“Cartoons can be devastating”

Better known by the artistic name he signs his cartoons with than by the name which appears on his ID document, ‘Elchicotriste’ (Tarragona, 1972) has lived the last decade with humour and modesty. He is a minimalist, and insists that all he really needs is to be able to pay the rent and to stock the fridge. He works with various media companies from here and abroad, using felt tips to swiftly interpret and highlight what’s wrong with reality. Sometimes such sincerity offends others and he has been censored on occasions. He works on live television and one day on the programme Els matins de TV3 he drew a sketch to promote the ‘Barcelona, Refuge City’ plan. “We’re all refugees” he claims.

Out of curiosity, where did Elchicotriste come from?

I was a volunteer with the International Civil Service (SCI) for several years, which runs work camps all over the world. I lived in various countries while taking part in different projects as a volunteer and a coordinator, in Northern Ireland, Poland, the former Yugoslavia… I worked with underprivileged children and met kids from various countries, who had no connection between them, but coincided in naming me intuitively. In Ireland they called me Sad boy and in Poland, Smutny chuopiec. I’m always in my own world a bit, and when you’re thinking you have concentration on your face, and I think they interpreted that as being sad about something. Seeing as I work with humour, it seemed a paradox. It’s got a romantic tone to it and I thought they’d christened me.

Were you already drawing at that point?

I’ve always drawn. My parents told me at the age of two I was already on the floor drawing with Plastidecor. I studied clinical psychology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and worked for three years as a psychologist and social educator at reception centres and family homes, but drawing has always been part of my life and I think it’s the most authentic part of me. First and foremost I’m an artist who draws, the rest comes after that.

Have your drawings always had that socially critical side to them?

I’ve actually always been more fantasy than reality. As a child I made up stories. I would take a few pages, staple them together and give them to my friends and family as presents. Political and social content formed part of the way I narrated stories, it has always interested me. It also comes from my social background, as from sixteen I started collaborating with the International Civil Service. Around 2004 my interest in cartoons started, as it’s a more immediate story and the ideal format to denounce and criticise things. Critical cartoons are also more viable professionally than comic ones, which is very complicated. In time, I became a cartoonist, using political satire and social criticism. It happened on its own, even though I’m really a comic artist, and continue to work as one, but on more personal projects.

You have experience with refuge. You were in the former Yugoslavia with the International Civil Service.

I was on the Dalmatian coast, on a small island called Obonjan, which is 10 km off the coast and before the war was a place where kids went on school camps in the summer. During the war, in 1994 or 1995, I spent six months at a refugee camp which had been set up there through the International Civil Service with a small group of volunteers coordinating a little project to distribute humanitarian aid. We used to receive boxes of clothes and toys etc. We slept in tents and it was really cold. Sometimes you would sleep beside two elderly people and wake up in the morning to find they were dead. We had to get them onto a ferry bound for the coast, which only sailed if the sea wasn’t too rough. It was quite something.

Did you use drawing as a tool?

I drew caricatures of the refugees and they thought it was really funny and kept them. I also used it as a way of teaching children. They had a small school and we worked there with the kids, drawing. We gave English lessons to the ones who already had refugee status and had to leave, we formed social clubs and played chess, we organised activities to take their mind off what was going on.

You’re a member of various international platforms for artists who speak up for peace and freedom of expression.

I’m a member of Cartooning for Peace, which was founded in 2006 by Jean Plantureux, ‘Plantu’, the top cartoonist at the French newspaper Le Monde, and Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the UN. Cartooning for Peace uses drawing to speak up about certain social conflicts and situations. I’m a member and Spanish ambassador for United Sketches for Freedom, an association founded by an Iranian refugee living in Paris (Kianoush Ramezani) and who also promotes social messages using drawing. They’re both very active.

And you co-founded ‘Dibuixants Sense Fronteres’. What was the aim?

We founded it together with Jaume Capdevila, ‘Kap’, the cartoonist for La Vanguardia. The aim is the same, although we have more will than resources. The organisations I mentioned before get public grants. We’re just two blokes, two friends, two cartoonists, who, during a lunch with Plantu from Le Monde, decided to set up a network of artists to do things here and to coordinate with other people. We registered the name and started doing a few things which were within our capabilities. The first was to produce some small postcards which we edited with our own money, just when the Arab Spring was going on, in 2011. I was in touch with Nadia Khiari, an artist from Tunisia, who got quite famous during the revolution as she created a cat, Willis from Tunis, who condemned the abuses of the Ben Ali regime. From there, we did some postcards with illustrations which were sold there and the money raised went towards helping relatives of the victims of the revolution. We’ve done other projects to use drawing as a social tool for different causes, and we’re still doing some stuff.

In many places, particularly in the Arab world, many cartoonists are victims of repression. Some of them have been murdered.

And kidnapped. The Palestinian artist Mohammad Sabaane, from Cartooning for Peace, was imprisoned in Israel for a few months and allowed no communication [2013]. The Syrian caricaturist Ali Ferzat became famous because they kidnapped him and broke his fingers [2011]. Some cartoonists have suffered physical reprisals and their integrity is in danger. It’s highly unlikely that you leave your house here and get beaten up. The worst that can happen to you is that they don’t call you again.

I’ve always reserved the right to say what I think I should say, and I’ve paid a price for that

One of the principles of United Sketches is to try to prevent self-censorship. Is that one of the problems in repressive contexts?

