Pablo Allison is a British/Mexican artist that has managed to take many of his interests in his art-making practice to a new level. A level that not only requires great effort to live like his subject matter but also an experience that requires the taking of immense risks to avoid the ending of his life and incarceration. Bringing with it a new understanding for the outsider, and on a creative level for the universal viewer.
An ongoing project by Pablo Allison
In one of his projects called “The words of the Beast“, the artist focuses on three elements that have at some point all entered a crossroads and merged into one communal direction. Those three elements are graffiti, migration, and photography. Based on the experience had by migrants traveling from Central America, through Mexico, and into the USA and Canada as their final destination, Allison’s creative journey started in 2018 with his own personal experiences of freight train hopping. Experiences that soon brought him into the thick of the migrant trail which leads most migrants to the USA where they all expected to find peace, safety, and a better standard of living.
By documenting this experience Allison has been at the coal face of the migrant journey. The common thread for all was escaping extreme violence and poverty. The glue holding this experience together for Allison was the camera and carefully chosen words that he painted in the universal language of Graffiti. Allison’s choices to ride these freight trains that transport goods from Mexico to USA and Canada, also known as “The Beast”, put him in some extremely dubious situations. Situations that he realized were faced by these nomadic passengers every day. Situations like being robbed at gunpoint, being intercepted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers (ICE), and being detained for over a month. Experiences that enabled him to further his documentation of the obstacles and hardships faced by migrants as they attempted to make their way to so-called freedom.
The clock hands have turned around countless times since his preoccupation with migration began. As too has his use of the spray can as a tool to write the words that express the feelings lived by illegal immigrants on a daily basis. Strong words that impregnate his pictorial space like Migrantes Valientes (Brave Migrants), Compassion, Fear, Exile, Guilty, Power, Difference, and Unite to name a few. Words that with the support of Montana GOLD and BLACK cans have brought graffiti style writing to a new compassionate home. Due to the multifaceted levels of Pablo Allison’s work, we figured it was only right to speak to the artist himself regarding his own experiences and how he transforms them into the artwork he makes. Focusing on Graffiti on one hand, and Photography on the other, this is what Allison had to say.
An interview with Pablo Allison
Words of the Beast (Graffiti)
Montana Cans- Your work today has such a strong connection to migration that we know little about you as a graffiti artist. What came first, graffiti or photography?
Pablo Allison – Both came at the same time though before I started to paint graffiti, I was documenting whatever graffiti-wise existed in the streets of Mexico City around 1995/1996. Making a parallel of how important photography has been to graffiti, I think we are more than aware of the significance of a camera in the graffiti culture. Without photography we would not have any documentation of this art form. Books like Subway art and Spray Can Art play a quintessential role to this worldwide art form. Graffiti and photography have been my passports into worlds I perhaps would have found difficult to penetrate otherwise.
MC- Where and how did you start your graffiti practice?
Pablo Allison – I started to notice graffiti in Mexico City around 1995-1996. I did my first tag in 1996 without knowing that this was a culture that started in New York City. I had no idea that it was illegal to paint with spray-paint on the streets. A friend told me one day that I could get arrested for it. Mexico City was practically clean back then and very few marks on the walls could be seen, though graffiti actually first arrived via Los Angeles, California (in my knowledge) around 1990-1991 in impoverished areas outside of Mexico City such as Ciudad Netzahualcoyotl. That place was quickly renamed in the graffiti scene as Neza York for the large amounts of graffiti you could find there. I would make expeditions from the other extreme of the city at the age of 14 to document what I could find. I would then develop the films and copy the tags and throw ups and few pieces on paper. It’s important to highlight that no internet existed at the time so hardly any information would flow as it does today. It was very hard to find graffiti in the city and every time something appeared before my eyes, I would snap it and cherish it like a gem. The way I lived graffiti in the 90’s like many others belonging to that generation and before that was that graffiti was kind of a secret and to find out anything about it was not easy at all.
MC- In your formative years, was there a graffiti mentor or leader working at a level that you were inspired by and aiming to reach?
