Senk is one of the names behind the famous Venezuelan crew, CMS. In addition to having an innate ability in manipulating letters and color use, this writer demonstrates concerns and cognitive skills that go far beyond graffiti. That’s why we decided to do an interview with him in which we took the opportunity to touch on some political issues. And we were right, as there’s no one better than him to explain to us first hand what life is like in Venezuela…
When you think of Venezuelan graffiti, you basically think of CMS. What role does this crew play on the Venezuelan scene? What other writers are important (because of history or being active)?
As I’m writing there are no crew members in the country, so currently the only remaining presence is what we did before emigrating and what we do when we go back for a visit to the country.
Historically speaking, CMS was one of the determining crews in the evolution of Venezuelan graffiti. We were referential from a very dynamic generation in Caracas when there were many crews and a lot of activity. I’m speaking of the beginning of the 2000’s until the time the crisis began. You have to keep in mind that graffiti in Venezuela is quite young. There were people at the end of the 80’s, but very few of them and they didn’t generate a real impact on the city. Later, in 1996, a new wave of writers like Ore, Hase, Bek, Orlo, Scas, Jasp, CTC crew, Ros, and BBS, etc. began and we are their direct heirs.
There was already a giant qualitative and quantitative leap in the early 2000’s and we were an important part of that change. Since the crew’s foundation in 2004, until a large part of the crew emigrated in 2014, the city was indisputably ours. There were a few isolated writers who were very active for two or three years but then disappeared.
“I remember at least three times that I or a crew member were shot at, and I think almost every graffiti writer in Caracas has had similar situations.“
If I had to mention particular writers who set a tone on the Venezuelan scene, I would definitely have to name Daos. Although he is now part of our crew, during those years our relationship wasn’t particularly good, a lot of beef and fights, etc. But him, together with us, was one of the writers who maintained a constant rhythm during those almost 15 years.
I guess it’s no coincidence that the writers I admire the most and those who have done the most for the Venezuelan scene are in my crew. When I get to thinking, people like Rose, Bain, Apl, Tuker, Ray, Saner(rip) etc come to mind, so they are still a source of inspiration and motivation for me. We always used to say that we were our own competition for the city.
When thinking of other writers outside my crew, the CX3’s did incredible spots, don Plin (rip), who was a professional climber, dedicated himself to graffiti for a while and painted pieces at impossible heights on some of the best spots I have ever seen in my life.
What are the peculiarities of being a graffiti writer in Venezuela? What are best and worst things about it?
Caracas, our city, has one of the highest violence rates on the continent. It’s nothing I’m proud of, but I have to mention it because it determines how we relate to the city. Being a graffiti writer in Caracas is not easy. I remember at least three times that I or a crew member were shot at, and I think almost every graffiti writer in Caracas has had similar situations. So when you go out to paint, you’re focused on the police but also on crime and violence in general. As you can imagine a violent context also generates violent graffiti, so Caracas is full of beefs and fights between writers and crews.
But there are good things too, aside from the fact that it’s summer the whole year around and the Caribbean Sea is just 20 minutes away. Graffiti isn’t one of the city’s main problems so you don’t feel that persecuted. You can still paint during the day in some places and in the same way you can run into aggressive people, there are also many who don’t care or may even ask you to paint their house or invite you to paint their neighborhood ball court. Another positive aspect is that there is no police control on what you paint. It’s true that if you’re caught painting, it’s a problem, but no one keeps track. They don’t do anti-graffiti investigations, at least not for painting the street.
“On the way back we found a body just in front of the piece. At first we thought it was some drunk who had decided to sleep in the middle of the highway, but it was obvious right away that he wasn’t alive, so we left immediately.”
Nowadays, finding material to paint is complicated and if you find them, they’re usually expensive. This has incredibly deteriorated the scene, not to say that the scene has died, but it’s not even close to what it was like years ago. It’s been two years since I went back to the city and the last time I went, I travelled by land from Colombia and remember that I had to hide the paint and bring a ”ministerial” letter that said it was for painting murals (obviously false), because I didn’t want my paint confiscated. According to what I’ve been told, these days the city is clean, there’s only old pieces to be found and very little is being painted because aside from not being able to find materials and them being very expensive when you do, plus the added economic crisis on top of all that, just thinking about graffiti is a luxury. Also, the fact that the large majority of writers who were referential aren’t in the country any more created a generational rupture that makes it even more difficult for the situation to improve.
Tell us about the strangest thing that ever happened to you while painting.
