respect indigenous people who decided to adopt Panamanian customs. The Guna people’s resistance to acculturation and external submission has allowed them to reach the 21st century as one of the indigenous territories in the world with more autonomy.

The man on the left, Olonibiginya, and the man on the right, Nele Kantule, were leaders of the Dule Revolution. I have not been able to identify the middle figure. “Ologindibibbi” brings nothing up in the search engines I’ve tried; presumably he, too, is a Guna revolutionary.

The following panel, I think, depicts Guna life in an idealized state after 1925. The swastika flag, which appears at the bottom left, was adopted by the Guna nation after the Guna revolution. The swastika, which has nothing to do with Nazis, is an indigenous Amerindian symbol that represents the four sides of the world from which peoples of the earth came. The multicolored fabrics to the old woman’s right are molas with colorful geometric designs produced by a reverse appliqué process. Guna women still make, wear, and sell clothing made from these fabrics; I see them on the streets of Panama City every day. The man on the left is wearing the same kind of hat that the Guna leaders in the previous panel wear.

The fourth panel commemorates the execution of Victoriano Lorenzo, one of the big names in Panamanian history. During the struggles for Panamanian independence, he fought for the rights of indigenous people. When his party, the Liberals, was defeated in the war for independence and signed a peace treaty with the opposition, Lorenzo refused to lay down his arms. He took to the countryside to continue a guerrilla insurgency. He was eventually trapped and executed by the government, just seven months before Panama broke free from Columbian control. The Wikipedia article about him notes that “[m]any indigenous people in Panama understand his assassination as the defeat of their autonomous land rights and access to representation in the Panamanian state structure.” The text here translates as “Victoriano Lorenzo, why did they shoot him? Because he was a real Panamanian!”

The next panel continues to answer the question. It says, “Because he organized the Panamanian people and struggled at their side in the face of injustice. He fought beside the Liberals and they betrayed him.”

The last panel shows a portrait of Victoriano Lorenzo on the left, drawn closely from an oft-reproduced photo. The text on the right side reads, “We continue. The fight is fighting!” This last is a Panamanian idiom similar to saying “We have to keep up the fight!”



(Thank you to my son, Spencer Trumm, and the desk clerk staff at the Novotel Panama City for helping me translate and understand these murals.)

Willemstad Public Art

When I first saw these words painted on the side of a two-story building, I thought it was an ad for something. Maybe a local beer – although the “decolonized minds” caption didn’t quite fit with that. Come to find out that Tula is a local Curaçaoan hero, an enslaved African man who liberated himself and went on to lead a slave revolt here in 1795. He was eventually captured by the Dutch and tortured to death. Today he is revered as one of the most important figures in Curaçao’s history. Unknown to me until recently, there was a movie made about him in 2013 called Tula: The Revolt which featured Danny Glover in a supporting role.

These four striking paintings below were done by Alex da Silva, an artist who was born in Angola, studied in the Netherlands, and spent considerable time in Cape Verde. I was surprised to learn that there are strong linguistic and cultural ties between Cape Verde and Curaçao. Papiamento, the language of the Netherlands Antilles, is very similar to Cape Verdean Portuguese creole.

I liked this fish/submarine installation that’s situated in a small public playground in a quiet part of town. The medium is the message: the sculpture is constructed from objects the artist found washed up on the beaches here.

Across from the playground was this amazing whole-building mural, which picks up the color scheme of the fish/submarine.

Also nearby was this Miro-influenced work by Junius Isen, entitled Together As One. The 2011 mural is now in need of restoration.

The mural below is my favorite. It was created by Curacao artist Garrick Marchena. The text is in Papiamento and a translation of it reads:

They are coming.
They are close.
They take.
They don’t ask.
And we let them.

When I first posted this image to Facebook, my friends interpreted it as a referring to colonialism or to child rape. But according to local artist Avantia Damberg, it’s actually about how public access to the sea is being curtailed by hotel and condominium developments that illegally restrict beaches to their guests and residents. It’s about how Curaçaoan children’s future is being sold to the highest bidders. But though that may be the original intent, one way I assess the greatness of art is whether it’s susceptible of multiple interpretations. This mural clearly is.

