Interview by Brian Gonnella

So, probably because I’m one of those leftist suburban clichés, my entire life I have had an intellectual crush on communism. Because it’s cool, right? The concept is easy to agree with, the propaganda is an aesthetic atom-bomb that still resonates in American pop-art (coughOBEYcoughcough). And maybe it has something to do with proximity or our shared history, but there’s something very alluring about Cuban communism. Fidel Castro is the literally undying symbol of resistance to the American agenda in the western hemisphere. To every internet-savvy dorm-room revolutionary, Che Guevara is a folk hero, a demigod to the oppressed—actual and perceived. If you were against the status-quo, or at least wanted girls to think you were; then you were aligned with Havana.

             One of my favorite stories of the Castro mythology—after the exploding cigar and the Pittsburgh Pirates scouting him for pitching—was his declaration of hip-hop and hip-hop culture as a “vanguard of the revolution” and a true expression of Cuban culture after Harry Belafonte played him a few Public Enemy albums at a state luncheon. Coincidentally, the first bit of work I ever wrote for the fine folks at was a puff-piece on the status of graffiti in a communist society, arguing that the legal problem with the art form is merely symptomatic of a capitalist mentality of property over people and that in a strictly Marxist state people would co-own the walls and blah blah blah. Needless to say, after reading about Fidel’s position on hip-hop, I began to ponder how the Cuban government actually felt about graffiti. So months later when Fred got a hold of me, announcing the existence of the bombingscience Zine, he asked me if there was anyone specific I wanted to interview. I thought about it and then I told him to put me in contact with a writer that had recently been to the Cuba. and that’s how I sort of met Monk-e: Ancient Hebrew Israelite and Modern Canadian, member of the Order of the Artistic See, and international Ambassador of Art for the Eyes Wide Open Artistic Peace Movement.

Bombing Science: what is your first lucid memory of your interaction with graffiti? How old were you, where on the planet were you?

MONK-e:  At 14 years old I started painting with the DJ of my rap group. We were inexperienced and had no reference around us in Drummondville*      (**that’s in Canada. ((the French part)))

BS: and how long since?

MONK-e:  Years.

BS: so, where has it taken you? From an existentialist point-of-view.

MONK-e:  Painting is, to this day, my main outlet of communication. It has no limitation of generation or language and is a direct transmission of information from the divine self to the earthly existence. My subconscious teaches me through the process of manifesting those visions, but also in the contemplation of the image after being fully landed. So painting is keeping connected to the spiritual as well as to the physical, permitting me to wholly develop and communicate self.

BS: so you went to Cuba recently. Why? What did you do there and how long was your stay? Did you just visit for a week or spend months touring the provinces, taking in the sights? Does everyone still love Che?

MONK-e:  In 2007 I went to Cuba for the second time with a collection of artists. InCUBAtion (Sola&Chele (Amerythmes)), Kenlo & 7d (k6a) Madhi, Elby, and DJ Movez. We were invited to participate in the International Symposium of Hip-Hop of Havana. I have been able to paint multiple live body-paintings and murals. We did a series of concerts inside and outside the symposium as well. We were there for a month in an attempt to musically produce, write, and record a full length album in Havana and we did. We stayed in the Havana area the whole time but went deep in our political and historical investigation of Cuba. Che Guevara and Jose Marti are the most omnipresent figures in the visual landscape of Cuba. They are painted on walls, sculpted in public places, printed on money…etc.

BS: did you get a chance to “get up” while there? How tight is the security in Cuban train yards?

MONK-e:  I didn’t paint any trains and didn’t even have enough time to paint all the propositions I was receiving. I was limited in the quantity of paint too, so I mainly invested myself in lost lasting projects.

BS: did you get a chance to collaborate with any Cubanos?

MONK-e:  I was fortunate to be surrounded by powerful, inspiring artists from all over Cuba but also from other Central and South American countries. People from Toronto, LA, Spain, Angola and much more were sharing the stage at the Symposium with each other. I even recorded a couple of features and painted multiple walls with those artists.

BS: whatever the International Symposium of Hip Hop is sounds epic. What is it? Who sponsors its? And more importantly, how did you wind up there?

MONK-e:  The Symposium, from what I know, is sponsored by the Cuban Ministry of Culture. It is a weeklong festival and workshop during the day from Cuban and International guest artists. Every night it is an open air free hip-hop concert. I got involved when the ambassadors of Cuban hip-hop patrimony, the group Obsesion, came to perform in my hometown Montreal. They were coming to perform in a weekend festival organized by Nomadic Massive. I was exhibiting art and performing songs from my first album. That was about 5 years ago. They were impressed with my work and asked me to design their album cover. In 2006, Nomadic Massive, members of Kalmunity and myself were invited by Obsesion to represent Canada at the Symposium. In 2007, neither Nomadic nor Kalmunity were going but I was still invited so I invited members of my artistic collectives to accompany me in that pilgrimage.

