Story by TK Mills
A Cuban backlot, classic cars and graffiti mysteries
The street is the domain of the people, and it’s walls their canvas for expression.
Which is why, upon arriving in Havana, I was surprised to see a distinct lack of dissident street art. Through the capital, and across Cuba, slogans and signs of the government cheer on the party propaganda; Yo Soy Fidel, Viva La Revolución, Hasta Siempre Comandante! But where was the opposition?
‘Yo Soy Fidel’ – A rallying cry among young communists
I was aware, prior to my arrival, of the tight grip the Cuban government seeks to maintain over information on the island. Censorship is common, and internet access is heavily restricted. Counter-Revolutionary behavior is an arrest-able offense, and all public displays must receive prior approval by authorities. Still, especially in the wake of Fidel Castro’s death, I expected some insurrection of the vox-populi. Havana retains a healthy street art culture, but all the images I found avoided politics. All, except one: 2+2=5.
The first 2+2=5 mural I saw
My second night in Havana, I was walking down the Avenida de las Misiones when the mural caught my eye. Recognizing the reference to George Orwell’s 1984, I had a deep appreciation to the subtlety of the subversive art. After a moment, I snapped a photo of the balaclavan and his equation. With a curious mind, I continued my evening out. What I failed to realize then, was that this was not a lone statement.
Several days later, I was touring old Havana, when I stopped to tie my shoe. I looked down and saw again: 2+2=5. My mind lit up with interest. I tied my shoe, and began investigating my surroundings with a more conscious eye. Soon, I found another, again with the balaclava character, this time standing vigilant over the streets.
At that moment, I decided to drop my schedule of museums and culture tours, and dedicated myself fully to the search for the answers behind the dystopian equation.
2+2=5? – Written on the Street
I began in Old Havana, systematically combing the gridded neighborhood. Every time I found a clue, I marked it down on my map. As I worked, I began to see a pattern; the 2+2=5 equation tended to be sprayed on doorways and often near tourist areas, such as Plaza Vieja. The font and style was consistent, which led me to believe that this was the work of one artist, or maybe one collaborative crew, rather than an underground movement. This assumption was evidenced by an art compilation I found, featuring several street artists; this was an individual or at most a small team who occasionally collaborated.
Likewise, the murals carried common themes. The balaclavan was generally accompanied by the equation — punctuated by a question mark, inviting the viewer’s curiosity. A series near the north-east of the city depicts a motif of an egg; from incubation to hatch. Another recurring element was religion — the balaclavan often shown with hands together in prayer. These larger pieces were less frequent, usually in back-alleys and abandoned lots. Locations where an artist can work for some time without being seen.
I widened my search beyond Habana Vieja, and while I still found several examples, they were more disparate, leading me to conclude that the artist lived or worked closer to the old city. Few of the images were dated, and those that were came from 2015 and 2016. I wondered if the artist had hung up his brush. Still, I pressed on. To my alarm, I noticed that the Avenida mural, the original, had been painted over. This gave me and my quest a sense of newfound urgency.
Religion was a recurring theme
I asked locals about what they thought on the art, or if they who the artist was. Most shied away from questions, either because they didn’t know or they worried about getting in trouble with the police. One man promised to introduce me to the artist in exchange for a bottle of rum; in the end, he got drunk for free, and I got drunk and disappointed. He didn’t know the creator, instead taking me to murals I had already found.
After nearly 10 days, the search had grown cold. Dismayed at the lack of new clues, I was ready to throw in the towel. I had been postponing the rest of my Cuban journey, and overstayed my original plans in Havana by nearly a week. Resigned to accept 2+2=5 as a mystery of the streets, for my last night in the capitol I met up with some friends to go dancing.
We passed around a bottle of Havana Club, as we walked the Prado. Cuba has a vibrant art culture, even beyond the street. Open studios are common, and passerbys are encouraged to explore the exhibitions. On our way to the club, we passed one such studio, and I suggested a detour to check it out. I was more interested in the gallery than the possibility of new clues.
On a drunk ramble down the Prado, I stumbled into an open studio…
We stepped inside. The room was large and host to a variety of paintings. A bench sat in the middle, decorated in scribbles and graffiti. And there, scratched on the corner: 2+2=5. With a new sense of awareness, I examined the paintings again, and found the balaclavan. Moderately drunk and poorly managing my enthusiasm, I went to the back of the studio to ask if they knew who the artist was.
“Oh that? That’s Fabián*, he’s right over there.” My head rushed, and I felt a strange mix of apprehension and excitement. Sitting by himself, shirtless, the man was working intensely, slashing a canvas with his brush. With a thick curly fro and gold septum piercing, his body etched with black letterings and images, Fabián was not necessarily how I might have pictured the elusive artist. But a familiar equation inked across his shoulder assured me that without a doubt, this was the man I had been seeking.
The artist himself
Politely I introduced myself, and Fabián welcomed me with a seat and a bite of his tuna sandwich. In a torrent of words, I told him about my search and how I had been looking for him for days. Friendly and confused, he explained he didn’t speak much English. Hablo un poco español. We laughed, and after a bit of spanglish and charades, I showed him my map.
We understood one another, if not in words but in mutual respect for one another’s conviction.
Everyone else drank and danced while we talked. Several questions had been burning on my tongue. How long had you been creating street art? What does 2+2=5 mean, to you? Does the balaclavan have a name? The artist answered, as best he could.
I learned Fabián had been working the streets for almost six years, but recent ‘differences of opinion’ with the police had led him to hang up his spray cans. These days, Fabián prefers to paint on a canvas. Money in Cuba is not always easy to come by, so he has taken to selling his work to get by.
Though he has retired from the street, his sense of rebellion hasn’t drained: “I don’t answer to anybody. I feel what I do, what my heart says or my mind does. I’m free.”
Fabián explained to me the struggles most Cubans face, the failed dream of the revolution. “Everyone is in the same economic situation. Someone may have a problem, but so does their neighbor.”
Fabián adopted the cloak of anonymity, to embrace the identity of the Cuban everyman. “When I put on the mask nobody knows who I am. That is why I wear it…” The balaclavan is still a frequent character of his illustrations; the painting Fabián was working on when I entered depicts the ski-mask crusader.
And what of 2+2=5?
“It is learning to see the lies… to hear the silent truths. They do not want us to know, so we must solve the equation ourselves. To be free, we must be free of the reality that is not reality.”
Nearly a month later, as I write, I have come home to a different America. Limited in my access to information while abroad, I learned of the changes upon arrival. The sun and colors of Cuba behind me, a shadow seems to have descended. Now, it is an America where dissent from the narrative is discredited as “fake,” where criticism is received with threats and where the government operates on “alternative facts.” Fabián words seem to resonate with me now on a different level. “We must be free of the reality that is not reality.”
And so perhaps, we as Americans might ask ourselves, does 2+2=5?
The artist wearing a V for Vendetta mask
*In the initial publication of the article, I changed the artist’s name out of a sense of protection, should the article draw any political repercussions. However in the months since my trip, Fabián López has made a name for himself as Cuba’s preeminent rebel artist. As such, I want to give credit where credit is due.