“This isn’t my fault,” street artist Payter says with an ironic tone as he gestures towards the organized chaos unfolding before him. Lean, hard-bodied and lightly bearded, Payter is slumped against a green Monobloc chair, a bright blue pineapple-print snapback on his head.
It’s nine o’clock in the morning on a Sunday, he is hungover and fellow street artists have descended upon Kukuk’s Nest, his gallery-slash-restaurant-slash-bar along Gorordo Avenue.
Roller brushes and spray paint cans are pulled out from backpacks as his guests, some dressed in clothes already splattered with old paint, double back and head outside to take over the metal sheet gate of the abandoned house next door.
Surrounded by cheap eateries, hotels and auto dealers, the Kukuk’s Nest Restaurant and Pension House sticks out like a peacock in a brood of chickens. It’s impossible to miss – the gate is covered in shadowy skulls and the entire two-level façade has been swallowed up by a mishmash of colors.
Worm-like beasts crawl up the walls of the second floor, while geometric graffiti blankets the door leading to the garage-turned-bar below. Inside the Nest, the small art gallery has been painted yellow and red, and currently on display are starkly inked skeletal figures by a street artist who goes by the moniker Sam Pipebomb. Next to the gallery space is the toilet, a cartoon of a man playing guard on the door.
There’s politicking in the galleries and most collectors only pick up established names anyway. It intensifies the need – and drive – to just do things yourself.
Originally established by his parents in 1989 as a book café with a small art gallery, Payter transformed Kukuk’s Nest into a bar and artist-run space when he took over it in 2001. Since then, it has functioned as a venue for gigs, art shows and film screenings – Payter is also a filmmaker and video artist – while remaining a hangout for the writers, artists and musicians who were attracted to the original establishment.
Street and graffiti artists have since also found a special place here. As I sit on the veranda with Payter, I can barely make out the original colors of the doors and walls which have all been plastered with stickers, or imagine what the ceiling must have been like before it was diligently covered in lomographic prints. “This was a family business, but when I inherited it,” Payter says before pausing for a comic beat, “…boom!”
Around the same time he took over the business, Payter co-founded Ubec Crew, one of Cebu’s first street art collectives. “The art scene was dead back then,” he explains. “I studied fine arts in university, but after graduating I didn’t have a chance of getting into the galleries. So I figured, fine, let’s just do it on the streets.”
CEBU IS THE OLDEST CITY IN THE PHILIPPINES. It is also a province rich in cultural traditions, with two universities offering fine arts programs. Yet the city has no modern or contemporary art museum and only two small galleries. Soika Vomiter, a tattooed and curly-haired street artist, finds this limiting. “It’s hard, being a full-time artist here,” he says. “There’s politicking in the galleries and most collectors only pick up established names anyway. It intensifies the need – and drive – to just do things yourself.”
Soika started painting on the street when he was an art student five years ago. At his peak, he would finish 40 street pieces a year. But since he recently started focusing on his studio work, the warped and distorted faces that characterize his street art have made fewer appearances in the city.
One impressive example of Soika’s work can be found just off Sepulveda Street, right by Plaza Nouvelle. It’s a chain of faces about ten feet long, all warped, some grinning, others stretched out and distorted beyond recognition. “I painted this for my birthday last year,” Soika tells me. “It was impulsive, and I only planned it out when I was at the space. Like more of my work, it comes from my experiences.”