There are a few stories, but one of the strangest was when we escaped from the police painting during New Year on the Francisco Fajardo highway (Caracas’ main highway), under the distributor’s containment columns. While Tuk was running, he lost his car keys so we hid for half an hour waiting for the situation to calm down outside and went back to get the keys. On the way back we found a body just in front of the piece. At first we thought it was some drunk who had decided to sleep in the middle of the highway, but it was obvious right away that he wasn’t alive, so we left immediately. Otherwise, if the police had returned, they would have found us with the body and no explanation of what had happened.
Some absurd coincidences have happened to us while painting. I remember once we painted the subway in Sao Paulo and the next day we had to wait for it to circulate, but the subway went through the stations without stopping. We weren’t satisfied with the photo we had so we decided to go to the main yard where we had been told they would clean it, but among so many trains it was difficult for us to find it. When we arrived and saw the size of the layup we thought it would be impossible to find our panel; it was also daylight and full of movement. All I had to do was jump over the entrance gate to see that right in front of me, among hundreds of train cars, was our panel waiting to be photographed.
Since you started to only write the crew name it’s difficult to differentiate each of the writers that make up CMS. How are your pieces different from the rest of the team?
When we decided to just paint the crew name, we were all in Caracas and it was a period in which we were together all the time, so we would paint the pieces amongst several of us. The first sketch would be marked up by one of us and the others colored in and did backgrounds, etc. This caused us to get used to and influenced by each other by painting each other’s sketches and adapting our personal styles to a style that the others in the crew could clearly understand. I’m not saying that everyone sacrificed their style for a crew style, but our styles grew much closer. For example, a piece was sketched by Ray, the details of the fill-in were mine and Ins’, and this is what caused these style cocktails. For example, before I moved away, I painted a lot with Apl. Here in Europe, we did many trips together and only painted crew pieces with a certain character, or maybe they were a little bigger than usual. So, sometimes he would start the sketch but I would end up doing the outline or attaching some of my arrows or connections that I thought were nice. At that point it was difficult to determine who had done what in the piece.
“I can admire versatility, but also the stubbornness of a writer who has only done the same throw up for 20 years.”
When I paint alone I allow myself to experiment more or do things the way I see them in my head. It’s when we paint alone that the styles differ the most. I think everyone in the crew is interested in letter structures. None of them do very abstract things with them, but I allow myself to do many more effects and I think my choice of colors is something that distinguishes me. Also, I really like try to include characters with the pieces if I have the time, space and paint.
We see that you have a very developed and interesting artistic side. This is very common among Latin American writers and not so common among European writers, or at least, it seems that way. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know how true this is, I think it’s a matter of perspective. For example, I see a lot of European writers who are doing super interesting things on an artistic level, works with galleries or on murals that have distanced themselves from classical graffiti, yet come from conventional graffiti. It’s also true that in South America there are a lot of writers who are developing some very good proposals that aren’t necessarily graffiti. What I do think is true is that thanks to the antiquity of graffiti in Europe, everyone knows their roles. There are people on the street who aren’t interested in anything else, people who are only interested in doing trains and even people who are only interested in subways, etc. There are also exceptions with people who do everything because they like to paint on anything, but in South America it’s becoming more normal within the last few years for writers to become more specialized. It’s true that in South America there are also people who dedicate themselves to one area, but I’ve met a lot of writers in South America who will do a three-story mural during the day and at night, they go and paint a train. So maybe that’s a reason to believe that we develop artistic directions in parallel to what we do in the street. I don’t think there are so many specialized writers, but there are many who do a little of everything.
What do you value most about a piece? Name some writers you don’t know personally, whose work you like and briefly explain why.
It has to have personality. I also value where it’s done. I’m one of those people who can enjoy a super clean, technically correct, traditional piece, but also an ignorant or experimental style piece. If it has a sense of humor, even better, but it can also be the most serious shit with thousands of arrows. I think what interests me is when you can see there has been some expressive search or technique involved. There are writers who know what to paint and in what place. They see the spot and automatically know which is the best style that works in that format and they do it almost intuitively and that’s something I admire a lot. I can admire versatility, but also the stubbornness of a writer who has only done the same throw up for 20 years.
There are a large amount of writers and crews that I admire in South America and worldwide and it would be difficult to name them. For example, I enjoy what Os Gemeos does a lot. The guys do very good murals and on a gallery level they’re great. But when they do graffiti they are even better; they have very good handstyles, throw ups and pieces.
What do you despise most about graffiti?
The drama. Sometimes it’s a little exaggerated. Graffiti culture is full of codes and that’s fine, but there are people who can dramatize even the smallest things.
“Fortunately, in graffiti your status or where you come from counts very little in assessing who is good writer and who isn’t. What counts is what’s left on the wall or on the panel.”
Do you think it’s necessary for graffiti to come from a humble environment? What do you think of writers who come from wealthy social status?
