From Chile to New York, and the Brooklyn Block Party with El Cekis

I needed the experience of leaving my comfort zone and risking everything, re-learning what I am and re-discovering my own story”

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Brooklyn-based street artist El Cekis – named by Complex Magazine as one of the 50 most influential street artists of all time – is bringing his mural-sized brilliance to Section 8’s Brooklyn Block Party.
Brooklyn wasn’t always a slice of the Big Apple; prior to its merger with New York in 1898, it was a city of its own. The merger became known to Brooklynites as the hilariously bitter ‘Great Mistake of 1898’, a phrase pertinent over a hundred years later with the borough in the throes of another threat to its identity; gentrification. El Cekis came to New York before the brunt of it hit in 2004, plunging himself into a beautiful unknown.
“I wanted to move to New York, not Brooklyn. I kinda ended up in Brooklyn,” Cekis says. “I had friends from Chile there and they both wanted me to live around them – it was destiny in that way. The funny thing is, I moved to New York almost 15 years ago and I’ve lived in many different places, and all in Brooklyn. The first room I could rent was in Brooklyn, and then I met my girlfriend, ex-girlfriend, ex-wife and then it was forever.”
As Cekis moved through the city’s restlessly diverse enclaves, he fell in love with its organic mix of street culture, drastically evolving the cutting-edge graffiti work he honed in Chile. He currently resides in a little corner of Brooklyn called Sunset Park.
“I had to come here to do what I do. If I stayed in Chile, I wouldn’t be painting what I do now – in fact, I don’t know what I’d be doing at all. I needed the experience of leaving my comfort zone and risking everything, re-learning what I am and re-discovering my own story.”
In Cekis’ homeland, graffiti wasn’t catapulted as madly into the mainstream in the ‘80s like it was in scribble-ridden New York.
“I’m part of a first generation in South America of graffiti writers. There was nothing before us really. When I grew up, there was always political mural painting and political propaganda down on the streets illegally, which inspired me.
“Graffiti was a totally different thing though. In the ‘80s people tried to do it, but Chile was under a dictatorship. People were fighting the system, so writing your name on the wall wasn’t the right thing to do. Then, the system started changing, and people from other parts of the continent starting coming back to Chile after being exiled in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The first graffiti writers in Santiago were a mixture of these people and Chileans influenced by the people who came back.”
The street art style Cekis developed afterwards in Brooklyn benefits from the political charge of his Chilean graffiti work while operating in more colourful and abstract ways. His most lauded series of murals, Fences, juxtaposes self-imposed and natural boundaries. “In a broader way, it’s a relationship between what I used to do as a graffiti writer, trespassing things to paint and from when I moved here as a new person, an immigrant in the city. I put harsh fence elements in a positive light; using colour, I was trying to illustrate a diversity struggle. I’m not imposing an idea that is very explicit or literal, people can relate to it in different ways.”
In a fashion, universality like this is what Brooklyn historically represents to its residents. It’s this incarnation of his city that Cekis will commemorate with a brand new piece of street art in Melbourne for the Brooklyn Block Party. “I’ve seen pictures of the wall but I haven’t seen what surrounds it and what the experience of the location is. I’m going to create a sketch and then experience the location and the vibe, without a formula. Whatever I do, it’s going to be good for me and good for the people.”

Catch El Cekis at the Section 8 x Ferdydurke Brooklyn Block Party on Saturday May 19 from 2pm. Free entry for plenty of live music, a pop-up barber shop, carnival-themed food and more.