On August 20, 2020, in an almost bare room in an ordinary house in Dasmarinas, Cavite, a small but brilliant light went out and the world was made more unhappy because of it. On that day, underground street artist, everyday philosopher and activist Pong Para-Atman Spongtanyo died. He was 35 years old.
Born Gutson A. Heyres, Pong was not part of the section of local Filipino painters and graphic artists who were covered by art magazines or who opened exhibits in shiny galleries with gleaming surfaces and walls.
As a street artist and activist, his work found audiences among the urban poor, street children, commuters on the way to and from work. Various dingy or decrepit walls in Cavite, Quezon Province, and Metro Manila have become canvasses for his art, and while some might consider the murals as acts of vandalism, it’s impossible to dismiss them simply as such because of the evident skill and insight that went into their creation.
As a human being, he made many friends and touched countless lives through his generosity with his art, and his time. He was born poor, by all accounts lived simply and with humility; and now in the wake of his passing, the wealth of his kindness is revealed as hundreds express deepest grief.
Lived on the streets, gave back to communities
Like many of the things that shaped his awareness, Pong learned to paint from people he’d met and the different environments he found himself in as he was growing up. This was, as fellow artist Buen Abrigo explained, because Pong practically grew up on the streets.
“He left home when he was a teenager – he didn’t even finish high school. He came from a poor family, and I guess he felt that the only way to solve the problems he and siblings experienced because of their extreme poverty was to leave and strike out on his own,” he said.
Buen said that when he first met Pong in 2007, the latter was working on a street mural and he was scrawny, dirty-seeming, and sat on a wheelchair. It turned out Pong had just been released from the hospital and was not strong enough to walk.
“But even back then it was impossible not to see how talented he was – the way he wielded that brush, the way the images came out slowly on that wall, it was clear he had a gift. It was very raw skill because he didn’t have any formal art training from school or any institution. He learned from other artists, from craftsmen he made friends with. He believed in the DIY culture, and he was a quick learner,” he said.
Coming from a recipient of the Thirteen Artists Awards by the Cultural Center of the Philippines like Buen, this was real praise.
Buen said that up until that time in 2007 when they first met, Pong had been living in an urban poor community where it was really dirty – no access to running water. “Talagang dugyot,” he said. Buen theorizes that it was probably there that Pong fell into unhealthy habits, but the kind that no one willingly acquires. Because of poverty, Pong did not get enough food or nutrients, and the lack of access to basic social services left him with poor health and hygiene.
“He didn’t smoke, he wasn’t much of a drinker, and he certainly didn’t do drugs. He was just generally unhealthy. He was skinny, and through the years he just became thinner. I think it’s safe to say that many of us – his friends, fellow punks and anarchists he worked with in his group “Food Not Bombs” and the other organizations he connected with – were always concerned about how he was doing health-wise,” he said. “Parang will na lang talaga niya ang nagpapagaling sa kanya noon.” (“It was his will that helped him recover from his illness.”)
Art as social commentary
Healthy or not, Pong up until the time he died was a very prolific artist, drawing almost non-stop on public walls, on pieces of paper, on cardboard and other found objects. Sometimes he sold his drawings and ketches for a shocking P150 each (“Pambili ng bigas!” was his caption to some of them when he posted pictures on his Facebook page). His most creative work, however, can be found in the magazine (or zine, as the independent, underground movement of alternative artists call them) he regularly produced called “Art-Writist.”
In Art-Writist, Pong poured out his ideas, emotions, and insight on various issues ranging from urgent social concerns to the mundane. Each page featured scribbles and complete drawings that revealed that the writer and artist referred to in the title of the zine can also be said to refer to his arthritis, a condition he had had for the longest time in his short life.
The images Pong drew reflected his views of Philippine society and how he felt about them. Smiling, round-eyed children and the can-barely-be-called-houses of the urban poor are featured prominently in them, as well crows and other carrion birds that can be interpreted as symbolizing the social system that feed off the suffering and the death of others. He also rendered images of grief and despair caused by drug-war connected or deliberate political killings – bullets raining and falling to the ground then gathered by children in cracked rice bowls; mothers weeping in despair over what has been taken from them (homes, children, husbands, dignity and the right to live in peace).
In July of 2019, Pong and Buen had an exhibition in Kanto Artist-Run Space, a small but popular among activist circles gallery in Makati. Along with members of the artist group SIKAD, they promoted the rights of the urban poor to decent housing and social welfare services through their individual and collective pieces titled “Nasa Puso ang Sitio San Roque.”
Sitio San Roque is a sprawling community of workers, vendors, and informal settlers in Quezon City a stone’s throw away from City Hall. For almost a decade, residents had been fighting attempts of business and commercial interests aided by the local government to have their homes demolished to make way for a condos, malls, and other business establishments.
Through line drawings on bond paper, Pong depicted the life and struggle of the residents both with skill and compassion.
Development aggression was also a theme Pong focused on – images of Lumad women and farmers amidst fallen trees, or mountain ranges and expanses of agricultural fading away or violently crumbling against a backdrop of bulldozers and giant earthmovers.
As for his writing, his Facebook posts were often comprised of a few lines of pointed social commentary:
Sa PPE may kakulangan
Sa bala at bomba
Earlier on March 12, a few days before the whole of the National Capital Region (NCR) and nearby provinces were put under lockdown:
Wala akong kinalaman dyan…
Nakita ko lang…
“Epidemics are more likely to grow in an authoritarian society.”
