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Straight From the Underground: Freedom and Street Art in Havana

Photo credit: Amberly Alene EllisSplashes of color stand out against Havana’s aging buildings and Spanish architecture. The walls of parks, school playgrounds, abandoned buildings and alleyways are filling with the work of street artists. They leave behind only the coded signatures of their names. The presence of this modernity in a seemingly time locked country speaks to the challenges and the creativity of Cuban youth. Street art is somewhat of  a new phenomenon in Havana. Spaces that were once nothing, are now filling up with the work of young people dedicated to bringing art to their city. The risks are high for street artists, as they are not often commissioned for their work and can face trouble for painting without permission. I’ve always wondered of the audacity of these artists, and their bravery to share their work so boldly to the world.

Before I became friends with the Cuban street artist 5stars, I was just another spectator and fan of the work that seems to sweep every available corner of Centro Havana. When we finally met in Havana, he was just begging to regularly use Instagram and Facebook to promote his work. Yairan, better known as 5stars is a street artist from Havana, Cuba. 5stars began painting in 2010, due to a lack of street art in Cuba. His sketches and murals have a very distinct style and can predominantly be found in Centro Havana. Now continuing his work from Frankfurt, Germany, 5stars didn’t leave his love for his country behind.

Like his fellow street artists and friends Yulier P. and Fabian (2+2=5), 5stars is dedicated to using his art to show that Cuban culture is multifaceted, multicultural and so much more than the old cars, cigars and salsa music that attracts so many tourists to the Cuban capital of Havana. He has recently started a hashtag on social media called #CubaSiempre in his efforts to use art to show the lesser known culture of his country. He seeks to show the culture from the streets, from the youth in the underground. 5stars often seeks areas where youth gather to skateboard, and has also expanded to the Regla neighborhood, where monthly hip hop shows take place.

Photo credit: Amberly Alene Ellis

“We look for visible locations, we look for places where people will see our work. Places near bus stops or where there is a lot of traffic.” he says. His friends Yulier P. and Fabian (2+2=5) explain that it is art that has given them the most freedom to express themselves. When I asked Fabian what the symbol 2+2=5 means, he told me without hesitation that it is a symbol that represents his freedom. He told me, “People say that two plus two equals four, but I don’t see it like that. I believe that it can equal whatever you want it to be. You can be whatever you want to be...And I want people to know that, so I put it everywhere with my art. I paint here, I paint there, I paint everywhere. I want people to know that I am free.”

Yulier P. now has a studio and gallery on the famous Prado in Havana Vieja. His work attracts buyers from all around the world. He likes street art because he believes that it gives people a more interactive experience, and he believes that it gives more people access to his work. He was working in studio art when he met 5stars. They began painting in the street together, and from there his love for street art really began to grow.

Photo: Work of Fabian (2+2=5) in Centro Havana

Yulier P. describes his artistic style as expressionistic. Each of the characters that he creates in his work reflect different kinds of Cuban people. He explains that different characters can sometimes can be encompassed in one person, so he tries to show that in his work. The appearance of each of the characters reflects their inner expressions.

When people ask if his work is urban or underground he says “I wouldn't describe that my art is just one thing, that it is urban or underground or even studio art. Normally people classify my work as urban because I am most known from my art in the street, but my work is not something that I want to so firmly classify.” Yulier says his art, like the diverse Cuban people, is something that has multiple personalities.

Photo credits: Cinco Estrellas Instagram

A visit to his studio in Prado will reveal the immense body of work that Yulier has created in his career. Conveniently located near major tourist attractions like Central Park and the Capital, Yulier explains that it is a major challenge for him to maintain his studio in Havana. There is a constant need for supplies that he sometimes can’t find in Cuba. The kind of paint the artists needs to work are not easy to come by in Havana.

With the coming of more tourism in Cuba, the work of these young artists is becoming more and more visible. It is difficult to scroll through Havana hashtags on social media without seeing photographs of their work, and often the artists do not receive any credit or mention. 5stars recently started his first Twitter account, and he is learning how to best promote his work on the internet. Lack of internet access in Cuba made it difficult for him to manage his social media accounts, but now that he works from Germany, he can share his work with a larger audience.

I had the opportunity to watch the three artists work on a mural one day. As we joked around, and took photographs, I realized that there was something bittersweet about the work that they were creating together. I saw the sacrifices that 5stars has made to be the kind of artist that he wants to be with the resources he needs to work. 5stars is traveling back and forth from Frankfurt and Havana, but the spaces between travel are long and communicating with his family on the island from Germany is still very difficult.

I realize that so many of their everyday struggles are reflected in their art. They are struggles that comes from not having all the tools to paint and finding creative ways to invent them. They are struggles that comes from the need for a spaces to express oneselves, and creating one from nothing. It is art that completely comes from the underground. It is bittersweet because I do not know how long it will remain that way, and how long before it becomes a novelty or a t-shirt in a gift shop as tourism in Havana continues to grow.

When I see the #CubaSiempre hashtag, I realize how important it is. #CubaSiempre is the effort of Cuban youth to claim an artistic movement as their own. It is preserving a medium that has allowed them to visualize their experiences on a platform that the world can ignore. It is their movement. A youth movement. Straight from the underground.

Photo Credit: Yulier P. Facebook

To learn more about the work of these artists, please follow them social media:


Yulier P.

Fabian (2+2=5)