While other cities treat “love locks” as a nuisance, Willemstad has embraced them. This installation by the waterfront seems to be a very popular spot for tourist pix.

There are a lot of walls in Willemstad with images or text on them that don’t seem like “art” until you put a frame around them. Like these:

The three photos below were taken less than a kilometer from where I am staying in a district of Willemstad called Pietermaai. Until just a few years ago, this district was known for its abandoned buildings, drug dens, and crime. But an aggressive restoration plan led to its rebirth as (in the words of one travel website) “the Latin Quarter of Willemstad.” Today it has boutique hotels, delicious restaurants, sophisticated music bars, and high-zoot apartments. The photos below show both what the whole district used to look like and how art is used to blunt the grimness of decaying, disused buildings that remain.

This mural on a wall in downtown Willemstad is also by Garrick Marchena. I think the illustration of the hawk is kind of anodyne, but the font for the text is wonderful. According to the artist’s website, it was “inspired by the Indian cave paintings of our ABC [Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao] islands and combined with the California Cholo style letters of the 50’s.” In Papiamento, the text by poet Hemayel Martina reads:

Avochinan preokupá mi ta invoká
boso pa eskoltá i yuda nos emansipá
sin odio ni vengansa ma ku amor
ya e presiosidat di hoya akí
por resaltá i mundu henter
skucha ora kriaturanan
dje paraiso akí ku
orguyo grita:
Ami ta Kòrsou.

In English, that translates as:

Worried ancestors, I invoke you to escort us
and help lift us into the sky of emancipation
abundantly devoid of hatred, but devoted with love and compassion
so the preciousness of this rock
may shine and the whole world
hear when voices from
this paradise reverberate
with a fervent cry:
I am Curaçao.

To my surprise, Marchena also painted the two murals below. He’s clearly comfortable working in very different styles and media.

One of my most delightful finds, though, was a whole row of whimsical spontaneous street art like this:

What’s cool about the Curaçao art scene is that the island is small enough so that most of the artists seem to know each other. I was introduced to the scene here by Avantia Damberg, a visual artist who conducts tours of the public art in Willemstad. When I was with her, it was impossible for us to walk down any given street without her meeting another artist she knew. Something about the climate here – both the beautiful Caribbean weather and the island’s reputation for tolerance – makes this place a good place for artists and those who enjoy their works.

Signs of Santo Domingo

I’m a sucker for the written word. At age ten, I went to summer sleep-away camp and quickly became noted (mocked) for reading books, newspapers, magazines and cereal boxes while other kids were out playing. The reading habit has stuck with me throughout my travels. I’ve posted photo essays about signs in Chefchaouen (Morocco), Hong Kong, Nicaragua, and Fes (Morocco). I’ve also documented graffiti around the world.

So on my recent trip to Santo Domingo, I took pictures in the Zona Colonial of the written word.

Christianity is abundantly represented in Santo Domingo, from the city’s very name to the names of the streets to the abundance of 500 year old churches that dot the Zona Colonial. There are religious references in many of the city’s signs. But I was more interested in the informal religious signs, like this one that says, simply, “Believe in God.” And I was amused that next to this profound message was a sticker from the Geto Boys’ album “We Can’t Be Stopped.”

A more complex message is delivered by this one that says “If God does not assume it, the people will assume it.” The “it” in this case is presumably responsibility — or power.

Surprisingly, not all the religious signs I saw were Christian, such as this building with a Buddhist symbol (and a translation conveniently scrawled above it) .

Other messages were more political. This one articulates one of my own deepest convictions: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

And this one, which is a quote from Juan Pablo Duarte (1813 – 1876), of the founding fathers of the Dominican Republic: “It has never been more necessary than today to have health, heart, and judgment. Today men without judgment and without heart conspire against the health of the country.” Appropriately enough, it was painted on a wall outside a health clinic. It sounds remarkably like some of the rhetoric that we hear in America today over healthcare policy.

I was pleased to see this sign on a second-floor balcony near where I was staying. The rainbow flag needs no translation; the caption on it reads “Normalizacion LGBTI Dominicana.”