He criticized the government’s Build-Build-Build program and said that instead of promoting progress, it was “progreed” and was essentially all about “kill-kill-kill”.
And among his last posts was his condemnation of the extrajudicial killing of human rights workers and activists:
“Yung mga tumutugis sa mga naghasik ng lagim,
Pinagbibintangang naghahasik ng lagim,
Finally, Pong also shared and reposted the work of fellow artists and friends, generously endorsing them and their projects. He himself showed no indication of being interested in building a portfolio or having his own work out on display in galleries: he was happy just creating art. Whenever he got paid, it was often in kind; in one memorable occasion, he exchanged original stencil patches he made for bananas, the saba variety. He drew portraits for friends and neighbors for practically nothing.
What is noticeable, however is that Pong seldom if ever, referred to his own suffering. Apart from the occasional post written with self-deprecating humor wherein he asked followers to buy his paintings for P150 each (“pambili ng bigas”), Pong did not ask anyone for help, neither did he give a clue as to his own difficulties. Because of the quarantine, he had means of earning, and without income, he could not feed or take care of himself properly as his health condition needed him to. Instead of posting updates on his own plight, he shared stories of other people needing funds for food or for medical needs. Even then, during the early days of the pandemic, his health was already beginning to fail.
A victim of the lockdown
By early July when the quarantine lifted and travel became easier, a friend visited him in the second floor of a closed bar in Dasmarinas, Cavite where he had been allowed to stay by other friends when the Covid-19 lockdown started. They took one look at him and immediately launched an online appeal for financial support. Pong, they saw, severely dehydrated and looked emaciated and gaunt. They brought him water and other hydrating liquids. With the money that quickly came in from all over the country, they also got him groceries, vitamins, an electric fan, and an electric stove.
Fellow Food Not Bombs member Italo Ramos Lambito was among the few who saw Pong in his final days.
“When I was finally able to see him when the quarantine restrictions eased up, he had really fallen ill. His arthritis had always been bad, but during the lockdown it worsened and his potassium levels crashed. He had extreme difficulty walking, and he became dehydrated.”
“It was hard for us to take better care of him because of the pandemic health and safety restrictions. We took him to a total of five hospitals – but none of them admitted him. The doctors took one look at him and said ‘no’. In one case, the hospital said it would take him in, but he would have to be placed with PUI (persons under investigation for Covid-19) patients even though he didn’t have symptoms of Covid-19. We had no choice but to take him home,” he said.
Because of the travel restrictions – particularly strict in Cavite — it was impossible to have him taken to Manila or transferred to the house of his brother or to his mother’s house in Bagong Pangarap in Dasmarinas. Instead, Italo and other friends found an apartment for him in Cavite and shouldered the rent. They made arrangements among themselves on how they would take care of Pong.
Sadly, it was all too late.
A lotus flower on trash heap
In a recorded interview with an artist group, Pong himself explained the work he believed in as a member of Food Not Bombs and as activist artist.
“We’re all about taking positive action, organizing people, cooking food, and feeding those who don’t have it,” he said.
Twice a month, the group secured donations and cooked vegetable meals and held art workshops in communities all over Southern Tagalog. Many of those who went were children and out-of-school youth. Pong was as eloquent about the work he believed in as he was passionate.
“We want to show that there’s happiness in sharing and in working for peace, and nothing to be gained from the terror and horrors of war. It’s important to
spread the values of love and unity, mutual aid, and taking initiative to help others. Equality and social justice are important. We can protest against unjust wars by helping each other,” he said.
In another video, Pong explains why he does street art.
“When people see my work, they will remember that there are so many problems, but they will also realize that are also solutions. They are the ones who are affected by the problems, but they will also benefit from the solutions. This is why they need to be involved in what happens in society, in the lives of others We are all connected to one another,” he said.
It is this and other similar beliefs that earned Pong the respect of people – even those who had just met him.
One of Pong’s friends, Soik Keeh Phrenia, shared that in 2019, he worked with Pong painting a studio, and in that in that span of time, he learned so much from the latter – not only about art skills, but about compassion and friendship. Pong, he said, was an insightful person, and kind with his solicited advice.
“Para sa akin, siya ay isang lotus flower na nilagay sa isang tambakan ng basura: kahit ganun ka-polluted ang siyudad, physically at spiritually, busilak pa rin ang puso’t kaluluwa ng kaibigan kong ito. Wala na si Pong, pero di siya mawawala sa puso ko, at sa mga puso ng mga taong nagmamahal sa kanya!”
(“He was like a lotus flower that grew on a garbage heap; despite the city being so polluted and corrupt, my friend remained pure at heart and in spirit. I am so grateful that I met someone like Pong. He’s gone, but he will always be in my heart and in the heart of the people who loved him”).
Italo said that hands down, Pong was a good person. “He always thought of others ahead of himself. He was the one who convinced us to activate the Food Not Bombs chapter here in Cavite. He was one of the pillars of the punk movement in Dasmarinas, and popularized graffiti and street art. Even when he was experiencing health issues, he still went with us to distribute food and fold workshops in communities,” he said.
“Sa buhay ko, nagpapasalamat ako na nakilala ko si Pong. Siya ang naging tatay, kuya, kapatid, guro namin dito. Siya nagbigay ng kulay sa eksena dito sa Cavite. He was a great friend,” Italo said.
Rest in Power, Gutson A. Heyres, or as he was known and loved to all who knew him using his derived from Sanskrit name – Pong Para-atman Spongtanyo. You were always true to yourself and others.