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Havana, Watching the Walls

Street murals - those eye-catching, breath-holding, spirit-grabbing displays that adorn wherever people live are ever more present. In Washington, DC, and elsewhere, new images across every ward compete with the classics. Tours to see murals are a must in most big cities. Murals bring flat surfaces to life, imbue the urban landscape with more color and, on many occasions, serve as a strong political or social statement in semi-disguise.

I walked the streets of Havana with an eye to mural life. What would I see in this country so different and yet so intertwined with mine? Endless political statements or artistic swirls? In a country with limited access to painting materials, how would any murals compete with the sheer stunning artistry of those fully endowed with the necessary materials? Humor? Pathos? Pain? Joy? What's to see in our most public spaces?

For much of the areas of Havana I walked - the historic districts, the renovated neighborhoods - murals were an afterthought. A decaying building wall, standing alone, would have its image, but most walls were clean of art. Each piece stood alone - left alone, perhaps, until the wall would come down. Imagery in the gallery below shows a strong representation of Afro-Cuban roots (first three) and a wry, safe humor (pencils and instruments as weapons). Given the Cuban governments intense support for culture, perhaps the last two images represent this impulse.

Then there is the neighborhood of San Isidro, far off the tourist trail. The former home to the city's ancient red light and mob district, in spite of the absence of tourists (or because?) it has been designated as an arts district. In US cities, this naming heralds differential zoning, interesting shops, and perhaps a desire to increase the attraction of the streets to the art-inflected crowd. San Isidro rewards the intrepid by drenching itself in murals, large and small, complex and simple.

The neighborhood seems unfazed by all this glory. People wait in lines, drink in bars, shout from balconies. Street hawkers sing about their products, typically simple and inexpensive. The art does show all the creativity and excitement that it does in any part of the world. Maybe the amount of paint or the technique differs, affected by access to certain materials, but these differences are minute. The murals are captivating.

Interestingly, many of the works are in black and white or ochre of some type. None of them (by design or direction or artistic intent) are overtly political (some of the nuance might be missed by this US citizen). Themes of community, love, and fanciful beasts dominate. Above all, the art sits well in the space that it occupies - it doesn't distract or clash with the street, but instead complements the community and the people it serves. Each city has its own take on street murals, of course, and I expect that I missed many works across Havana. Another reason to go back and walk even more slowly!

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