“I AM A STORY OF HOPE:” An Interview with Venezuelan ‘artivist,’ Daniel Arzola

Daniel Arzola is an art activist (‘artivist’) from Venezuela best known for his social artwork campaign, I Am Not A Joke (“No Soy Tu Chiste”) that aims to change negative perceptions of LGBT people. In early 2014, he teamed up with the It Gets Better Project to release seven images specifically targeting LGBT youth. These art messages have been translated into over 20 languages and have been showcased at art galleries and conferences around the world.

IGBP: Can you tell me a little about your background?

Daniel Arzola: I am from Maracay in the state of Aragua, Venezuela. My family is a very simple family. I have my mother and my brother. I grew up with this little family. I am an 'artivist.' I use art to educate on human rights, so I do ‘artivism’. (You know, it’s like art and activism). I am starting my studies in graphic design. I previously studied photography and drama, as well as classic art. I grew up in Venezuela, and now I live in Argentina because the situation in Venezuela is very hard in this moment.

IGBP: What are the some of the reasons why you moved to Argentina?

Daniel Arzola: In the last 2 years, four of my friends have been murdered. In Venezuela, there exist two kinds of human rights activists. There are those that work with the government of Venezuela but do not speak out against it or are critical of it. But if you are the other type of human rights activist, if you have the idea to be critical of the government, then they attack you. They attack you until you are not a Venezuelan, until you are not a man. They can start a persecution. In my case, I started to receive a lot of people saying things to me on social networks that they were going to kill me, that they know where I live, and things like that. The situation in Venezuelan is very difficult right now, like in the economic way. Venezuela has more violent deaths per year than any country in Latin America. Last year, there were 25,000 deaths by gunshot. So if you are gay in that situation, it can be worse unless you are friends with the government. In Venezuela there exist two kinds of citizens. If you are not with the government, your activism is ‘third class.’

IGBP: Have you found the situation to be much better in Argentina?

Daniel Arzola: To tell you the truth, Argentina was the first country I thought to come to. It was easy for me maybe because I had been here before, when I came to exhibit my work in the National Senate. I was here for about a month. I knew that there were people here who would help me. I lived in Venezuela for a time with the help of an organization who took me to Amsterdam to present at a Gay Pride. Before I was suppose to come back to Venezuela they asked me if I wanted to go back to a different country, and I thought of Argentina. Things here aren’t so bad like in Venezuela, and I didn’t really have to adapt. If I have the chance to go somewhere else, I would. Some people here have already treated me very rudely. But on the other hand, Argentina is the first Latin American country with gay rights, so I’m better off here. At this moment, I am doing a Master’s in Human Rights here to make my time here important.

IGBP: When did you realize that you had a passion for human rights?

Daniel Arzola: I had a very, very violent childhood. When I was a teenager, some people use to attack me everyday. One day, they tied me to a post, took off my shoes, and threw fireworks at me. Somehow I found the strength to escape from that situation. There are some people who don’t have the same luck or the same power that I had in that moment. I only know that I don’t want anybody in the world to go through the things that I did. With that feeling in mind, I started doing things for other people, thinking that if you, sadly, are going through this there must be a better way. Everything will pass and be transformed. You can use your abuse to make great things.

IGBP: So how did you specifically get involved in LGBT ‘artivism’? Where did you start?

Daniel Arzola: I believe that LGBT rights are human rights. This was the first struggle that defined me. People were attacking me for my sexuality in Venezuela, which is a very common result of inequality. It’s very interesting because even in the U.S. it appears that people have to respect you for your sexuality and maybe even homosexuality is legal. In Venezuela, there is no such thing. The first time that I walked with a guy by the hand was here in Argentina. If I do that in Venezuela, people can hurt me.

I started I’m Not A Joke because an eighteen-year-old boy from my city, Maracay, was attacked at his school. They thought he was homosexual. Three other guys doused him with gasoline and burned him alive just for being gay. And that happens in almost any area of Venezuela. So, I started to makes my images because there was a need. I had to become my own hero. I always thought when I was younger, “Oh, I need a savior, I need a hero.” One day, a voice told me, “You are a hero. You are your own savior. Save yourself.”

When I was 16, when these guys attacked me, they tore up and destroyed all of my drawings. So, I went 6 or 7 years without drawing anything. When I heard the story of Angelo Prado, the guy who was burned alive in my city, I felt the need to start drawing again. I knew that this time that my drawings could still be destroyed, so I started drawing on the computer. If people tried to destroy my art, I could just create another one, or another one. That is why I started I’m Not a Joke.

IGBP: Although you are no longer in Venezuela, how do you envision your artwork helping to make things better for LGBT youth in your country?

Daniel Arzola: I think that sometimes if something is hurting us, we need to take space. It’s the healthiest thing right now for me to heal my wounds. I need that from Venezuela as this moment. I’m still writing about my country, I still make a regular expedition to Venezuela, I still participate in activities from my university on Skype, but in this moment I need to be in a place where people don’t try to kill me every day.

IGBP: What do you think the situation is like for other LGBT activists currently working in Venezuela?

Daniel Arzola: It’s like being beaten by a police officer every day and you just try and defend yourself and look the other way. In Venezuela, there are a lot of survivors. Many of these people in Venezuela are just surviving.

IGBP: Is there currently a strategy within the LGBT movement in Venezuela to help LGBT people overcome these situations?

Daniel Arzola: That is very difficult because, like I told you before, in Venezuela there exist two kinds of citizens, people who are with the government and people who are not. That classification fits in every label you can imagine. There are LGBT people for the government, and LGBT people against the government. So there is a kind of war. They’re trying to polarize everything. I believe that LGBT rights are a political thing, but not a partisan one. Human rights don’t belong to a political party. They are for everyone. Perhaps that is a complex situation, in a way, but I think that we need to realize that we can work together. I try to do that.

