TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — 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.
He 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.
Mona Lisa with guns
The artist attracts 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."
More than 1,000 people were murdered in the Honduran capital last year, about 87 homicides for every 100,000 residents. That is 10 times the rate the World Health Organizations considers an epidemic. The number has doubled in the past five years.
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.
'To help you think'
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, absorbed, as Urban Maeztro plastered Grant Wood's "American Gothic" on a wall In front of the National University.
"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 pitchforks.
During a recent interview, the renegade artist smiled easily as he described his mission with Zen-like tranquillity. He said he started the protest attacks in October when he got tired of working a high-pressure agency job creating art for advertisements.
"In a country that's sinking, using art to boost consumption rather than to provoke social change became unbearable for me," he said.
Now working fewer hours at a cultural center, he has more time and greater flexibility for his project.
Standing over a gas stove in the outdoor garden of a friend's home in Tegucigalpa's historic center, the artist stirred a boiling pot of the glue he uses to affix his posters.
He said the catalyst for his mission as an anonymous urban artist came when he entered a UNESCO poster contest on cultural diversity. When he lost the contest, he decided that the institutional doors for supporting his idea were closed.
"The natural place for art is the street; forget the middleman," he said.
He has created a dynamic that includes making his own glue by boiling wheat and water, which he said is "the best adhesive and cheap," and roaming the city on Sunday afternoons seeking vacant walls and inspiration. His accomplice, the documentarian Junior Alvarez, keeps watch while he works, then photographs the final piece.
"At first, I had anxiety when I went into the streets," the artist said, "but now I'm used to the adrenaline."
Art critic Bayardo Blandino, curator of the Contemporary Visual Arts Center of Women in Arts, said Urban Maeztro's style of graffiti is new to Honduras and he is pushing the limits on the country's freedom of expression.
"If he continues with perseverance, he will get a loyal following and have an effect," said Mr. Blandino, who does not know Urban Maeztro's true identity.
During a social gathering on a recent Saturday night, traditional graffiti artists criticized his work for mixing formats and material and not sticking to pure graffiti art. Unknown to the artists, the man who paints as Urban Maeztro was among them.
Street art is 'context'
He said he does not want his interventions to seem naive. He knows art will not diminish the number of weapons or improve education in his country.
But, he said, he wants to "provoke reflection about these problems, the first step for citizens to develop a critical awareness. Everything in street art is context."
In an area of the city that houses some of Tegucigalpa's most elegant hotels, the Urban Maeztro plastered an image of Rene Magritte's "Son of Man," substituting a grenade for the apple covering the face of the suited subject in a bowler hat.
Three students smoking marijuana under the trees didn't hesitate to comment.
"Those responsible for the violence in Honduras are hidden. We don't know their faces, but they're powerful. They wear suits and ties," said one of the students, Gerson Ortiz.
If death is part of everyday life in Honduras, then Urban Maeztro says his work should be about "breaking the daily macabre by changing its meaning."
Doing his work is not easy in a country plagued by daily murders, many of them blamed on the police.
The violence has directly touched the artist, who remembers one night when he heard a car slowing down behind him as he was working.
"I looked back just in time to see someone lower the window and stick out a gun," he said. "He shot at me three times without a word. He didn't get me. I was really lucky."