Street art is often looked down on by authorities. In most countries, it is reduced to a form of vandalism, even though they add life to neighbourhoods and have become a vital form of expression for the oppressed. This is true in the Philippines, where four artists were arrested on Saturday for protest messages they painted in a public area.
Three of the arrested artists were identified as Jeanne Vaughn Quijano, 24; Joven Laura, 24; and Mikhail Collado, 18, who are all members of Panday Sining, a group of activist artists. According to the police, the fourth artist is a minor and remains unidentified in reports, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported.
They had spray-painted the phrases “If Andres were still alive," "Abolish de facto martial law,” and "What is the leader’s answer to martial law?" in Filipino on posts in the LRT’s Recto Station in Manila.
They were later caught by the Manila Police District (MPD) for vandalism and allegedly “interfering in police duties.” The police claimed that one of the artists resisted arrest by pushing the arresting officer.
According to a statement from Panday Sining, the four artists were allegedly “manhandled and beaten while being dragged out of a jeepney by officers in plainclothes.”
It also explained that the artists painted those messages to commemorate Filipino revolutionary leader Andres Bonifacio. The group is protesting against the "de facto martial law" Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte supposedly instilled through Executive Order No. 70 in 2018, which institutionalized the “whole-of-nation” approach in attaining “inclusive and sustainable peace” through the “creation of a national task force to end all communist armed conflict.”
It was their way of taking part in Saturday’s Bonifacio Day protests to “extend its support for the workers demanding for higher wage and an end to contractualisation."
Panday Sining said that attacks on artists it calls "cultural workers" are attacks on people's interests.
"Protest art in the time of narrowing space for free and critical thinking is not only just but necessary," Panday Sining said in the statement. It also demanded the immediate release of the four artists and an “end to the Duterte regime’s tyranny amid the people’s just demands.”
Other artists have since stepped up to raise awareness and condemn the arrest.
The Concerned Artists of the Philippines group said in a Facebook post that it was "downright absurd and offensive” that the arrest happened during a day that “commemorates and in fact stresses the need to continue the legacy of nationalist and revolutionary Andres Bonifacio."
Co-activist group Artist Alliance for Genuine Land Reform and Rural Development (SAKA) told VICE that the artists were on their way home when they were arrested, allegedly without warrants.
In a statement on Facebook, SAKA called on other artists to raise awareness on the issue, saying, “People's artists and defenders of free expression, do not retreat from our commitment to expose the rottenness of this anti-people regime! It serves not the country, but the imperialists who plunder the country's resources. This is not the time to be silent!”
Musician BP Valenzuela, posted on Twitter defending street art.
“Street art is not a crime. Freedom of expression is not a crime. Expressing discontentment and anger at the choices of our tyrannical government is not a crime. #StopTheAttacks.”
Acclaimed artist Mich Cervantes posted a message of support for the four arrested artists.
“The work of the cultural worker is merely a reflection of the world around them. To forcefully put an end to their practice is unjust not only to these artists but to the people they work to serve, who deserve to know the truth we are always denied,” she said.
Another netizen @lxlfuentes imagined what it would be like for famous street artist Banksy to live in the Philippines.
“If @banksy is a Filipino, he might end up in jail for having a fascist government.”
Vandalism is prohibited in the City of Manila under Ordinance No. 7971, which penalises any person who defaces public and private property.
Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso said in a statement on Sunday that he had warned the group against continuing their vandalism, and that now they “have to face the consequences of violating the law.”
Panday Sining, however, said that they would not “cower and stop in its mission to create art that arouses, organizes and mobilizes the masses.”
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.