In the most active and most passive repressive contexts. In many situations you’re taking a risk by saying certain things. For example, I’ve always reserved the right to say what I think I should say, and I’ve paid a price for that. On many occasions I’ve been “punished”, perhaps not so much for what I’ve said but more for how I said it and at the moment I said it. Under the umbrella of humour one can say lots of things and some of them are easy to say, but you have to know when and how, if not, you get problems. To put it simply: if I had four children to feed, there are things I wouldn’t let myself say to them in the same way that I say them in certain media, because I’m taking a stance and in a given moment  they can get rid of me and that’s that. I’m quite a brutal cartoonist, I don’t mince my words and I’m explicit with my images, and very often that’s offended people and got me into trouble.

For example?

I’ve had many cartoons quite abruptly censored in important publications, in those where you would think there’s a certain freedom of expression. Not so. In smaller publications with more local and apolitical sponsorship it’s easier than in media with bigger budgets, more political and business interests. I do a lot of work in France and Le Monde has censored me several times. For instance, I did a really artistic comic strip of Angela Merkel, four times her caricature, inspired by Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, with bar codes under her nose which, obviously, might conjure up times of dictators. I wasn’t interested in making a reference to World War II, but rather a metaphor for certain economic policies by this woman. Le Monde is a paper with a diplomatic tradition and they thought it wasn’t appropriate to make dictatorial references about the leader of a democratic country. So they pulled the plug on it.

What’s taboo in Spain?

In Spain it’s much the same. I’ve had warnings from everywhere. There have been times when for the sake of humour I’ve made jokes at times when the subject was a bit delicate. As a cartoonist, that’s when you need to make the most of the moment and break all this political correction. If they’re topics which are out in the open, you can’t just tiptoe by. I’ve also had plenty of things censored on Facebook. I did one of Felipe VI in the palace using a rope to lower a sack full of money and load it onto a lorry to Switzerland: “Felipe VI also lowers his wages”. Somebody reported me and they blocked my account. They blocked it again recently for two days because I did a caricature of Donald Trump, which was like a big willy made from his hair. A pro-Trump page reported me to the Facebook administrators and they removed the image. They give you warnings. That’s the order of the day. You can’t say stuff nowadays that you could easily say twenty years ago.

That’s because humour is a highly efficient tool to speak about uncomfortable things…

If it wasn’t for that, I don’t think all these international networks would have been set up. It’s really powerful, and not just because of the cliché that an image says more than a thousand words, but because through drawing, and under the umbrella of humour, you can say lots of things which lots of people might have difficulty saying. Cartoons have even toppled governments. In Italy, at the start of the eighties, a cartoon brought the government down. They have amazing political and social power. In October I did one on the Tsunami in Haiti which went viral. The criticism in that case was the fact that whenever there’s a terrorist attack we spend a week on social media with hashtags like #JeSuisParis or #JeSuisNice and yet when disasters or attacks occur in places beyond the western sphere nobody talks about them. The cartoon spoke about that: a child floating in the water with corpses beside them and a slogan saying “Nobody is Haiti”. It went viral because in a few strokes of a pen it described a communication and discrimination phenomenon and helped many associations who were interested in opening up the theme.

Personally, I want my work to be read in any country by any culture.

It’s also a universal language which reaches everyone…

Exactly. We don’t even know where the cartoons end up which we do for these associations or for the Cartoon Movement, a journalistic platform for cartoons which buy your content and distribute it in newspapers all over. I’ve had North American friends send me photos of one of my cartoons as it appeared on CNN news. Cartoons, especially those with messages, are an international tool and have an immense vindicatory and communicative force. Personally, I want my work to be read in any country by any culture. The more graphic it is, without having to rely on words, the better it works. These images can be devastating, they can really hurt people politically if you do them well, if you hit the right nerve, sometimes with violence, sometimes more metaphorically.

You’ve done lots of cartoons condemning the war in Syria and the refugee crisis. Are they themes which people are drawing about a lot?

Loads. There are even compilations of cartoons. The Syrian war and the migration of refugees and the hypothetical limits of humour and censorship, based on what happened at Charlie Hebdo, are the two themes which are dominating the discussion at all the international cartoonists meetings. They’re the themes we talk about most.

Are they controversial?

On the phenomenon of migrations we’re all pretty much agreed, it’s a humanitarian issue and we’re all cartoonists who convey critical messages. Where there is some discrepancy is over the origin of the problem, as you have to bear in mind you meet Muslim, Jewish and Christian cartoonists, and depending on the topic some have their own particular visions on certain realities in the countries you’re coming from. There are cultural differences.

And on the limits to freedom of expression, particularly in the case of Islam?

Nobody questions what the limits are for poetry, which can have a much more offensive capacity than drawings, but nobody questions it because drawing is more immediate and more explicit. The problem is if people confuse humour with a personal attack. I think it’s the cartoonists themselves who set their initial limits. One example, in France, which is the epicentre which has set off this whole discussion because of what happened at Charlie Hebdo: France is a secular and republican country and has a clause in its constitution about the right to blaspheme, protecting freedom of expression within the language of humour. Here we have the gag law and there they have the right to blaspheme: here we have insults to the crown, a crime which can be specifically penalised, and there it’s the total opposite: they preserve this sort of language and look to distance it from any offensive intention. They don’t put any limits on humour, either legal or cultural. The humour of the French here has something very punk about it.