A vibrant red string connects the walls and alleyways of Baguio, a mid-size city in the mountainous Cordillera region of the Philippines. It’s not usually a red string of fate that leads travelers to Baguio, but rather weather conditions—the blistering heat and tumultuous rainstorms of Filipino summer draw residents of the archipelago into the mountains for a cooler, calmer climate.
But once they arrive, street artist Venazir Martinez’s murals guide them through Baguio. Some of the faces in Martinez’s work may be familiar to locals–an oncologist who incorporates indigenous healing techniques into his practice or an activist filmmaker. But there’s an inherent curiosity to Martinez’s work, a desire for the art to lead the viewer into a deeper understanding of their place within the world. Martinez’s murals are not meant to simply be looked at and passed by. They are a narrative unto themselves, not a statement but a story.
Japan, Spain, the United States, Britain, Portugal, and Spain all made the Philippines a site of colonial violence at various points in history, and it has absorbed bits and pieces from each occupation. But the country is home to 110 indigenous ethnolinguistic groups that called it home long before colonization, including the Bontok, Kankanaey, Ibaloy, Kalinga, Tingguian and Isney of the Cordillera region where Baguio is.
“People don’t go to Baguio because of the people,” Martinez, originally from a rural community two hours away, said. “It gets called the summer capital of the Philippines. But I want people to get familiarized with our contemporary indigenous identities.” Her focus is on displaying pre-colonial Filipino traditions to show that indigenous cultures are not a thing of the past, but rather part of the ongoing story of Filipino identity.
In one mural spanning several Baguio city blocks, an Ibaloy woman dressed in traditional clothing is painted multiple times in different poses. At the mural’s end, her hand reaches out of the white background, a tiny square poking out from the otherwise cleanly cropped white paint. Remarkably, in the photograph Martinez showed me of that particular mural, a passer-by stands right next to the woman’s hand, as if deciding whether to pull her out of the mural and into the real world. The mural was meant to capture someone in search of their Ibaloy identity.
“Through my painting process, I’ve met other people who are equally interested in defining what it means to be Filipino. People come up to me and talk to me while I’m painting,” she said. “I want to speak with people who I know will help actualize and materialize my vision.”
That vision started with drawing PowerPuff girls on the walls of her home as a child and evolved into what she calls her “vandal” works. “Street art isn’t really high-regarded compared to fine art in the Philippines,” she explained. So, Martinez found it easier to go in and paint than to ask for permission, following the example of Denver-based graffiti writer and street artist Detour, who she says inspired her from all the way on the other side of the world.
“Through my painting process, I’ve met other people who are equally interested in defining what it means to be Filipino. People come up to me and talk to me while I’m painting. I want to speak with people who I know will help actualize and materialize my vision.”
“Not everyone has the ability to appreciate art in its wholeness, so I wanted to bring it to the people. That’s why I fell in love with street art as a democratic tool for the people,” she declared. In 2017, Martinez decided to marry the Gestalt concept of design she was studying in art school at University of the Philippines in Baguio with her interest in street art.
That was the birth of her urban narrative project Hila-bana, which features the red string across the walls of Baguio. The Gestalt theory surmises that viewers see a whole before they see parts, so Martinez broke her murals up into individual parts that the people of Baguio would be able to connect into a whole narrative.
“I did this as a social experiment to prove this theoretical structure in a medium that’s accessible to the public,” she said. The name Hila-bana comes from the Tagalog word hilbanahan, which means temporary stitching, as the focus on the individual indigenous people groups of the Philippines is just one thread in a larger tapestry of what it means to be Filipino.
Though the idiom of a “common thread” doesn’t exist in Tagalog, the term still resonates with Martinez, as the red string also represents indigenous weaving methods. Aside from the red string, she conducted her social experiment with the image of a Gayaman, a centipede-like design from Kalinga culture, and turned it into a public emblem that implemented itself into passers-by’s brains. The Gayaman is often used as a tattoo, and through Martinez’s experiment, it became something of a tattoo on the skin of Baguio.
“Not everyone has the ability to appreciate art in its wholeness, so I wanted to bring it to the people. That’s why I fell in love with street art as a democratic tool for the people.”
But the Hila-bana social experiment was only the beginning of Martinez’s street art career. Through painting in the alleyways of Baguio, called eskinitas in Tagalog, she observed how adding a mural to the block turned it from a potentially unsafe place to an inspiring one. “I thought to myself, what if we tried to use these eskinitas to showcase people’s talents?” She recalled. That was the genesis of Sining Eskinita, Baguio’s first street art festival put together by Martinez’s 23 Sampaguita collective. “The local government allowed us to make the eskinitas into a communal space—which is really not normal,” she said, citing corruption and bureaucracy as barriers for artists to get government support. “Murals really change the energy of a place, and most eskinitas are scary places where bad things might happen. So I wanted to change that one eskinita at a time.” Sining Eskinita didn’t just feature street art, but also traditional indigenous dance and music performances. The festival was a way for Martinez to take her passion of highlighting indigenous cultural advocates into multiple forms of media, and to do so in a public, accessible space.
“Murals really change the energy of a place, and most eskinitas are scary places where bad things might happen. So I wanted to change that one eskinita at a time.”
Martinez’s murals are as multifaceted as the cultures they represent. Her artwork is clearly figurative, but she uses the visual language that makes up our perception to create new scenes, just as a novel uses the same words that we speak in to create a new story. What fascinated me from the start about her work is the way that she uses street art as a form of narrative. Nothing in her work stands by itself—it’s rare to find a mural of hers with only a single figure in it, and her paper works that feature a single figure often show it surrounded by natural or cultural designs. In Martinez’s visual landscape, no one is alone. Every figure is accompanied by their heritage and the nature of the Cordilliera region.
She refers to herself as an “anthropreneur,” inspired by her grandfather, an anthropologist. To be an anthropreneur is to pursue a life focused on enriching others’ lives, so not the hustle-and-grind mindset of entrepreneur, but also to carve out one’s own path without the academic restrictions of an anthropologist.
“My work is still raw and I haven’t really achieved what I want to achieve,” she said, though she has achieved a great deal in the five years she’s been an active street artist. “I want to really complete the story of the indigenous advocates I portray and create more cultural mapping.”
“I’d like to do a fifty-story building.”
She also wants to go bigger. “I’d like to do a fifty-story building,” she remarked. Martinez’s murals implore viewers to ask where they came from, how they got there, whose shoulders they stand on, and what makes them feel connected to their ancestors. They’re powerful precisely because of their openness. Where some murals begin and end on the wall space they occupy, Martinez’s stretch far beyond them. Personally, I can’t think of anything better to put on a fifty-story building for an entire city to see.