Erstellt am: 7. 9. 2010 - 16:09 Uhr
The Artist and the Gang
Carlos Perez looks quizzically at his painting and reflects; "There's something psychological in this. When someone grows up as I have you hope for a little security and I sometimes show this in my paintings. But it's not always intentional." Carlos' need for security and protection has taken him from a Guatemalan village caught up in the violence of civil war, to the notorious 18th Street Gang in Guatemala City, to Vienna and three exhibitions of his work following graduation from the Academy of Fine Arts.
"When you've seen so much violence, in the family, in your surroundings, there's an urge to protect yourself and your family" he explains. His is a life, and an art, with two strong influences – violence and the need to belong. But it's the latter influence which is stronger. Many of the images include an embrace – parent embraces child, child embraces pet, families embrace children and pets.
Eleven years old when his teacher was murdered by masked gunmen, Carlos now teaches young people to paint but there's no overt violence here, rather it's the urge to protect that comes through and he tells me that has to do with the love of a mother and the embrace of a gang. His mother raised Carlos and his six siblings while working as a midwife. His father, he says, was an alcoholic. Guatemala's civil war ended in 1996 when Carlos was 15 years old and it was about this time, in Guatemala City, that he noticed the street gangs.
"I saw large groups of the 18th Street Gang but I didn't know what it meant to be a member. Ok I knew it could be a bit dangerous. One of the members invited me to a meeting and explained to me how it works and I thought yeah, that's for me."
I ask him if the gang was like a family. "Yes like a family. A bit like a family but also like a type of power. I thought, ok if I am alone I can't protect myself. And if I want to do something, I think, with more people, I have more power to do something." The 18th Street in Guatemala modeled itself on the original Los Angeles gang, violent and well armed. So what sort of gang member was Carlos - violent? He hesitates and gives a self conscious laugh. "That goes with it. Most of the members of these groups have no parents or no family or live on the street or are like me having a normal family, like, growing up with violence. So when one is a member of such a gang, violence is normal."
Did he ever think he would die a violent death? "That can always happen when you're a member of a gang. At any moment, on the street, in a bus, at home - it happens. I lost many friends, many good friends who were having problems with other gangs". Unlike so many other members of the gang Carlos kept his exits open, staying in touch with his mother and with his art. His paintings from this time are reminiscent of street graffiti. So how does a gang member find a way out?
"One has to be well prepared for it and know what one wants. Because many people are proud to be in a gang but they have no other future. My mother was a good reason. I had this family at home and she was a good reason for me to think about what I wanted for my future. And I thought, ok I'll leave the whole thing and that wasn't simple because as a member of a gang it's not as if one says ok tschüs I'm going home and I won't be back. That can be dangerous. That can be deadly. At the same time I was in contact with the gang I was developing my art".
An article in a Guatemalan newspaper led to a commission to illustrate books. A friend mentioned Austria and the Academy of Fine Arts and after winning a scholarship he was on his way. "For me Europe is rich in art with the artists who have inspired me. Austria was really a coincidence. It was just recommended to me by a friend". Getting out of the gang was difficult but getting into another society also threw up some challenges.
"It was very difficult. Guatemala is a third world country and life simply functions completely differently there. For me the most important thing was the German language which I can now speak a little. And beyond that it was my art which I continue to practice." We scan through some images on his laptop and Carlos talks about his art.
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"When I paint – I think about people whose only experience will be what I have experienced in the past. And I think when I paint… that I can sensitise it for people and help other people - people that I don't know. That's why I often work with children and why I often work with these large pictures. One is more present than what one does."