Getting to know Flacco is difficult. Everyone will tell you it’s easy and they’re all wrong. There are people who insist Flacco is a drug addict who talks to himself and can always be found on Avenida A wandering in circles calling everyone a different nickname. They will suggest he is a crazy person who probably drinks too much, steals from friends and sleeps somewhere under a bridge. But none of this is true.
Flacco is weird, sort of. But there are certainly weirder people in Casco Viejo. He’s mostly just an eccentric guy who lives with his mom and wears old button-down shirts that appear to drape over his limbs like clothes on a hanger. His mouth is half teeth, half corroded fillings and his beard looks “confused,” if that’s even possible. But here’s the bottom line: he’s pleasant. Not exactly social, but polite. He is neither a psycho nor high on drugs. And this is what everyone seems to miss about him: he may be in the streets parking cars and calling himself Chingy, but he’s still just a struggling artist like a lot of other people.
I’m sitting with Flacco outside Super Gourmet. He was a few minutes late for our interview, explaining that he got sidetracked “raising some money for a local school.” He’s thinking about what he wants to eat and decides on “egg sandwich,” and before the food arrives, we’re talking about his childhood in Casco Viejo and his passion for art. I ask him how those two subjects dovetail—in other words, how living in Casco Viejo influences the type of drawing he likes to do. His answers start predictably, almost rehearsed.
“I realized that some day they are going to knock down all these buildings, so I like to draw them in order to preserve the memories. Foreigners like memories.”
This ends quickly when I ask him to describe a few of his favorite drawings.
“One time I drew an ant kicking a soccer ball with a wolf. This was a good one. I drew it so that the wolf was diving to save the ball but he had trouble seeing it because of all the herbs falling from the clouds. Another time I drew a hippopotamus on a surfboard. It didn’t make sense, how a hippopotamus could stand on a surfboard. But I think that is what made it good. Johan said that is what made it good.”
Flacco, who’s actual name is Manuel Escardin (and who also goes by the nom de plume Chingy), was born in El Chorillo 54 years ago. 30 years later, when he was in his mid 20’s, Flacco’s mother decided their home on 8th street was too dangerous and so she moved the family to Juan Diaz where he currently resides. Flacco still lives with his mother and sells drawings to locals and tourists for free. Flacco doesn’t believe in putting a price on his artwork. Rather, he believes everyone should pay what they can. “If someone likes my drawing but doesn’t have any money,” he says, “I prefer to just give the drawing away for free. I say, here pal, take this. You really like it, so take it. The most I ever got for one drawing was $20. Actually, the most I ever got for one drawing was $100.”
In between his words, Flacco takes massive bites of his egg sandwich, keeping the food lodged (without chewing) in the side of his mouth until the story reaches a breathing point. Every now and then he guzzles a can of orange soda for 3-4 second intervals. When asked if and how often he does drugs, Flacco responds in a candid and unabashed sort of way: “Well, I smoke marijuana once every few months.” And once you come to know Flacco’s sincerity, there is absolutely no reason not to believe him. Flacco has absolutely zero reason to lie.
OK, so labeling Flacco a “normal guy” may be an exaggeration. But when I ask him what Casco Viejo has lost over the past 20 years, he looks at me straight in the eye and says, “that’s a really personal question.” For a moment, I’m caught off guard. This because most of the time as he’s talking, Flacco focuses off behind you as if someone he knows is coming to say hello. But what you start to realize is that this spaceyness is part of his persona. It’s part of his artistry. If you can manage to eliminate the superfluous behavior and bizarre mannerisms and get to what he is really saying, Flacco is lucid and honest and extremely, almost religiously sentimental.
“That’s a really personal question.” This self-analysis is noteworthy. It’s about the last thing, just from appearances, you’d expect to come out of Flacco’s mouth. I tried to change the subject and asked what was the worst thing he’d ever done in his life. He said he stole someone’s wallet as a teen, but he was so nervous that he ran directly into an large group of policemen. For this, he spent 6 months in Carcel Modelo – the notorious Noriega-era shithole, followed by an additional 18 months on Isla Coiba. When asked if he learned his lesson, Flacco answered with a resounding Yes. “Those were horrible conditions in the jail. I told God that I would never commit another crime again. And I told my mom that too. And since I left I have never even killed an insect.”
Flacco draws a hippo on a surfboard and an ant/wolf soccer storm for the same reason he calls himself Chingy and the same reason he helps raise money for locals schools. He feels like it. Sometimes you can’t find the symbolism behind his drawings because there is no symbolism, which to me is an ethos not terribly alien to most professional artists. While most of his work depicts a older, slower, simpler version of life in Casco Viejo, it’s clear that Flacco is less about the past or the present or even the future, and more about expressing himself freely and utilizing his imagination.
“I have an amazing imagination,” Flacco tells me as he goes to put back on his shoes, which have been removed and placed next to his chair for lunch. “My friends know that. Foreigners know that. Everyone knows that. There’s no point in stray bullets when there’s always butterflies flying around in your head.”