Daniel Arzola has been in his element since his graphic art series, “I’m Not A Joke” (“No Soy Tu Chiste”) went viral in 2013.
In the spirit of his hero, the late gay artist Keith Haring, Arzola is an ardent advocate for public art with an activist message, hence the term “artivist.”
“I’m Not A Joke” is a series of 50 images with phrases he used to fight back against homophobic threats from people while growing up in Venezuela, such as: “My sexuality is not a trend your ignorance seems to be,” “Love should be legal,” and “Those who are insulted by my femininity must believe being a woman is offensive.” Each phrase is followed by the words: “I’m not a joke.”
Arzola, 27, posted the images on Facebook and on his blog three years ago. The images went viral within six months, with activists in 20 countries sharing and translating the phrases into English, Hindi, Japanese, Russian, and many other languages.
His work also caught the attention of singer Katy Perry, who chose to feature five of his pieces one week on ArtForFreedom.com. That attracted Madonna’s attention, who tweeted about his work.
“Art speak[s] to the world in another language, in a universal language…we are different, but we can feel the same and art connect[s] us,” said Arzola. “That’s the reason I think that artivism is so effective. Activism teach you or talk to your reason, but artivism talks to your emotion because we all feel in the same language.”
Since then he has traveled the world with his artwork. On Friday, September 16, Arzola arrived in San Francisco. He attended the Art for AIDS benefit for the UCSF-Alliance Health Project as a part of his invitation by gay art conservator Martin Salazar to explore and experience the city for the first time. He’s not wasting opportunities to make connections before he returns to his adopted country, Chile, September 30, he told the Bay Area Reporter during an interview in the Castro about his art work, growing up queer in Venezuela, and his plans for his future.
Arzola currently has about 200 drawings in his portfolio that are being used in LGBT rights campaigns in Colombia, Venezuela, and other countries. He also has 400 poems that he’s written since he was 12, he said. His poetry, like his artwork, is very social political.
Arzola shared the first image from his newest campaign, “Are you PrEPared?” which is aimed to educate Latin Americans about the anti-HIV/AIDS drug PrEP, with the B.A.R. on his cellphone. He’s working with London porn actors who are fans of his work and who are PrEP activists to model for his drawings. Like his “I’m Not A Joke,” he is using art and words, but this time he is incorporating a quick response code, better known as a QR code, into the work, linking it directly to an educational video about PrEP, which he hopes will become just as popular in Latin America as it is in San Francisco.
In the meantime, Arzola hopes to find organizations to partner with to support the campaign while he’s visiting, he said.
Currently, Arzola teaches artivism at the Chilean Municipality of Providencia and works on various contracted campaigns, in addition to his own work.
One of the most recent campaigns he has been selected to work on are the posters for the International Queer and Migrant Film Festival in December in Amsterdam. During the weeklong festival, he will lead a workshop on artivism and participate in an exhibition of “I’m Not A Joke.” The posters will also be seen in Aruba and Curacao (which are Dutch territory Caribbean islands just off the coast of Venezuela) and Surinam.
During the past three years, Arzola’s work has been displayed at galleries, museums, in subways, and other public spaces, but life for him wasn’t always so celebrated and glamorous. Three years ago he was waiting in long food lines to eat and sleeping on the ground.
In many ways, art threatened and saved his life.
Fame and notoriety brought death threats against him because of his bold artistic protests against the Venezuelan government, its dictatorship, and human right abuses in the South American country.
In 2013, he had 15 days to decide to leave his mother, Maria Valenzuela; older brother, Ruben Arzola; and Venezuela behind. Arzola was brought to Amsterdam by Dutch activists so he could continue his work, he said expressing his gratefulness. His father left his family when he was born, but in recent years Arzola has developed a relationship with him, he said.
Life is art, art is life
Drawing for Arzola has been his way to communicate ever since he was able to hold a pencil and long before he was able to speak or walk.
