Every country deserves its own Renaissance, a period of time when the arts are championed by its citizens. That’s what American street artists Disem and Dreps are trying to do for their beloved Panama with the upcoming Panama Mural Fest. From May 20 through 26, the duo will work with local and international street artists to transform the walls of Panama City into works of art.
“A lot of these areas don’t get attention,” Dreps says. “But look at what street art did for Wynwood. Once you come in and do this kind of work it brings a sense of pride to the neighborhood.”
The duo got the idea for Panama Mural Fest back in 2018. They were commissioned to paint a mural on a wall located at the bottom of a steep hill. The mural site was considered a rough part of town, but the further someone traveled up the hill, the better the economic status of the residents there. At a certain point, police officers even warned tourists not to travel downhill due to a high rate of muggings and other violent crimes.
“Eventually, the cops had to move closer down because so many people were coming to check out what it was that we working on,” says Disem, the Miami-based street artist known for his mural of Dwyane Wade in Little Havana. “More and more people now go to that part of town just to see the mural and it’s a completely different place than it was before.”
The image is framed by a neighborhood in a state of decay, but foot traffic increased in that part of Panama City. Everyone wanted to get a better look at this beautiful mural of the Embera and Kuna, native peoples to Panama, brought to life in an explosion of color.
The duo realized they were on to something. They could use street art to transform their country of origin into a hip, happening place for the citizens. The two of them approached La Alcaldia de Panama, Panama's local government, about the idea, and plans for a festival were set into motion.
“We used a lot of our artist connections made through Art Basel in Miami to fly in artists from around the world: New York, Spain, Denmark,” Dreps says. “But we also want to showcase local artists so out of the 20 or so artists that we got, about half are Panamanian.”
While street art did raise Wynwood’s status as a neat place to hang out, it has also become something of a cautionary tale when it comes to gentrification. This was taken into careful consideration when organizing Mural Fest.
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“The developers we’re working with want to be inclusive,” Dreps says. “At the end of the day, we want to beautify the neighborhood for the people who live in it.”
In speaking about their empathy with the citizens of Panama, the duo recall an encounter with a homeless man and his teenage son, Emmanuel, whom they met while working on that first mural a year ago. Whether it was fetching paint or holding a ladder, Emmanuel would run favors for the two men. They took a liking to the kid and mentioned him by name to La Universidad del Arte Ganexa, an art institute in Panama. Emmanuel was given a scholarship to the university.
“That was the effect of one wall,” Disem says. “Imagine 30 of them.”
Panama Mural Fest. May 20 through 26 in various locations in Panama City, Panama; panamamuralfest.com.