CIUDAD JUAREZ -- A graffiti artist from South Africa is on the border spreading a message of peace in some of the roughest neighborhoods of Ciudad Juarez.
“I’m trying to go to those areas that are most haunted by this drug war and this criminal organization and portray my message of peace," said the artist known as GASAK.
He’s used spray paint to create huge portraits of “international peace leaders” on several walls in Juarez with permission from the property owners.
GASAK also painted the image of Nelson Mandela on concrete culvert along the Rio Grande River.
The 23-year-old self-taught artist covers his face while he works to keep the focus on the art project “Face the Peace,” which includes a series of faces of leaders known for working for peace.
“'Face,' meaning painting these faces, also 'face,' meaning facing my fears and portraying what I want to portray and not backing down,” said GASAK.
The face of Benito Juarez attracted the attention of students on their way to a nearby school who stopped to watch the GASAK at work.
“He’s a street artist who helps us remember and recognize our heroes who promoted peace in the past,” said Ramon Serrano, 14, a student in Ciudad Juarez.
GASAK chose walls in some of Juarez’s roughest neighborhoods to spread that message, including a crime-ridden area, where Mahatma Gandhi’s face overlooks an empty lot.
“The night before I came here to paint, one block down here was a body found cut up and left in a dust bin," GASAK said.
A photographer from Ciudad Juarez who is accompanying GASAK said there were some tense moments.
“I really was afraid, because we got some warnings from people you know,” said Diego Gonzalez, 19, who is shooting both photos and video to document the Face the Peace project.
“There’s still violence, but things are way better than we were two or three years before,” said Gonzalez
But the hard work of building lasting peace after all the violence has just begun.
“Hopefully I can inspire one person to see a change and let it be a chain reaction by what I’m doing,” said GASAK.
So far he’s painted face portraits of Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Benito Juarez and Mahatma Gandhi on the Mexican side of the border.
His goal is to paint a total of eight faces, half in Mexico, and half in the U.S., that will form a heart that spans the border.
But he’s run into obstacles trying to get property owners on the Texas side of the border to allow him to paint on their walls.
The graffiti artist convinced the owner of an old delivery truck parked in El Paso just blocks from the border to allow him to use it as a canvas to paint the Dalai Lama’s face.
“Yay,” said 9-year-old Joshua Akers, the man’s grandson. “He’s a really good painter."
“Hopefully we can achieve everything together by making a statement like this,” said GASAK.