A cycling route to discover Havana’s graffiti

July 21, 2020 | by James Corporal

Getting to know Cuba through its art is an exhilarating experience, especially when it is the kind of public art that tells a story about a political past and a more eclectic, socially aware present. Join us for an exciting cycling route discovering Havana’s most authentic graffiti art encompassing decades of history and artistic expression.

This article is an open invitation to get acquainted with Cuba’s most spontaneous and freeing of art forms; graffiti! And the plan is to do so on a scenic bike ride that will also allow you to take in other Havana landmarks and snap-worthy sights.

On any holiday to Cuba, especially in Havana, more likely than not, you will come across some sort of graffiti or mural art, which in Cuba can have multiple meanings; humorous, political, philosophical and, quite often, a combination of the three. Mural art has a strong presence in Havana, and while in some municipalities or neighbourhoods you might hardly notice it, in others or along certain avenue stretches, you may find mural after mural depicting art or political messages (often a combination of both).

Graffiti in its more modern concept and as a more spontaneous art form has made its way into Cuban streets in more recent times, especially over the last decade or so with upcoming Cuban graffiti artists whose different themes and often reflective social topics have caught the public’s attention and earned the admiration of "habaneros".

More than just adding a pop of colour to blank walls

Like all graffiti, Cuban graffiti aren’t just about artistic expression; they almost always have a deeper meaning or backstory, whether a philosophical or political one, it is often more about intricate meanings and what lies beneath the surface. Some Cuban graffiti offer an accurate portrayal of revolutionary Cuba and the Cuban revolution’s main icons. In the past, mural art in Cuba was strongly associated with socialist messages, government propaganda and inspiring phrases by Cuban revolutionary leaders or writers and poets, like José Martí. In modern days you will still find the old propaganda, somewhat faded but still in place.

Urban art in Cuba has evolved through time as you will discover in this cycling route along Havana’s finest graffiti spots. From some of the first pioneers like René Portocarrero and Mariano Rodríguez to modern depicters of social critic like Yulier Rodríguez or Fabián López.

Some modern graffiti in Havana has transformed into a form of social critique, denouncing the shortcomings of Cuba’s political system in subtle and not-so subtle ways. While they do not directly attack the government with explicit phrases or writings, they do so subtly depicting the ways that the system has failed them or by illustrating Cubans’ torn feelings regarding the Revolution and its legacy.

Discovering Havana’s graffiti on two wheels

Start of the graffiti journey: From Playa to Vedado

We start off our Havana graffiti journey in 7th Avenue’s "Puente de Hierro", making our journey from the upscale neighbourhood of Miramar to the leafy streets of Vedado. Before departure we will take a few minutes to soak in the scenery and observe as fishermen retire from a fruitful night of fishing, others readying their boats for the next sailing journey, and a lovely morning light bathing in all peaceful hue dominated by the stillness of glistening waters.

A cocotaxi and a vintage american car in the streets of Havana, in the background the FAC and its wall full of graffiti

Once on your way, after crossing the bridge you will spot the first graffiti images on the walls bordering the now ultra-famous Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC), one of the city’s hippest, most artistic and up-and-coming hotspots, which earned itself a place in TIME magazine’s World’s Greatest Places list 2019. We keep going along Calle 11 and two blocks later we find the first street wall graffiti by Mr Myl, one of Havana’s most prolific modern street artists who graduated from Cuba’s oldest and most prestigious art school, Academia de San Alejandro.

Right between streets 20 and 22, a medium-sized wall that occupies an entire block you will find some of his creations. His style is easy to distinguish and you will find his work sprawled all over Havana’s buildings and walls, often in the most unexpected places. One of the most easily identifiable features of his art are his enormous heads with wide grins, probably the most frequent of his graffiti drawings. But Mr Myl has other common depictions in his graffiti repertoire like mythological creatures and strange monster-like creatures, African characters, and voluptuous women in seductive poses.

Getting to know the city at the same time

We continue our graffiti cycling journey in Havana by heading down Línea avenue where you can regale your eyes with some of Havana’s finest architecture as you pass eclectic mansions, fine Art Deco buildings and robust constructions built towards the end of the 19th century (you will find most of these close to the intersection in Avenida Paseo).

