UP5 Preview - Icons of Havana: Art of a Revolutionary Generation

Written by Amir Saarony

One cannot simply become an icon. To become iconic, images must be a reflection of accomplishments in a specific field at a specific time, visual representing something greater than the actual subject itself. Jimi Hendrix is an iconic representation of the 1960’s music scene; Michael Jordan’s is icon of basketball – in 1996 a global poll found Jordan’s face was as recognizable as figures like Chairman Mao, Bill Clinton, John Lennon, or even Jesus Christ. The Coca-Cola logo is an iconic representation of American capitalism and certainly, if T-shirts are a barometer, Ché Guevara’s face, beret and flowing hair are THE icon for revolution and political change.

Viva la Revoluccion! Government propaganda like this was the only thing I saw painted in Havana when I first arrived, slogans to bolster the Cuban spirit combined with images of the revolution’s heroes. In particular, Ché’s face, taken from Alberto Korda’s famous photograph, was as common on the streets of Havana as it was in college dorm rooms around the world. The photograph was no longer a representation of the man himself, nor even his actions, it has become a representation of revolution against a world ruled by capitalism.

Icons take on a life of their own and represent a greater ideal than the subject itself. In a country where media and messaging are controlled by the government, where free speech is controlled by fear, where advertising for commercial objectives has no place, the only allowable public messaging is political propaganda. In this vein, Cuban graffiti has achieved an iconic place in contemporary Cuba, as a means of expression, and in that a rejection of sanctioned propaganda.



Amir Saarony’s body and mind live in Toronto, Canada but his heart lives in Havana, Cuba. Amir first went to Havana in the late 90s, during the final years of the Special Period for what was supposed to be a 3 week work assignment that ended up lasting into the 21st century. In Toronto Amir has been a graphic designer/art director for over 30 years. After over 100 trips to Havana Amir has participated in many projects. From consulting with businesses, working with social causes and humanitarian aid to writing books and articles. In 2019 Amir published Painted Walls Havana, a 386 page coffee table book on the emerging street art scene in Havana. Falling back on his fine art and art history education Amir is now on a mission to show the world the other side of Havana. The one you do not see in the tourism ads. His next dream is to create a documentary on the urban scene in Havana.

Instagram: @painted_walls_havana