The “Supermalo” Effect: As Underground Artists Flee Cuba, only their Art Remains

Written by Anonymous K
Photos by Amir Saarony

It’s easy to get lost in the labyrinthine streets of Central Havana that lead to Fabian’s house. The further I walk, the more of his graffiti begins to appear on the neighborhood’s crumbling walls, telling me I’m getting closer. I look up and see a final clue, an X marks the spot: his now unmistakable artist signature 2+2=5? etched onto a tiny inconspicuous windowpane. I’ve arrived.

I climb the stairs to his apartment and Fabian answers the door with the l news: The lights have gone out. Blackouts are part of everyday life in less-tourist-frequented barrios such as this one.

Art by Fabian ‘Supermalo’ / Photo by Amir Saarony

Entering his bedroom, It’s as if I have crawled into what Fabian’s brain must feel like. I use my phone torch to see it in all its glory: every corner, every wall, every piece of furniture has been painted, doodled, and scribbled on. The words “viva Cuba pero libre” – long live Cuba but free, are carved into the side of his desk. Any surface is fair game to become Fabian’s canvas, and the same is extended to any visitors who get an urge to leave their mark too.

The words “viva Cuba pero libre” – long live Cuba but free, are carved into the side of his desk. Any surface is fair game to become Fabian’s canvas, and the same is extended to any visitors who get an urge to leave their mark too.

The room’s walls are crowded with variations of his signature character: a man sporting a balaclava and a black eye. His hallmark style also includes other items such as a fried egg – the once humble staple of the Cuban diet, now too expensive for many Cubans thanks to skyrocketing inflation.

“Five eggs per person,” he jokes — a reference to what each citizen is entitled to on Cuba’s dwindling monthly ration system.

These trademarks can be seen erratically and intensely scribbled all over the house like a non-sinister version of The Shining. Making art is an all-consuming impulse for Fabian, an itch that must be scratched. His mum even came back to their house one day to find that the fridge had fallen victim to Fabian’s spray can.

Art by Fabian ‘Supermalo’ / Photo by Amir Saarony

Fabian sits down in the corner of the dark room, working in the dim afternoon light creeping in from his tiny foggy window. He immerses himself in his work, decisively outlining his multi-colored creations with a thick black marker pen. Occasionally he stops painting for a moment to hang his dreadlocked head out of the window and shout to his neighbors: “¿Asere qué bolá?,” and other Cubanisms to that effect. Being as well-known and well-liked as Fabian would go to most young Cuban men’s heads, but he is as humble as they come.

Art by Fabian ‘Supermalo’ / Photo by Amir Saarony

So, why the balaclava – an item of clothing associated with concealing one’s identity? Who is it that’s hiding behind it and what transgressions are they covering up? This recurrent masked character could be Fabian, but it could also represent all Cubans, since every citizen must break the law daily to survive: stealing goods from their state jobs, buying and selling on the black market, and swindling tourists, to name a few. Here, everyone must hide their sins under the omnipresent eyes of the state —graffiti artists especially. Fabian’s artist name “Supermalo” or “Superbad” is also a testament to this.

“If they think I’m bad, fuck it, I’ll be super bad then,” he jokes, subverting this negative image and reclaiming it for himself, just like many oppressed groups have done before him.

“If they think I’m bad, fuck it, I’ll be super bad then,” he jokes, subverting this negative image and reclaiming it for himself, just like many oppressed groups have done before him.

Art by Fabian ‘Supermalo’ / Photo by Amir Saarony

Despite the balaclava’s connotations of gang violence, much of Fabian’s work hints at a softer side lying under the mask — the “malo” being misunderstood. One of his creations depicts the character slumped wearing fairy wings. In another, he is on his knees desperately wrapping his arms around a woman’s legs. Fabian, under all his muscles, tattoos, and piercings, is a sweet and even slightly bashful soul.

Art by Fabian ‘Supermalo’ / Photo by Amir Saarony

Over the years, he has had his fair share of tensions with the state. In 2017, Fabian made headlines when his spray-painted figure appeared in Old Havana holding up a decapitated Donald Trump head. This event garnered global attention that, despite the anti-American sentiment, was strangely not well received by the government. In recent months, he’s seen much of his work painted over. Yet, his art is also proudly on the walls of Fábrica de Arte Cubano, Cuba’s most important art institution, showing that the state-drawn line between acceptable and unacceptable is often unclear if not contradictory, as is everything in Cuba. His artist signature 2+2=5?, which is scribbled all over Havana, acts as a critical reminder of this surreal reality – that shit ain’t adding up here.

I have been to Fabian’s house on multiple occasions, but this time it is a bittersweet visit – it’s a goodbye, as he leaves for Canada the very next day. Thanks to his artistic success, Fabian has been outside Cuba before, unusual for a young Cuban from a neighborhood like his. But this time it’s different – he’s not coming back, not anytime soon at least.

Fabian is one of the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who have left the island over the past two years in a mighty post-pandemic migration crisis triggered by dwindling opportunities, economic hardship, and a lack of freedom. Many of his artist contemporaries have already gone and, for those who haven’t, it’s a question not of if but when. If they aren’t already in the process of getting their papers and plans in order, the idea of emigrating will be dominating their thoughts. Now, young, talented Cubans’ biggest dreams are to get off the island, even if it means leaving everything behind to start a new life – their creative careers included.

I ask Fabian how he feels about leaving:

“When I’ve visited other countries before, I always had butterflies in my stomach. But they aren’t there this time. It’s my time to go,” he responds.

After spending an hour or two chatting and sipping on lukewarm beer as he finishes painting for the day, I decide to head off and we hug each other goodbye. I promise to visit him in Toronto as soon as I can.

Art by Fabian ‘Supermalo’ / Photo by Amir Saarony

As I walk through the living room towards the front door, I spy my favorite work of Fabian’s hanging on the wall – his pièce de résistance. His art rarely depicts people without a balaclava, and he never paints himself, but this painting is an exception. In this self-portrait, a gift to his mum, he is pictured tattooed and shirtless, cradling one of his masked characters who has passed out in his arms – bruised, battered, and defeated – just as countless Cubans on the island feel today. Yet, this piece somehow feels uplifting to me. It hints that, with people like Fabian, whether living in Cuba or not, there is still a glimmer of hope. His work rips the mask off of a country whose reality has long been hidden by smoke and mirrors, frantic tropical sounds, much too strong drinks, and a socialist fantasy that never came true. His work makes us question the Cuba we thought we knew.

And as I descend into the now dark Havana streets, I wonder with Fabian’s imminent departure whether his graffiti will increasingly disappear too. After all, the very nature of street art is its impermanence, especially when it’s painted onto downtown Havana walls that collapse and crumble every day. But, try as they might to paint over his work, it has become too prolific for the state to be able to remove it all. You’re just as likely to spot his 2+2=5? signature than you are to see a mojito on a bar menu.

Art by Fabian ‘Supermalo’ / Photo by Amir Saarony

In July 2021, Cuba saw unprecedented mass protests across the country that prised open the lid of a pressure cooker that had been bubbling away for years. It revealed to the world and to Cubans themselves the level of injustice, oppression, and hardship that they have endured for all too long. Although they were swiftly and forcefully brought under control, Pandora’s box had already been opened, unable to be closed again.

The same goes for Fabian and his artwork: He may be leaving, but his impact is impossible to erase.

Due to the political sensitive nature of this story, the author has asked for anonymity regarding their identity.