I don’t think so. It’s true that a humble environment is an ideal breeding ground for graffiti; young people from neighborhoods who feel marginalized from the world can find recognition and escape in graffiti. Graffiti is almost a blessing for young people growing up in contexts that are very prone to violence. Fortunately, in graffiti your status or where you come from counts very little in assessing who is good writer and who isn’t. What counts is what’s left on the wall or on the panel. On the other hand, I remember how positive it was for some pioneering writers in Venezuela who had the privilege to travel. The magazines and graffiti videos that I saw in my beginning years… I’m talking about a time before the Internet boom, were brought by kids who traveled with their families abroad. The first Montana I ever saw was brought by a friend who hid it in his luggage. I remember that I only used it to make the final details of the piece and it lasted like 12 pieces, haha. People who could afford to travel came back with photos, caps, magazines, videos and these passed from hand to hand. We copied cd’s and learned about what was happening and about the foundations of graffiti.
“My political opinion differs from that of the majority of the Venezuelan population (…)since it seems that any position other than black or white is impossible..”
For me, the social status from which you come is irrelevant. My friends in the crew are from the 5 municipalities in Caracas, from all the different social status you can imagine and none of that is important when we are going to paint.
If you will allow us to mix graffiti and politics, as a Venezuelan, what do you think about the current political situation in your country?
My political opinion differs from that of the majority of the Venezuelan population. The crisis problem is about perspectives and imagination, since it seems that any position other than black or white is impossible.
On the one hand there is the government, which has reduced democratic participation considerably. There’s repression that’s an obvious consequence of a power trying to perpetuate until who knows where, and that same government gets into debt and sells large territorial spaces to China, for example, a country that is emerging as a new imperial force in the West. Much is known about Chinese land grabbing in Africa and about the number of extractivist projects in South America, so it’s no secret that China is seeking to consolidate its position as a world power. Its great industrial and economic development requires it to find more and more new resources every day in order to maintain its exponential growth and, like any world power, it seeks these resources in developing countries, with objectives that aren’t much different from those of Europe in the race for Africa, or of North America in its ”backyard”.
The government is carrying on with its rentier state policy and extractivist economy, which is nothing new. This has been going on since the beginning of the 20th century, but now it’s been accentuated by the Orinoco mining arch project, for example. This plan is based on the extraction of gold, diamonds, etc. without taking into consideration the presence of native peoples in the territory, who become repressed and displaced, in addition to the environmental devastation. All this is justified by the need to maintain the social welfare of the population. North American transnationals don’t have the same presence in the country as in previous decades. On the other hand, you can’t say the same thing about the presence of Chinese transnationals and investors with whom we are also in debt due to economic agreements that make it difficult for the recovered oil funds to reach the people, while the government worries about paying these debts on time. All this and I haven’t even mentioning the management errors and corruption found in almost every aspect of daily life.
On the other hand there is the opposition which includes people who were related to periods of terrible repression in the past, such as the Caracazo (there is talk of thousands of deaths as a result of that repression), and who now pretend to be the standard-bearers of democratic struggle, denouncing repression and torture. Along with other political actors, there’s a younger generation that’s also openly American, and I don’t believe shit about their intentions either. They are an instrument for American interests who are faithful to their Monroe doctrine and more concerned about the growing influence of China and oil than the welfare of the countries around them. To believe that superpowers like the US, Russia or China are working for the welfare of Venezuela is an act of tremendous naivety. To think that a North American military intervention (South and Central America have a long experience of suffering from these interventions) is the panacea to crisis in my country, an act of historical ignorance. They, like the other great world powers, need more and more resources to satisfy their needs (it’s no coincidence that China and the United States top the list of the countries that generate the most co2, which is the main cause of climate change). What I see happening in Venezuela looks kind of like a Cold War remake, with new participants and a new dynamic that’s typical of a more globalized world. Great powers fighting over hegemony at the expense of peripheral countries. We find ourselves in a situation where having a solution is difficult.
“People have to organize from the bottom in order to take power away from the powerful, and have more responsibility and prominence.“
After having spent time observing how power functions, I can only reaffirm that there is no good power, that there is no way to exercise it without dirtying one’s hands. Neither side will do anything selfless to improve the situation and the population will only continue to consume what the media and social networks on both sides say. Every day we are less able to discern and have a clear vision of what’s going on. I don’t think there is any power that wants to, or at least is capable, of giving the people a better quality of life. For me the problem is in the system, and those who are at the top will always seek to maintain their privileges. People have to organize from the bottom in order to take power away from the powerful, and have more responsibility and prominence. With Caribs and some other related projects, we are seeing how we can contribute in this direction. In my opinion, graffiti is against the system because of its nature.