SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — The sidewalks are often deserted. Except for the busy central park it can feel like a ghost town. Most houses are surrounded by walls with barbwire fences, 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.
Welcome to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, which recently ranked for the fourth year in a row as the world’s deadliest city with a homicide rate of 171 per 100 000 inhabitants. That averages between three to four murders a day.
“People are afraid to go in the streets because they don’t want anything bad to happen to them — it’s true. But we have to be confident here,” said Rei Blinky, a San Pedrano artist. “[San Pedro Sula] isn’t hell yet. We can live here, and we can change it.”
I took to the calles with several local Honduran artists on a Sunday at 9:30am — their suggested time. In an ironic twist of fate that must have the gods of graffiti chuckling, San Pedro Sula may be the one place on Earth where you actually go out in broad daylight and call the police ahead of time, letting them know where you’ll be painting, so that they can protect you.
“We call the tourist police here. That’s the only support we have for security — no government support at all,” explained Rei Blinky. “We’re afraid that when we’re painting, someone’s going to come and assault us. You never know what can happen here.”
The streets were eerily calm and the sun shone peacefully. However, a sense of worry permeated the group as they painted throughout the day. They constantly had one eye on the wall, and one on the street to see what, or who, was coming.
Up until a few years ago, street art was practically nonexistent in the city. In Honduras graffiti has the stigma of being a way for gangs to mark territory. Anyone who goes out with a can of spray paint could be mistaken for a rival claiming turf.
“It’s difficult for street artists; the risks from the Maras are high,” said Baruch, another San Pedrano street artist.
When Hondurans talk about “the Maras” they are referring to two rival gangs: Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (M-18). These gangs have been waging an ongoing war over control of the lucrative narcotics and extortion trades that run rampant in and around Honduras. San Pedro Sula has become the hub of criminal activity due to the country’s unstable government, and the city’s position as the transportation, economic, and business center of Honduras. This war has made San Pedro Sula not only the deadliest city, but the metropolis with the highest amount of migrant refugees reaching the US border each month.
“The lack of jobs, lack of education, lack of opportunities, are what put Honduras in this situation. There is a lot of corruption by those who govern us. Often they’re criminals. Can they set an example? I doubt it. No one points them out,” explained Baruch.
Over the course of the Sunday, cars stopped and honked; a man brought his son to watch; one woman asked Baruch to paint a mural at her business. A car drove by at one point and a man yelled out “Rei Blinky!” Rei waved back, muttering under his breathe, “who the f### is that?” The cops came and left without anyone being hurt.
Rei Blinky is considered the pioneer of the street art resurgence in the city. His unique style of framing colorful murals with intricately patterned thick, black lines have become instantly recognizable in San Pedro Sula. After hitting the streets alone for a while, he recruited other artists to join him, convincing them the risk was worth the reward of helping San Pedranos enjoy their city.
“The problems here don’t stop me from filling the streets with color, giving this place another face,” said Rei Blinky.
Baruch takes this message a step further by actually painting large murals of women’s faces around the city.
“I like the beauty of Honduran women, so I decided to fill the streets of San Pedro Sula with women’s faces,” said Baruch. “I want the people here to have pleasant spaces for the public.”
As they continue their mission to reclaim the streets, marking the territory with beauty, not gang signs, more and more these street artists are being recognized and appreciated by their fellow citizens.
“We have the ability to change things with our hands. To show that we have an amazing city. At one time San Pedro Sula was one of the greatest cities in Latin America and that’s going to come to pass again,” said Rei Blinky.
Rei Blinky, Baruch, and their collective of street artists are not the only ones painting with a purpose in the city. While they believe art can help change San Pedro Sula, Merary Avila believes it’s through words. Avila is one of the founders of the San Pedro Sula branch of Acción Poética — a movement throughout Latin America, from Argentina to Venezuela to Mexico, that paints murals of poetry. Each mural features a quote from a prominent Honduran poet.
“It seemed really interesting to [bring Acción Poética] to Honduras, because the walls here were always tagged by the Maras. So we decided to give it a twist and put poetry on the walls. [San Pedranos] need love since we live around a lot of violence,” said Avila. “We’ll give messages that give hope to the young, and to everyone if it’s possible.”
I took a walk around San Pedro Sula with Merary Avila to look at the murals Acción Poética had created. She explained each one thoughtfully, why they chose each poet, and what the messages meant. We stopped in front of one painted in a spot to commemorate where a teenager had died, another casualty that speaks to the city’s lack of opportunity. The mural’s message was simple: “Mas Amor Por Favor.”
“Maybe we can’t change the world or the country; maybe it’s even going backwards,” reflected Avila. “We just hope to change things one step at a time, because now some people are waking up, and they’re interested in going forward.”
In a city where walking outdoors is considered dangerous by many locals, each time these artists step out of the house, they take little steps to create the city that they believe San Pedranos deserve to live in.