BS: and the album, how’d that come out? Is it some mind-blowing genre-mashing worldbeat shit?

MONK-e: I now have 4 francophone hip-hop albums circulating in the music world. My albums are neo-soul, jazzy meditative outbursts of poetry. I am part of a francophone multidisciplinary crew called K6A. We are 20 graffiti writers, rappers, beatmakers, DJs and musicians. Most of its members are multidisciplinary artists gathered around the idea bringing back real, raw hip-hop like in the 90s. I am in a trilingual hip-hop group called Amerythmes. We are 5 members from different paths of life, travelling on international art networks. 2 women and 2 men on the mic, 2 members from Salvador, 2 members from Montreal and 1 from Peru. Our music is raw, political emcing mixed with acoustic elements from latin influences and deep spoken word expressions. It is more festive and revolutionary but at the same time more Latin sounding, with reggae, reggaethon and traditional worldbeat sounds. The group was created during a tour in Australia for concerts with Cirques du Soleil and OXFAM.  
I have one album with them recorded in Peru and one in Cuba with musicians and singers from the area.

BS: Fidel Castro once told Harry Belafonte that “hip-hop was the vanguard of the revolution” that it carried “a revolutionary message”. Graffiti being part of that control, do you feel it’s contributing to the revolution?

MONK-e:  Because of the anti-imperialist and social contents of groups like The Roots and Dead Prez, Fidel placed hip-hop as a National patrimony. He created a sub-division of the Ministry of Culture for the management of hip-hop on his island. That is the Ministry at work at the Symposium we went to. That office is mainly managing hip-hop artists from our generation. It creates a lot of controversy in the people because, according to them, of the unfair distribution of resources and opportunities. As far as graffiti goes, it is probably the most underdeveloped element of hip-hop in Cuba. The whole mural scene is huge. A log of the publicity (*advertisements) and street names are painted by artists on wall. A lot of political statements on walls are part of everyday life for Cubans, but as far as “hip-hop’s graffiti”, its presence is definitely limited.

BS: does that brand of  graffiti have a place in Castro’s Revolution?

MONK-e:  Hip-hop is definitely used as a tool of propaganda (good and bad) for promulgation of ideas. It is definitely used to promote revolution and other social issues. Nevertheless, Cuba is a communist state so they obviously are going to push and promote artists that are in line with the National Agenda. The content of rappers is scrutinized before receiving grants or governmental permission to organize events. Same thing with graffiti. One day I was painting a wall, representing the inner-battle of humanity. I wrote “la guerra es interna” meaning “the war is inside”. The organizer of the event anxiously asked me to remove the sentences because it could appear as if I am saying that we are fighting the government from within. So people are only allowed to be revolutionary in the boundaries of national agreements. Meaning they are not really allowed to be at all. It means criticizing enemy nations and promoting national propaganda. That does not mean that there are no real revolutionary artists in Cuba, they just stay in the underground, or hide their agenda.

BS: I have often speculated that America’s real beef with that aspect of the subculture as indicative of our economic system’s mental conditioning so-to-speak. I mean, from the most direct interpretation of a Marxist society, property belongs to the people—every worker of the world having the right to leave his or her mark on the walls. But at the same time, I know the Cuban police aren’t looking the other way every time a dissenting Cubano wants to scribble something counterrevolutionary on a wall in the Parque Central. So how is graffiti received in an actual, functioning communist state? What is the official government position on graffiti?

MONK-e:  Cuba is filled with contradictions. It is not as free and open-minded as our North American fantasy would like us to imagine the post-revolution Cuban life to be. As far as walls, it’s pretty similar to Montreal. You want to paint a wall, you ask the person living in the building. Some are automatically willing, others automatically not and most people are in between, asking for time to talk other residents or municipal authority to make sure they are not gonna suffer repercussions. (In Cuba)Most of the walls are aged, thus implying that people care less if you are paintings on it, just like here. People don’t co-own the walls. The government owns all properties and lets the people use it. The people have little decision making on the resources they are using. Some are more confident than others in making those decisions, some have a governmental position permitting them to be more confident in making those decisions.

BS: would you say the Cuban government embraces graffiti’s capacity for propaganda? Did you encounter any state-sponsored murals that impressed/disturbed you? would you say the majority of the art you saw was state-sponsored?

MONK-e:  It’s hard to officially answer that. I’ll use the best of knowledge to answer. I already mentioned that people are getting paid by the government and not by private employers for murals. So any muralist that lives off murals is directly paid through a government agency. Murals are definitely used as propaganda, but it is not the main source of visual propaganda. Publicity like billboards is way more present in the visual landscape. And there are a lot of Che Guevara murals that can definitely be counted as propaganda tools as well.

BS: well then, how do the PEOPLE receive graffiti? The government position aside, how is the subculture accommodated by the masses?