“I learned to express myself between lines, shapes, and colors and I still do,” said Arzola, who shocked his mother, who is a teacher, when he came home from his first day in kindergarten with a drawing of him with another boy. When she asked him if it was his friend, Arzola bluntly said, “No, that’s Diego, my boyfriend.”
Like many Venezuelans, she wasn’t very open to the news, he said. His sexuality made home life difficult for a time, but, today, his mother is his best friend and she proudly defends her queer students and wears the “I’m Not A Joke” T-shirts. His older brother accepts him for who he is.
That wasn’t the only difference people noticed about him while he was growing up in dire poverty in his small town in Venezuela. He also has Asperger’s syndrome, and is on the high end of the autism spectrum. It causes him to be very sensitive to noise, he said.
The qualities that make him who he is and that he believes makes him “special” also made him a target of neighborhood kids who mocked and teased him regularly. He ignored their taunts and continued to do what made him happy, which was drawing and reading the works of Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, and Federico Garcia Lorca. However, by the time he was 15 the taunts escalated. One day, the neighborhood boys tied him up to an electricity pole and threatened to burn him alive.
“That’s a moment when … you understand that salvation is sadly a matter of luck, because good luck, you are saved or good luck, you are dead,” said Arzola.
“In the moment I understood the fragility of the body and the fragility of art,” said Arzola whose drawings didn’t survive the attack. He didn’t draw for six years after that incident.
On other occasions he’s had a gun held to his head, he said, but nearly being burned alive was a defining moment for him.
Half a dozen years later he had another defining moment. Another boy in his town, Angelo Prado, who was in a similar situation, wasn’t as fortunate. Prado survived, but his body and life were destroyed.
Around the same time, Arzola had enough of the audience’s laughter at a scene in transgender sisters’ Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s film, Cloud Atlas, where one of the gay characters held his dead boyfriend in his arms.
“I stand up and I say to a girl who was laughing, ‘Do you think this is a joke? You want to see me kissing a man and maybe you laugh more? It is not a joke. I am not a joke,'” he said.
That night he went home and began drawing again, creating the first images of the “I’m Not A Joke” project. However, he made the additional decision to post his work publicly on Facebook and on his blog, so no one could ever destroy it again. The art would live on through being shared and worn as T-shirts that he sells.
“Mockery is the seed for violence,” said Arzola, who was touched again not long after his campaign went viral by 16-year-old Sergio Urruego from Colombia who killed himself.
One of the last things Urruego posted on his Facebook page was an image from “I’m Not A Joke” stating, “My sexuality is not a sin, it’s my own paradise.”
Urruego’s mother reached out to Arzola in her grief to thank him for giving her son the words to speak about who he was. They formed a bond. Arzola created a poster in honor of Urruego that spread like rapid fire throughout Colombia and is used in many LGBT rights campaigns in the country, he said.
An honest life
“Being honest is the best thing that you can do in your life,” said Arzola. “I think that life is too short for not being honest.”
Arzola was awed and enjoyed seeing the freedom that LGBT people have in San Francisco. It is the type of freedom he can only dream of in Venezuela and in many Latin American countries.
Five of his friends were murdered during this past year alone.
“I want that for my country. I want that for Latin Americans. My artwork is about … telling the people, ‘I’m no joke,’ and I have the same rights that you have,” said Arzola, who noted the growing pockets of freedom in South America, such as Argentina and Uruguay.
However, life remains challenging, if not deadly, for many queer people in Latin America, he pointed out.
“That’s the reason why I do artivism about LGBT. Being LGBT in Latin America at this moment is still very difficult … the reality in countries like Venezuela – [it] is deadly,” he said. “When you confront a difference or someone different you have two choices: you can attack or investigate. If you are attacked you are fighting against evolution, but if you are investigating that [difference] you can change the world.”
Arzola hopes to create more exhibitions and eventually be able to make a living as a working artist.
To learn more about “I’m Not A Joke,” visit nosoytuchiste.tumblr.com.