One of my best friends is the president of an organization that is starting to petition the government for equal marriage in Venezuela. I do the graphic design for the organization and I Am Not A Joke has two posters that are the principle images for the equal marriage project. That guy is very “of the government.” He likes the thoughts and ideals of Chavez and Maduro, but he is still a friend and I work with him. It will take time to change this situation but we are working for the same.

IGBP: You have used your artwork in collaboration with It Gets Better Project. Do you see the IGBP playing a role in helping things change in Venezuela?

Daniel Arzola: Yes, I would really like to have the opportunity to make an exhibition from the illustrations I did for the IGBP and work with them in schools in Venezuela. To at least have the exhibition, I think, would be a really good idea.

When the IGBP contacted me, I only had the original campaign in three languages: English, Spanish, and Portuguese. When I first started creating the images, the IGBP told me they wanted a version of I Am Not A Joke that was dedicated to LGBT youth more specifically. So, we started to work and brainstorm together and we selected some themes. And I started to draw! It is very, very wonderful because the project is now in 20 languages. It’s a big experience to do something like that. It was very exciting. It showed me that I am able to work with other people to create my art and still feel free about it. I don’t feel in any moment like I’m in a crappy hell like before. At all times now I have the chance to express myself and say things like “maybe this, maybe not this.” The rest is history.

IGBP: What are the some of the ways I Am Not A Joke has been able to make an impact around the world?

Daniel Arzola: It’s incredible because never in my life, until last year, had I left Venezuela. In just 6 months, my project has been shared on 5 continents, even in conservative countries. The funny thing about it is that in Venezuela my work is not very well known. Up until last year, no one knew about my art until someone tweeted, “This is art. This is not a joke. I love this” and that person was Madonna. When Madonna said that, people in Venezuela started to know more about me. It’s a crazy thing! People from all over the world started to call me for interviews, people in Holland, in the United States, all over. Then another very famous person, Neil Gaiman, from Coraline and Dr. Who (he’s kind of a British Tim Burton), shared my work, too, and it was very amazing.

IGBP: What would you consider to be your greatest accomplish as a contributor to the LGBT ‘artivist’ movement?

Daniel Arzola: People always say or write, “We are all equals.” I never believed in that because I do not feel equal. I really like the experience of feeling different but feeling respected at the same time. I prefer to say, “We are all different but we have the right to be treated like everyone else.” I think that is the philosophy of I Am Not A Joke. I try to tell people that, to a certain degree, mockery is a model for violence; it’s the start of violence. At this moment, I Am Not A Joke is like a shield against homophobia around the world. Even in my country, some people try to use humor to do violence against people of different sexual orientations, and it’s hard for the victims to defend themselves. That’s a big, big tragedy.

Something like this just happened two months ago. A guy from Colombia, just sixteen years old, was having a lot of problems at school. His professor had taken his cell phone and saw a picture of him with another student. He told him, “That is my boyfriend.” Everyone in school started bullying him, so he decided to jump from a building and commit suicide. One of the last things he shared online was a picture from my campaign. The poster from my campaign said, “My sexuality is not a sin. It is my own paradise.” That shocked me and made me feel very, very sad. I realized that when he decided to say goodbye to the world, he decided to use my words. That was very, very hard for me. I was very sad until his mom in Colombia told me, “Thank you. I think that in some way he felt free in your words.” That was the moment that my sadness transformed into something else. So I dedicated an illustration to him that other young people students used in a strike in front of his school; they covered the school with my illustration for him.

IGBP: How do you think LGBT youth and their allies, like these you’ve mentioned in Colombia, can participate in making change happen in Venezuela?

Daniel Arzola: I don’t believe we can decide when we become victims, but we can decide when not to be victims anymore. If you have the capacity to break the cycle of violence, if you have the capacity to fight back, then you shouldn’t allow yourself or others to be beaten. That applies to LGBT youth or any other type of population in the world that is bullied. I believe it’s something about respect. I believe if you understand that everyone deserves respect and your sexuality doesn’t define anything in your life more than the person you love – not your capacities or your abilities or your future – when you understand that, I think in that moment everything will start to change. There are a lot of LGBT people out there feeling guilt that doesn’t belong to them. That needs to stop.

IGBP: Can you share with us a story of hope from Venezuela or from your personal life?

Daniel Arzola: Yes. I am a story of hope because I came from a place that is a disaster. I grew up in violence. I understand that there is more to life. Now I feel like I have the right to create the things I dream. I changed the most important person in my life with my art; that person was my mom. My mom was very homophobic in the past but now she is a big ally. She wears her I Am Not A Joke t-shirt when she goes to her classroom (she’s a teacher). When I started to see that I could change a person as difficult as my mom, then I had the power to change many other people out there. There is a thing we must understand: no matter where we are, we are always going to find two kinds of people, those that can open their minds and those that just don’t. We don’t have to waste time on people that don’t open their minds. We need to start to find the people that can do it. So, let’s go!

IGBP: What word of advice would you like to leave for LGBT youth reading this interview?

Daniel Arzola: I’d really like to make people believe that everything can change, even in a moment. It can be heartbreaking, but these are the words I have in my heart: don’t let the abuse define you. I think we can transform anything, and when you start to transform abuse into something else, you become an extraordinary human being. 

Daniel is still living in Argentina while he pursues his Master’s in Human Rights. He continues to be involved in LGBT activism around the world as he expands his I Am Not A Joke portfolio. To learn more about his collaboration with the It Gets Better Project, click here. To purchase items from the I Am Not A Joke campaign, click here.