This plaque above an old building on the Conde, Santo Domingo’s walking street, commemorates “intellectuals and artists” who were exiled from Spain. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a plaque anywhere in America honoring “intellectuals” as a class. It’s nice to see that in some parts of the world, the term is not a dirty word.

I was also glad to see that honest-to-goodness real newspapers and newspaper vendors still exist in the Dominican Republic. Their headlines are just as dramatic as those of US tabloids. The middle paper’s headline blares, “Shocking Murder of Three Teenagers.” The tabloid on the left is (naturally) a communist paper, whose headline says, “Corruption and Impunity Are Inherent in Capitalism.” And the right-hand paper luridly announces, “Cruelty! Emily Perguero Was Beaten on the Head Until Her Skull Caved In and her Uterus Was Pierced to Induce an Abortion.”

In a residential area, I saw this sign marking the headquarters of the Board of Neighbors of St. Nicholas de Bari.

Nearby was a nice-looking little restaurant that, unfortunately, was closed each time I passed it.

Back at the pool at Island Life Backpackers Hostel, these signs conveyed perfectly the very British sensibilities of its proprietor.

Santurce Graffiti, Murals, Tags, and Unauthorized Public Art

The Santurce dictrict of San Juan can fairly be described as an aspiring arts mecca. Not that many years ago, many Puerto Ricans considered it a dangerous drug- and crime-infested place rather than a neighborhood to be proud of. Though there are still grim and blighted parts of Santurce, other areas have exploded with vibrant colors, new businesses, and young Puerto Ricans looking for a place to live. The neighborhood’s revival is another testament to the power of public art to change both the perception and the reality of an urban locale.

There’s a lot of street art in Santurce. And many of these works can be found on and around my favorite street, Calle Loíza.

Some of the most striking works depict human heads and figures.

The tagging is exuberant and precisely rendered.

Murals are common and certainly add life to otherwise derelict buildings. Click here to see what the building in the two photographs below looked like just a few years ago. Quite a turnaround, no?

The wall in the photo below, though, shows that far more subtle compositions can be even more effective at setting the mood of a streetscape.

All of these photos were taken on and around Calle Loíza, which runs parallel to the beach just two blocks north. But there are equally wonderful works of public art in other parts of Santurce. And eventually I will get around to photographing them.

The Murals of Toledo’s Old South End

Toledo’s Central Union Station, where my sons and I have caught the Lake Shore Limited east many times, is situated in the city’s Old South End. I had gone down to the tracks there to photograph an antique steam locomotive as it chuffed through Toledo on its way to Youngstown for a special whoop-de-doo. Like many such events, there was about an hour of waiting and about a minute of what I’d really come to see. Since I was already in the neighborhood, I decided to explore.

This part of town now has a significant Hispanic population, a fact that’s reflected in the public artwork there. Many of the murals had been designed by Mario Acevedo Torero, a Peruvan artist who has an ongoing relationship with students of Bowling Green State University, a large state school about a half hour south of Toledo. The murals were in good condition, with very little overtagging or other defacing.

The murals were painted on the concrete supports for a large overhead highway. They made what might otherwise have been a grim (or even forbidding) environment feel loved, tended to, and peopled.

2015-07-22 21.11.35

2015-07-22 21.12.08

2015-07-22 21.12.19

2015-07-22 21.10.44

2015-07-22 21.11.07

2015-07-22 21.12.40

2015-07-22 21.13.14

2015-07-22 21.14.22

2015-07-22 21.16.48

The murals below adorned the exterior walls of Adelante, a Latino community organization.

2015-07-22 21.19.46

I liked the idea behind the two pieces below. The use of the blank faces encourages viewers to see themselves — or maybe their friends and family members — as the artist’s subjects. Fill in the blank: you, too, can be famous.

2015-07-22 21.22.18

2015-07-22 21.22.30

The one institution that I remember from years back that’s still in operation is the Green Lantern, a classic burger café that’s been continuously operated at the same spot since 1927. I’ve never eaten there myself (I think I popped in for coffee once several years ago), but it gets rave reviews from the diner aficionados on Yelp.

2015-07-22 21.24.43

2015-07-22 21.25.29

2015-07-22 21.24.22

Outsized portraits of American heroes such as Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King graced the sides of several old buildings on Broadway. These, too, were painted by a BGSU group.

