“Op Ivy! Yeah!” I only packed 3 shirts for this trip and I packed my handmade Operation Ivy one so I could meet people like Max. He had bushy bright blond hair and a paint covered shirt. Brushes and tubes were scattered around the alley where he was working on a mural. His card read “community based art” and after chatting for a bit I learned he’s part of an artist collective and has been doing social art with kids in New Zealand and Costa Rica. It was getting dark but he invited me to come back and paint with him another day. I felt pretty stoked to find something right up my alley the first night in South America.
Two days later I see Max rapidly unloading painting gear. “I only have 40 minutes to finish this” he says, scrambling to squeeze paint onto cardboard pallets. He hands me a brush and we get to work. After a few minutes I notice Gonzalo getting agitated. Gonzalo is local who sleeps in the alley. I also met him the first night and had chatted with him the last few days. He has helped other artists before and considers himself kind of a protector, erasing simple grafiti when it turns up. He starts to yell a bit and I stop to ask him what the problem is. He’s concerned that the line Max has weaved around several works is disrespecting the other paintings. Max is in a hurry and dismisses Gonzalo’s protests; Max personally knows the other artists and has their OK. But there’s a mal communicado, a “bad communication,” something is lost in translation and things are escalating. Gonzalo starts to yell, Max tells him to back off, I’m trying to calm everyone down.
Then a cop shows up. Uniformed officers rip around the city on dirt bikes like it’s spring break in Estacada and usually pay no mind to gringo artists, but the yelling catches this one’s attention. Max pulls out his business card and tries to explain. Gonzalo is still worked up. The officer seems indecisive. Then two more pull up, they are less unsure. They want to see ID. Then another bike with two more officers. Max sees a bad situation brewing, packs up his stuff and says he will leave. One officer is still looking at his US drivers license. The other four are milling around. They mostly look board, one seems amused. It’s taking a while to decide what to do and one officer, who couldn’t be older then 20, starts writing his name on the wall with one of the stray paint brushes laying around. Gonzalo is still angry.
After a few tense minutes Max is allowed to leave. Gonzalo vouches to the cops that I didn’t do anything wrong and I also start to make my way back to the hostel which unfortunately is within sight of the whole scene. I’m a few yards away when I hear “Amigo!” Apparently they want to ask me a few more questions. And also discuss the cost of the “permit” to paint in the alley. Apparently it’s 200,000 pesos which is about 10 days of my budget. I play the stupid gringo card, but wish I would’ve slipped away earlier. After a few confusing minutes they ride away, but Gonzalo says they’re going to come back.
I grab my money and passport, take off on a bike, killing time peddling in the winding streets of the old city, trying to decide if this story is going to be a comedy or a tragedy. Don’t worry ma, the cops never came back. I booked into a different hostel just in case. Could have been better, but it could have been a lot worse too. I guess all I know is that I don’t know nothing.