#FreeElSexto — Impressions of a Radically Free-Thinking Artist

Cuban artist and blogger released after 10 months in prison

The Cuban street artist, political blogger, and human rights activist Danilo Maldonado Machado, known to many as ‘El Sexto’ (the Sixth), was released from prison on October 20th after being held for nearly ten months without charge. The artist was detained on December 25th, 2014 when he painted the names of Raul and Fidel Castro on the sides of two pigs, planning to release them in a public park in Havana as an incendiary artistic expression. Amnesty International considered him to be a prisoner of conscience, and a large campaign to #FreeElSexto, now celebrating the artist’s release, was organized in response.

A few weeks ago I wrote the above for Global Voices Advocacy's weekly Netizen Report newsletter. It was intended to give the bare facts of this event as concisely as possible, and in that, I think, it succeeds. After some reflection, though, I realized I needed to write something less 'newsy,' something with a little more heart, about undoubtedly one of the bravest souls I have ever had the pleasure to meet. What follows is an attempt to do Danilo's story some justice, in my own eyes at least.

Havana skyline Havana skyline from el Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro across the harbor.

I met Danilo in 2012 when I was studying abroad in Havana as an undergraduate student at Lewis and Clark College. While we never had the chance to became close friends, we did get to know one other a little. My cohort and I were taking government-sanctioned classes at the Instituto Superior de Arte, but as an anthropology student frankly more interested in the world outside the classroom, I ended up spending more time on independant study than on my official coursework. I knew I was going to be writing my undergraduate anthropology thesis the following semester, and I thought it would be far more interesting to do my ethnographic research in Havana than in Portland, Oregon. And so, I spent most of my afternoons wandering around Havana on foot, striking up conversations in my broken (but improving!) cubañol and soaking up the sights and sounds of a city still very much in the throes of a revolution.

Havana street scene Streets of La Habana Vieja.

At the time, I was obsessed in some vague way with technological change and what that change was doing to the global social order. There was a lot of talk concerning the 'democratizing' power of social media, and the Internet in general. Journalists, policymakers, and activists alike were pointing to the Arab Spring and to Occupy Wall Street as examples of successful activist movements in which social media played an integral role. I was quickly growing skeptical of the 'democratizing Internet' narrative (if you are not, please read this), but I was (and still am) sure that big changes were afoot.

I wanted to dig into these issues further. I was already becoming a bit of a Latin Americanist and a dedicated tech news junkie, and the more I read, the more curious I became about the impact that new communication technologies might actually be having beyond the headlines, especially in an isolated context like Cuba's. The leap to developing a thesis proposal surrounding social media use in Havana was an easy one, and doubly so when I learned about a blogger collective in Havana that hosted writers critical of the Cuban government.

I got the chance to meet many of these bloggers during the last month of my stay. On a tip from a contact I had made back in the U.S., I showed up at the House of Antonio Rodiles one afternoon for a forum called Estado de SATS, a sort of safe space for contentious political ideas held in a beautiful neighborhood in Eastern Havana by the sea. Among the incredible people I encountered that first afternoon was Danilo. He was striking: Tall, thin, handsome, tattooed, and a good bit younger than most of the others who crowded the outdoor patio to exchange their thoughts.

Estado de SATS Getting ready for a panel discussion hosted by Antonio Rodiles and Estado de SATS.

During my short stay in the capital I had already noticed the tag 'El Sexto' scrawled on vacant walls in many unlikely places. I had read on a blog that 'El Sexto' was Havana's most notorious and controversial grafitero, and after seeing his work literally everywhere, I was a little star-struck when I met him that first afternoon. As a young ethnographer with little experience in the field, I also didn't want to get in over my head; I was more than a little spooked when the Cuban police showed up at Antonio's house that afternoon.

During the rest of my stay in Havana Danilo and I met up every week or so to talk about street art and politics. He showed me many of his projects and I left him with a few paint pens I had thought to bring along. I helped him spray paint the back covers of Voces 14 in Yoani Sanchez's apartment one memorable evening. On another occasion, we drank cheap rum outside the Hotel Nacional just off the Malecón and ended up on the patio surrounded by wealthy foreigners sipping Cuba Libres. Danilo began to loudly proclaim the hypocrisy of the Cuban state, and, given the setting and the company, I couldn't help but see his side of things. Indeed, why couldn't you buy Lobster in any of the local markets, but purchase it here in this exclusive tourist hotel?

El Sexto Graffiti El Sexto tag in Havana.

Danilo is staggeringly brave and uncompromising in everything that he does, to a degree that most of us would consider crazy. When I met him at his apartment, he pointed out the building across the street to show me where the police had been watching him from. He was routinely followed by plain-clothes security agents. Once, he was beaten and had his shirt ripped off by the police for wearing an image of Laura Pollán, a prominent human rights activist and opposition leader. Afterwards, in defiance, he had her image tattooed on his skin.

Laura Pollán Stencil Stencil work featuring Laura Pollán. Art studio Painting materials Paintings of sleeping woman Works in progress.

When I heard last year that El Sexto had been locked up by the Cuban authorities, I was profoundly saddened and angered, but not surprised. For many on the left throughout Latin America, Cuba's continued existence stands as a giant middle finger to U.S. and European colonialism and Capitalist exploitation of the developing world. I understand this position to a degree, but then I remember Danilo—imprisoned without charge for 10 months—and shake my head. We must be allowed to criticize. Dogmas are dangerous, on the left and the right.

El Sexto with Painting El Sexto with painting of Laura Pollán, 2012.

The world needs more crazy, brave souls like Danilo. I'm sure we have many more momentous works to look forward to. Some, I'm sure, will involve spray paint. Maybe we can even hope for more pigs. And the next time around, perhaps the powers that be will have the wisdom to see that in stifling one voice, they only make a mockery of themselves.

"Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice."

-Henry Louis Gates Jr.

No me taches, MIRAME "No me taches, MIRAME" (Don't delete/censor me, LOOK AT ME) stencil work by El Sexto.