2015-07-22 21.28.19

2015-07-22 21.51.35

It was encouraging to see that even on obviously decrepit and decaying buildings, someone had made an effort to make them look cheerier.

2015-07-22 21.26.11

2015-07-22 21.55.40

Less lawful artwork could be found under the highway and atop a nearby water tower.

2015-07-22 22.01.21

2015-07-22 19.51.31

Oh, and the steam train I came out to see? Here it is: The Nickel Plate Road No. 765. Quite a machine to behold.

2015-07-22 20.56.28

Detroit: Chaos at The Eastern Market

The art in the gallery-like ruins at Brush and Baltimore is controlled. Mannered. Almost formal. So when I went directly from there to Detroit’s Eastern Market, I wasn’t prepared for visual chaos. My initial reaction was confusion bordering on distaste. It took me a good fifteen minutes to adjust my expectations and to appreciate a different but fine example of unauthorized public art.

The streets around the market were almost deserted on a Friday mid-afternoon, like so many others in Detroit. Since the wholesale food market there is still functioning, there were some pretty putrid smells in these back alleys, to be sure, but nothing worse.

2015-07-10 23.54.53

2015-07-10 23.55.08

2015-07-10 23.55.29

2015-07-10 23.55.43

2015-07-10 23.55.54

On one street, there was a sad reminder of how some people live in America today. Much as I like prowling the mean streets in search of the beautiful, it’s important to be reminded that real, vulnerable people sleep in places like this. This bower was someone’s home; I didn’t disturb it.

2015-07-10 23.57.16

2015-07-10 23.58.40

2015-07-10 23.59.18

2015-07-11 00.00.32

Works like the one below definitely show the Juxtapoz aesthetic, which I grow weary of in large quantities but appreciate in isolation.

2015-07-11 00.05.56

Some of the other murals picked up on the historic function of the Eastern Market.

2015-07-11 00.07.19

2015-07-11 00.07.46

The mural below has stood on this wall for over three years now and is, amazingly, almost untouched by other taggers. Maybe it’s the proposal and the “She said yes x1000” that makes people refrain from defacing it. People like to see people in love get together.

2015-07-11 00.05.02

Detroit: The Museum at Brush & Baltimore

I was thinking about why people make art when I came across a desolate intersection in Detroit. In the post-apocalyptic environs of Brush and Baltimore Streets, there are dozens of vacant lots where houses and stores once stood. Most of the remaining buildings have been stripped of everything burnable and salable; they stand like monuments to some undefinable slow-moving catastrophe. I shot a few photos of the ruins’ exteriors.

2015-07-10 23.27.54

2015-07-10 23.28.21

Then a Chrysler drove up. The driver’s window slid down. I tensed a little, in spite of myself. Usually when something like that happens to me in neighborhoods like this, there’s someone who wants something from me that I don’t particularly want to give.

“Hey!” the driver said. “You should go in there.” He pointed to a burned-out shell of a building across the street. “All kinds of art in there. Wild stuff. Beautiful stuff.”

I was still a little on guard. “Just walk in?” I asked.

“Yeah,” replied the driver. “We go in there sometimes, party, look at art. Some of it’s done by the people from the gallery there.” He pointed to a windowless building across the street that was painted completely black.

I must have looked a little doubtful, because the driver smiled and said, “It’s cool.”

What the hell. If I’ve learned anything from two years of traveling, it’s that some of the best things happen when you say yes to things you don’t understand. So I walked up to the building the driver had indicated. Plastic bags stuffed with moldy, smelly bread were strewn around the porch. Flies buzzed around them. A cinder block was propped against the front door. I toed it aside, pulled the door open, and beheld an amazing art collection.

2015-07-10 23.38.01

2015-07-10 23.31.42

The building I had entered had no roof, no windows, and no finished walls. It did have something much better: stunning portraits of ballerinas painted by Everett Dyson. Some of the them seemed to be dancing their way out of the shackles that once bound them.

2015-07-10 23.35.48

2015-07-10 23.38.15

2015-07-10 23.38.36

Elsewhere were palimpsests of tags, notes, and images, reflecting unintentional collaborations that are still in progress.