Pablo Allison – During the first years of discovering graffiti, I did not really have a specific graffiti inspiration except magazines that I would collect. I tried to collect every single graffiti magazine that came out like Fat cap, While you Were Sleeping, 12 Oz Prophet from the USA, Buckjumps, On the Run and Backspin from Germany or Xplicit Graffix and Molotow Coctail from France etc…but my real buzz came when I could get my hands on Graphotism from the UK due to my connection with that country.
In the year 2000 I met Ekla, a Parisian graffiti writer who had migrated to Mexico to live and paint. He was the one who really had an impact on my interest in graffiti and taught me the basics and more on how to paint metros etc.
MC- When you started graffiti, did you come up in the usual graffiti contexts of getting a tag, doing throw-ups and pieces, and then trying to improve and perfect your raft on walls or trains? Or did your focus on migration take hold of you from the beginning?
Pablo Allison – I started in the same traditional way as most do; initially by defining my name after attempting other names. Then throw ups, pieces etc. Most of the names I previously used were connected to black metal bands since I was heavily interested in that music genre., My first names were Rocker, Venom, Burzum and Mayhem. Once I was able to feel comfortable with the name I still use today, later on I discovered where freight trains were parked and used to watch people travel on them. I had no clue that they were migrants coming from Central America. This is going back to 1999 when I first encountered migrants on the trains. My graffiti partner and friend who still goes by the tag of Meek would throw rocks at them as he explained that they were enemies.
Meek was associated to a Mexican gang from the USA called Sureños 13 and was all about protecting his barrio. I had nothing to do with that culture and since I came from a different social background and environment, I had not been exposed to this violence that prevailed in that area of Mexico.
Although my vision in graffiti was always kept to aesthetics, I often remember writing messages against the war that took place in Iraq in 2003 onwards, pieces in support of rebel movements like the EZLN which protects the rights and autonomy of indigenous communities in the south of Mexico (mainly in the state of Chiapas) or of the students movement in Mexico City who were fighting to protect the autonomy and free education for all.
MC- Are any of those former graffiti pursuits relevant to your graffiti practice today?
Pablo Allison – Indeed. I actually defined them and split them into two now. I love painting graffiti for aesthetic reasons and a little bit of an ego burst feels good every now and again. That said, I do like to try and stay away from that sometimes as it can become quite toxic and destructive. The whole aspect of today’s concept on words I paint stems from my incarceration in prison in the UK in 2012. I was sentenced to 19 months in prison of which I spent a third of that time behind bars. It was during that time that I managed to read and learn a lot about freedom and decided to redirect some of my interests into wanting to convey a message that went beyond writing for a graffiti scene.
MC- During your experiences and the capturing of the photos in your projects like the “Artists in violent contexts” button on your website, was meeting up with other writers the same as connecting in any other country? Or is there a whole different procedure when in a violent city?
Pablo Allison – It was just like meeting graffiti writers that I would have the opportunity to meet in less violent countries. In fact, graffiti was the opening door. Had I introduced myself as a journalist or a photographer, I reckon I would not have been able to approach the people in the same way. As a matter of fact, I was recently in Iraq to expand on this particular project you refer to and wanted to interview urban artists. Introducing myself as a graffiti writer as opposed to a documentary photographer helped with the access and trust 100 percent, I think.
MC- Are you received as an insider or outsider when doing graffiti in the migrant context?
Pablo Allison – I would say that I am seen a little bit in between by others. It has been incredible to detach from the individualistic promotion of a name. It goes through stages with deciding on either to paint my name or a socially driven idea. For instance, when a Migrantes Valientes pieces is made, I really like and appreciate if someone wants to join forces on the phrase. Having said that, it also helps me to challenge my styles and practice over word combinations and keep it flowing and moving along the way.
MC- How does it feel for you when you are then doing pieces or murals in other (non-violent) countries with the migrant theme? Do you feel as if your voice is being heard or is it falling on deaf ears when everyone else is more or less safe, healthy, and wealthy?
Pablo Allison – I definitely feel it gets heard actually. So much empathy and support has been shown in countries in Europe towards this subject matter. All the walls I have painted and the people I have had the great opportunity to collaborate with has been something I never though was possible or that I even planned in the first place. Seemingly, even graffiti writers I have a lot of respect for have been very keen on this idea of words that mean something in a social context. I obviously did not invent this social aspect of graffiti as other extremely talented graffiti writers / artists such as Lee and Revs just to name two, have inspired me an awful lot.