If you pay attention on your cycling stretch along Línea you might notice some graffiti art by Mr Myl, shaded by leafy trees or fully exposed to Cuba’s bright sunshine.

One of our bikes resting in a park in Havana, in the background the silhouette of the famous Hotel Nacional de Cuba

Línea ends as you reach the Malecon, where we will stop for some rehydration and some relaxed observation of the surroundings. One of the first things you will see here is the magnificent Hotel Nacional de Cuba rising on a small hilltop overlooking the sea. A bit further on La Rampa Avenue stretches before us and you will notice that its surroundings allow for great people-watching opportunities by the seafront. Here we can stop at a small but lively corner bar for a drink or two while taking in the sights of classic cars rolling by.

The Malecon – graffiti art by the sea

After this point everything completely changes. On one side the city gets old with historical landmarks in the form of grandiose buildings, and on the other, the sea accompanies us on the cycling journey with its gentle, salty breeze and the soothing crashing and splashing of the waves on the rocks. This is where you will notice stark contrasts between neoclassical, eclectic and modern architecture forever immersed in an eternal dialogue with the sea.

Rosa de lo Vientos, a multicolour graffiti and sculture by Okuda San Miguel in the Malecon of Havana

But pay attention! Along the Malecon you will also be able to spot suggestive graffiti and unique mural art pieces. Since 2015, Havana’s Malecon has been one of the headquarters of the Havana Art Biennial, and this is why, as you pedal along, you will come across some of the pieces of art that have been kept as permanent fixtures long after the biennial festivities are over. They might not quite classify as graffiti, but these beautiful mural paintings add to the artistically immersive experience.

As we leave Calle Belascoaín behind, we continue our pedalling journey along the Malecon and a few metres after passing the imposing, hard-to-miss façade of La Abadía restaurant, we turn on Calle Campanario to find “Rosa de los Vientos” (Wind Rose), a colourful geometric art piece by Spanish sculptor Okuda San Miguel, remnant of the 2019 Havana Biennial.

We continue across Galiano and we are now in Centro Habana, we have left Vedado behind and we’re entering a different, crumblier world with certain airs of shabby chic. As we approach Calle Genio, we will notice a peculiar drawing on the badly weathered, peeling walls of a colonial building: a masculine figure with a balaclava next to a thought-provoking sum. 2 + 2 = 5 is Fabian Lopez’s most repeated graffiti art in Centro Habana’s walls and this image has earned him many followers.

Graffiti by Fabian Lopez (2 + 2 = 5) in Centro Habana neighborhood

The piece denotes social criticism, with the balaclava representing the lack of freedom of speech that Cubans experience and the sum’s result an indication that all is not well, something does not add up. Inspired by the likes of street artists like Banksy or Jean-Michel Basquiat, this is one of Havana’s most rebellious pieces of art, but not its most controversial, as Fabian Lopez’s latest provocative work depicting his trademark balaclava character holding up Donald Trump’s head was recently removed by authorities with the Cuban government possibly wanting to avoid the relationship with Washington getting icier still.

Not far from there, at the top of a building facing the sea you will find a bigger piece of graffiti art. The “Super Malo” head protrudes among the piles of human waste that have wrongly ended up on the sea.

The 'Super Malo' head protrudes among the piles of human waste that have wrongly ended up on the sea

A few metres from here we will enter Paseo del Prado, at which point it might be a good idea for a small break to recharge batteries, and, were you to need any technical assistance with your bike the Velo Cuba workshop is just a block away, a place where they fix and rent bicycles as well as provide advice and guidance to cyclists.

Havana’s colonial heart

We proceed along Paseo del Prado, a leafy promenade flanked by luxury hotels, magnificent old buildings, schools, small businesses, and homes. Close to the corner of Prado and Neptuno you will spot a series of colourful graffiti. These creations are part of the community workshop Taller Comunitario José Martí. If we get closer to its entrance and peep inside, we would be able to appreciate even more graffiti art, many of which illustrate elements of Cuban history and culture.