MONK-e:  Because the presence of hip-hop graffiti is so absent on the walls but so present in their fantasy, when someone brings it to them, it is received with celebration and curiosity. Most of the hip-hop graffiti present on Cuban walls is made with brushes or by visitors that brought their own equipment. It thus creates ever more curiosity around a visitor brining them a new style and new medium of painting. Cubans are lovers of culture and have a natural curiosity and open-mindedness because they feel cut off from the rest of the world.

BS: does it matter that it’s an American culture?

MONK-e:  A lot of hip-hop heads are conscious, educated and aware of the political and ideological conflicts around them. There are so many heads that fantasize about the States: dreaming about cars, clothing and party-life of the West. They are attracted to what they feel deprived of. A lot of people were openly against Bush but still dream about having the new model of Nike Airs. This is one of the contradictions of Cubans and hip-hop in general. Three of my good female friends left Havana in the last year. They got married with visitors and left the island. Now they have pictures of themselves in brand name clothing on their Facebook pages. That’s the contradiction I’m speaking about.

BS: Consumer-driven cultures like that in the United States and other countries that make up “the West” have the tendency of reducing most things into banal commodities. Arguably, graffiti is facing this same crisis. In some instances, “street-art” or graffiti inspired works have totally transitioned to an art-form of the hip yuppie cheese-eaters, while non-sanctioned graffiti elements are categorized as crude vandalism, affiliated with crime, gangs and the culture of the ubiquitous “Other”. Would you agree with that?

MONK-e:  I agree that is the situation. There is also a large grey zone existing in between the 2 extremes you describe.

BS: There is a grey zone with everything. Unfortunately, it’s fairly apparent that my country has a nasty habit of polarizing issues to death. What I was trying to get at, was to your best speculation as to how, considering some of things you experienced in Cuba and your own personal philosophies about the art form, can graffiti truly be the vanguard of revolution in the United States?

MONK-e:  Word. I think it is a great channel for change. Conscious graffiti is a form of alchemy. Taking dead grey zones and transforming them into gold. Graffiti is the action of redecorating the prison walls of our oppressed urbanized constructs. Graffiti is the illegitimate brother of publicity (*advertising). Publicity is constantly attacking our brain by imposing itself everywhere in our visual surrounding. Graffiti plays the counterpart, giving back a feeling of ownership in those depressing conditions of human robot-isation and that engineered sleep-walking state-of-being. It is a loud proclamation that reclaims our right to be alive and to break out of the heavy state of anonymous existence in city life. It is artistic civil disobedience.

BS: so how does graffiti mend its reputation with the masses?

MONK-e:  I am not sure that we have anything to do with the way it is received. We can only make sure that we are conscious of how, when, why and where we are doing graffiti. A lot of bombers would be disappointed to be received and accepted by the whole of society. The marginal feeling of going against the mass is often the desire in graffiti. Those illegal artists have no power on the decision of the next men that decide to go the art gallery way. I still think that, through the diversity of possibilities in graffiti, still exist corrupted and corrupting elements. Disrespectful ignorant and selfish sell-out opportunists are polluting our movements, but then again who am I to judge anyone’s relation to this culture?

BS: so then is it possible to change the broad public opinion of non-writers, non-art-minded folks? Can bombing a Wal-Mart be embraced as an act of vigilantism by those who patronize Wal-Marts? Transcend criminal and become revolutionary? And just to make things more depressing, is that a paradox?

MONK-e:  First of all, graffiti is NOT criminal. It may be treated so by the legal system, but it is not in nature. Graffiti is already a revolutionary act in itself and already transcends criminality. It’s possible to influence the perspectives of non-writers, but I don’t that influence is going to come from the raw bombing approach. Banksy in England has a lot of similarities with vigilantes (based on content and illegality). Mear One in LA is also in the same category but without the illegal aspect. Just by putting so much codes and symbolism in every element when composing elaborated political murals. There are many more examples that fit that description. I would put myself in that class of painter also. So yes, it’s possible.

BS: so graffiti succeeds in unifying the masses, how do we keep the publicity executives from exploiting its new-found popularity even more than they are now?

MONK-e:  This is a question that has its roots in something way deeper than graffiti. The selfishness of man is not exempt from the hip-hop world. The manufacturing of trends comes from our own approach on success. The battle is within us. To which extent can we sacrifice personal gain for the common good of others? As humans, we are still in a baby-stage. It is a collective leap forward that needs to occur in human consciousness.

BS: word. how about we wrap it up with the single most significant moment of Zen from that entire trip? (bonus challenge: do it one sentence)

MONK-e:  The breathtaking sight of busy Havana being enveloped by the orange filter produced by the sunset with a cool ocean breeze after a hot day of rooftop painting.

BS: beautiful. Any final thoughts?

MONK-e:  Thoughts are in constant movement, they are rarely final even when we think they are. Infinite blessings. Peace.