I had never planned to paint phrases like Migrantes Valientes in the first place. This came spontaneously whilst travelling with a very large group of migrants( approx.. 700 people) on a train within the state of Sinaloa. I jumped off the freight train and the first thing that came to mind was the message in support of migrants and from there on it resonated with people.
MC- What is the most moving experience you have had while painting graffiti and where was it?
Pablo Allison – I have had a few luckily but I think the most moving one of all was when I painted the name Arriba los Migrantes on the side of the freight in Culiacan, Sinaloa. We had been travelling for many weeks and all the migrants (men, women and kids predominantly) were exhausted. We had been scared off a few times by alleged criminals along the way. In Irapuato we had been warned that a group of Narcos were positioned ready to shoot at the train we were travelling on and in Culiacan, Sinaloa apparently some criminals were also plotting to hurt the people. The quick panel was made with the help of a few migrants and people were very happy. They shouted and supported it. The painted train was the one we kept riding for another stint of the journey until we reached the next stop.
MC- Is there somewhere or something on your graffiti wish list that you have not yet painted and want to? And if you could, what would you paint on it?
Pablo Allison – I don’t really have any specific spots in mind that I can think of right away but I would love to paint a large wall in Baghdad such as the ones I have been painting in recent years. I feel that city needs some colour added and given its history I would love to plaster some ideas of inspiration to people in general alongside other artists from Baghdad. However, I feel that there are a lot of constraints and barriers that need to be jumped and bureaucracy is a hard one to tackle there. The political atmosphere is tense and I don’t know how easily it would be to crack something in the shape of a large-scale wall with the appropriate support needed to not get in trouble and face some harsh legal situation.
MC- How did you and other writers get access to cans in violent or civil unrest-affected areas?
Pablo Allison – I think that the graffiti culture is so developed today that small companies create their own cans for the same graffiti community. In Jordan and Iraq, I mainly painted with crappy cans but some good paint is available at quite inaccessible prices. The Middle East region is a very interesting one for history but also for graffiti. I think that hardly any western graffiti has reached it yet. I certainly did not see any known writers in Iraq and the few things I did see were made by local artists with slightly naive techniques which I sort took an affinity to. I am sure some graffiti writers have visited Iraq and dropped something but I did not see anything really.
MC- Do they choose cans and caps with a similar mindset to other more graffiti-friendly countries?
Pablo Allison – I believe so, for instance in Central America, particularly in places like Nicaragua and Honduras in my experience there was some access to better quality paint and cans but expensive of course. El Salvador has a much more developed scene and cans are relatively easier to get. Same applies for Mexico where a huge industry has been developed for all the graffiti needs. There are, however, very violent cities in Mexico like Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa or Ciudad Victoria, to name a few where I would dare to say that no graffiti exists, therefor, the access to tools is much harder.
MC- What kind of response or civil intervention do you get from people or the locals that are non-fleeing illegal migrants when you paint walls or freights with these messages in poor and violent areas?
Pablo Allison – The reaction from a non-graffiti audience has gone beyond my expectations. People are more aware of graffiti as an agent for change. The general public has slightly shifted its perception on this art form, whether that be a good or a bad thing I don’t know. I do feel however that people still have a very biased opinion on what they approve and what they don’t approve of, which is fine by me. That said, I do wish for people to read simple words and feel connected or show some sort of empathy regarding matters that mean something to us all.
MC- What is your favourite Montana Can and cap combination and why?
Pablo Allison – Montana Black as it’s the one that stands out the most.
In a world being separated ever more every day by the notion of the haves and the have not’s, artists like Pablo Allison play a strong role in the shaping of social opinions regarding the topic of migration. With one hand on the nozzle of a spray can and the other on the trigger of his camera, Allison’s work is bound to have more social relevance as the knowledge of its existence grows. We look forward to seeing which countries it takes him to next and pray that he always manages to return home safely.
All images by Pablo Allison