Graffiti by Taller Comunitario Jose Marti in the famous Prado y Neptuno corner of Old Havana

As we continue our ascent along Prado avenue we will pass some of Havana’s most iconic landmarks, from Parque Central to the Gran Teatro and El Capitolio, sitting alongside gems like Hotel Telegrafo (the oldest hotel in Cuba) and the imposing Gran Manzana Kempinski. Along "Acera del Louvre" we will make a stop to rehydrate in Hotel Inglaterra’s panoramic terrace and take in the sights. After some photo-taking and sight-basking here, we will get back on our bikes to venture into a far less touristy area but nevertheless an interesting one.

We turn along Calle Cienfuegos and then again on Calle Cardenas to admire a big piece of graffiti art in not the most common of places. You met its author earlier in Centro Habana with his iconic 2 + 2 = 5 signature. Beside the enormous size of the graffiti, the fact that it sits on the wall of a house creates the effect that when the gate is fully open sideways, it looks as if the figure is behind bars.

Graffiti by 2 + 2 = 5 in Calle Cardenas in Old Havana

Across this point, straight down Calle Arsenal we will soon face Havana’s Central Railway Station, a magnificent historic structure, declared a National Monument and one of the valuable yet decaying buildings that were restored to mark Havana’s 500th anniversary last year. As we pedal along, we will take in the many locomotives used throughout the years in this sort of open-air museum.

Old Havana – cradle of Havana street art

Next, we will get deeper into the heart of Old Havana. It is more commonplace here to find graffiti art virtually on every street but there are two streets that outdo all others in terms of the amount of graffiti that can be found alongside them: San Isidro and Paula.

San Isidro – the mecca of Cuban graffiti

Stretching for around five or six blocks, a variety of cultural projects have been developed along the streets of San Isidro. Given that they are removed from Havana’s historic centre they are usually left out of sightseeing itineraries. Yet, this is one place that could easily be included in any tour of Havana as the springing up of art galleries, "paladares", casas particulares and cafes attract more and more visitors each day. "Distrito de Arte" is the artistic project that makes San Isidro come to life with several graffiti and mural paints in a sort of open-air museum. Beyond Mr. Myl, 2 + 2 = 5? and other Cuban graffiti artists, the urban art here coexists with works by foreign artists to breathe life into an otherwise humble neighbourhood.

Graffiti by Paladines in Parque San Isidro in the neighborhood of the same name in Old Havana

To enjoy the art, we will descend along San Isidro and after passing Calle Picota we will come across Galería – Taller Gorría, a place dedicated to art and created by Cuban actor and artist Jorge Perrugoría, whose vanguardist style means he actively supports emerging Cuban artists. It is thanks to him that many of the art projects here have been developed.

What kind of graffiti art can we expect to see here? A great diversity of faces, blurred figures and striking colour combinations turn every wall, corner, or otherwise blank building space an urban canvas.

Calle Paula

Because the pedalling journey along San Isidro will be over before you know it, we will turn to the left to get on Calle Paula, or Calle Leonor Pérez as it is officially named. Named after the mother of national Cuban hero José Martí, her former house is found on this street and now stands as a museum.

Calle Paula in Old Havana ornated with multiple graffiti by various Cuban street artists

In the stretch along Calle Paula you will notice that a good number of the graffiti here belong to Mr Myl. Here his work sometimes takes on enormous dimensions with complex forms and details, creating stunning compositions.

Ending on a high

So far, we have covered 11 kilometres in our graffiti journey along Havana and we have enjoyed not just urban art and some of the city’s finest graffiti, but also soaked up different urban layouts, architecture, and landmarks.

To end things on a high note, we can cool down at Jibaro, an apt joint in which to enjoy cooling drink and tasty bites while admiring graffiti art. The bar’s façade features two huge graffiti worthy of admiration and the ambience is in tune with our journey.

Graffiti in Calle O'Reilly, one of the most bohemian places of Old Havana

And if you are still thirsty for more urban art in Havana, after this relaxing break we can get back on our bikes, and make our way back to our hotel in Vedado passing by O’Reilly and Neptuno Streets, where you will no doubt encounter more graffiti or some form of mural art big and small, often in the most unexpected places and corners.

Written by

James Corporal

James Corporal - Avid cyclist and cubaphile.

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