2015-07-10 23.32.44

2015-07-10 23.31.21

2015-07-10 23.31.58

As I photographed the artwork, a freight train rumbled by twenty yards away. Nearly every car on the train had been tagged extensively. Watching them pass was like watching a filmstrip on the tagging aesthetic. I wandered through the back door and found several other small buildings in the same bombed-out condition. The whole complex was a museum with different galleries. I continued to explore.

2015-07-10 23.36.29

2015-07-10 23.32.44 (1)

2015-07-10 23.36.50

2015-07-10 23.32.10

2015-07-10 23.33.48

2015-07-10 23.33.09

Some of the works were text-heavy, illuminated manuscripts inscribed on cinder block.

2015-07-10 23.30.17

2015-07-10 23.30.58

2015-07-10 23.38.26

As I made my way back to the street, I again wondered what motivates people to make art. The question seemed especially poignant in this environment. Everything in the “museum” I had visited spoke of the transitory and the ephemeral. The murals that artists spent hours and hours meticulously painting will not long survive the elements or human depredation. In that respect, they are more like performances than fine art, dances that, once completed, live on only in memory. Unlike a “real” museum, the complex at Brush and Baltimore is subject to time, decay, and dissolution. Heraclitus, who famously said you can’t put your foot into the same river twice, would have understood. Perhaps the artists who worked here needed to lay down an I-was-here marker in the river of time more than they needed to occupy a static space.

Detroit: The Hipsters Move to Corktown

There are signs of an artist/hipster presence in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. Near Michigan Central Station, some abandoned buildings have been painted up and turned into giant urban canvases.

2015-07-10 19.03.03

2015-07-10 19.27.58

2015-07-10 19.30.36

2015-07-10 19.28.27

2015-07-10 19.29.43

Other buildings show signs of being brought back to life, albeit slowly.

2015-07-10 19.23.36

2015-07-10 19.18.19

2015-07-10 19.34.57

2015-07-10 19.51.38

There’s a cool bicycle shop and several new bars and cafes near the station, as well as a redeveloped commercial district designed to appeal to the lovers of vintage watering holes.

2015-07-10 19.42.47

2015-07-10 19.42.11

2015-07-10 19.43.49

2015-07-10 19.44.46

And then there are some businesses that look like they’ve been there for decades.

2015-07-10 19.40.50

It’s easy — chic, even — to deride the hipsters who have settled in Detroit in the last six years. But it’s almost always a cheap shot and seems more aimed at their sartorial and tonsorial choices than at their values. Their critics also tend toward stereotype; not every dude in a pork-pie hat, horn-rims, and a goatee drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon is a pretentious jerk. Yes, hipster disposable income and insistence on certain amenities drive local rents up and may displace longtime residents. But if the alternative is keeping rents low while the neighborhood crumbles and dies, then I’ll give at least two cheers for a hipster influx.

Nicaragua 2008: Granada Signs

Looking back at my photos from this 2008 trip, I can see the beginnings of the same fascinations that still characterize my travel photography. Signs and graffiti, to name two.

Some of the signs for professional offices had a beautiful, simple elegance about them.

225428_9919999742_1795_n (1)

222958_9919654742_9023_n (1)

222298_9920654742_9249_n (1)

Others were cheerfully cluttered with text and gave me the impression that you could obtain any kind of service within.

223288_9919869742_2652_n (1)

223233_9920004742_2155_n (1)

230058_9920324742_7792_n (1)

225123_9920329742_8179_n (1)

And then there was this sign for a fried chicken joint, which amused me every time I passed by.

227948_9919739742_672_n (1)

I’m not sure, but I think this was a little love poem, a declaration of affection for one lucky Dario. But maybe some of my more fluent Spanish-speaking readers can set me straight.

225898_9920104742_3718_n (1)

There were a lot of political murals and signs. And many, but not all, of them were in support of Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista party.

227533_9920479742_6293_n (1)

223213_9920474742_5934_n (1)

226233_9921854742_686_n

222923_9920009742_2533_n (1)

230573_9920319742_7371_n (1)

This, below, was a popular political sentiment at the time. Still is.

227338_9921354742_8840_n