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A Graffiti Art Revolution Brings Life to the World’s Deadliest City

In San Pedro Sula, Honduras, graffiti artists and activists are reclaiming their beleaguered home through the power of design.

Artist Rei Blinky is part of a new movement taking back the streets of San Pedro Sula. Image courtesy of the artist.

It’s a popular lament that graffiti artists face dangers from possible arrest to street harassment and muggings, but what about death? Recently, freelance writer Nathaniel Janowitz of Hyperallergic traveled to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, ranked the world’s deadliest city for the fourth year in a row, to shadow a collective of graffiti artists and activists as they tried to reclaim their hometown through design. The medium-sized metropolis of less than 500,000 has a staggering homicide rate of 171 per 100,000 residents—that’s three to four murders per day—which has created a climate of fear few are brave enough to challenge. “Most houses are surrounded by walls with barbwire fences,” says Janowitz. “Locals rarely linger outdoors, and the people you do see standing outside are usually security guards holding shotguns and automatic weapons protecting businesses 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” In an ironic twist, graffiti artists frequently call the police in advance of their tagging to help secure protection against local gangs, many of whom associate graffiti with turf wars. “It’s difficult for street artists; the risks from the Maras are high,” said Baruch, a San Pedrano street artist, in reference to one of the area’s most feared gangs.

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Somewhere in the rugged ranching countryside of eastern Honduras there is a band that plays what locals call “música típica,” which represents life in the region. Unfortunately, life in eastern Honduras is marked by the international drug trade and the world’s highest homicide rates. Through music, this band tells stories of people intimately involved in the violent world of narco-trafficking.
In a place where people are afraid to utter the names of the most powerful drug lords, where police rarely investigate crimes, and where journalists fear reporting the truth, Los Plebes de Olancho immortalize the kingpins and their cocaine culture through song.
My colleague Chris Valdes and I lived and taught English in Honduras from 2010 to 2012, and many of our friends listened to Los Plebes and other narco-ranchera bands. We learned that ranchera music originated in northern Mexico in the early 1900’s when cowboy folk-musicians with accordions and guitars began singing the praises of heroes from the Mexican Revolution. In the late 1970’s as the drug smuggling industry ballooned on the Mexico-US border, the progeny of early ranchera bands began to sing about the exploits of drug lords and cartels.
Today the narco-ranchera genre is heavily censored by the Mexican government, but many famous bands still produce this music underground or publicly under the watch of the Ministry of Education. Los Plebes de Olancho have joined this musical tradition and adopted the form to tell similar stories of valor and terror in the Honduran drug trade.

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This is what happens when you cross the border from Akçakale, Turkey, into Syria. Specifically, Syria in the Summer of 2010, not long before things fell apart.
The first thing you should know about is the heat. It is incomprehensible heat. Impossible heat. As you queue, there will be surprise that you are American. Border Guard #1 will ask to speak to Border Guard #2, and Border Guard #2 will ask to speak to his supervisor, who will ask his supervisor and his supervisor’s supervisor to examine your passport. There will be intense scrutiny over every stamp. You will reassure them. These reassurances will be in vain because the guards will, of course, not understand anything you say. It’s best just to smile and be patient. Your belongings will be under constant threat of search, but they will not be searched. A presidential portrait will loom. An old fan will spin slowly, pointlessly. When you do finally cross, insha'allah, it will be to no fanfare. There will be no exotic fruit stands. No taxi taunts taunting. It’s not that kind of border, see.
Oddly enough, there is an intense beauty in these moments of travel. Or maybe more to the point: Part of what makes travel special is that it can yield so many moments that are beautiful almost purely because of their intensity. Here it’s a will-we-or-won’t-we-make-it-across moment. Another day it’s an I’m-not-sure-if-I-can-survive-this-bus-ride moment. Or perhaps a seasick-ferry-ride-to-somewhere moment. Or an unscheduled-pit-stop-in-nowhere moment. Threshold moments, you might say.

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