TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — In the capital of one of the world's most dangerous countries, a hooded, masked man jumped out of a car on an assault mission.
His target: a crumbling wall on a garbage-strewn corner. With his accomplice acting as lookout, the man plastered a giant black-and-white reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" — wielding a pink pistol. In minutes he was gone.
The city's self-proclaimed Urban Maeztro had struck again with another artistic "intervention" designed to make Hondurans think about the violence that has traumatized Tegucigalpa.
"The level of how common guns have become in this country has passed what is rationally admissible," said the 26-year-old graphic artist, who left his day job at an advertising agency to become the masked crusader. "It doesn't seem to surprise anyone, but for me it continues to be madness."
The artist uses the street name Urban Maeztro, a stylized translation of "Urban Master," to shield his true identity because the work is both dangerous and illegal.
The Honduran lacks the fame of the elusive British graffiti artist known only as Banksy, who has gained notoriety in Europe in recent years. Urban Maeztro said only his closest friends know that he launches the artistic assaults, dressed in a hoodie, his face covered with a kerchief depicting a skull.
The artist arrests passing viewers by defacing posters of artistic masterpieces, such as the Mona Lisa, with guns, grenades and other iconic tools of violence. He also employs more traditional graffiti, painting sections of metal light poles to look like bullets.
"There is a parallel between the brutal violation of a work so beautiful by adding a firearm and the violence and guns in Tegucigalpa, which could also be a beautiful city without them," he said.
His canvas is the streets of the Central American city of 1.2 million, which he describes as "captive, fearful and closed by a mixture of violence, poverty and an absence of public services." About 1,149 people were murdered in the Honduran capital last year, more than 87 for every 100,000. That's 10 times the rate considered an epidemic of violence by the World Health Organization — a number that has doubled in the last five years.
As a result, Tegucigalpa's streets are typically empty, as are public squares and other traditional meeting spots. Most people congregate in giant, indoor American-style shopping malls guarded by men with automatic rifles.
During a recent graffiti assault, even passing motorists swerved at the sight of the hooded artist in a Honduras tourist T-shirt and paint-speckled cargo pants drawing on the city's walls.
A security guard watched as he plastered Grant Wood's "American Gothic" on a wall In front of the National University, completely absorbed.
"Who pays you to do that?" the guard asked.
"No one," the artist answered.
"Then why do it?"
"To help you think."
It worked, as the guard stood contemplating whether the old farm couple was holding M-16 rifles instead of pitch forks.
During a recent interview, the commando artist smiled easily and never raised his voice as he described his mission with Zen-like tranquility. He said he started the guerrilla attacks in October when he got tired of working a high-pressure agency job creating art for advertisements.
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