How Filipino-French artist fought for his life until the end

by Patrick Camara Ropeta, ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau

Posted at Oct 30 2014 10:32 AM | Updated as of Oct 31 2014 07:14 PM

The late artist Ben Naz posted this photo of himself on his Facebook page taken from his exhibit opening last month at Graffik Gallery.

LONDON - Tributes are spreading on social media for the late guerrilla artist Ben Naz, who passed away on Wednesday after a difficult battle with cancer.

An announcement was made on Naz’s official Facebook page at 12:52pm on October 29, saying: “It is with deepest regret that we are letting you all know that Ben passed away peacefully this morning. We ask your respect to allow his family time to grieve.”

The Filipino-French artist is best known for his politically-charged graffiti and stencil artwork, often dealing with social issues like inequality and discrimination. His works have been shown at galleries and public walls in London, Manila, New York, Paris and Los Angeles.

Many of his artworks also tackle war and violence, including arguably one of his most recognizable artwork of a Muslim woman taking a selfie with a gun, an image reproduced repeatedly online and worldwide.

Throughout his creative career, the UK-based artist was never afraid to comment on any issue he deemed relevant. In 2012, for instance, he spoke out in support of equal marriage with an image of a same-sex couple kissing in police uniforms, which was featured on ABS-CBN News.

Ben Naz spoke out on various issues including equal marriage in 2012.

Later that year he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and despite several treatments and a strong resolve to beat the disease, his health slowly deteriorated in the next two years that followed.

But Naz didn’t give up so easily. He pursued his art more fervently even though his body didn’t seem up to the task. And while he noticeably lost weight and eventually ended up in a wheelchair, he continued to create his artwork and was still seen regularly in the London art scene.

In 2013, he led an awareness and fundraising campaign for Cancer Research UK, with a painting jam at Leake Street followed by an exhibition at Monty’s Bar, supported by several graffiti artists in London.

He told ABS-CBN Europe at the event: “Never waste time. Always grab your opportunities. If you’re an artist like me, just do what needs to be done. Don’t listen to what they’re going to say or what people really want. Do what your heart tells you to do.”

This image by Ben Naz is arguably one of his most popular work.

Naz’s art and relentless spirit touched many people and the news of his death inspired numerous tributes across social media, many posting photos of his work with kind words about the artist.

“Huge loss to the art community, you fought till the end like a true soldier, your art will live on forever,” wrote one supporter.

Another wrote: “His remarkable courage and drive in the face of his tragic situation is only a fraction of what made him such an inspiration. He has been the very definition of a rebel urban artist doing controversial street work, risking his freedom and often his safety doing so in such a corrupt and volatile environment.”

In the last few years of his life, Naz managed to establish his name in the guerrilla art scene in Britain and beyond, attracting invitations for group and solo exhibitions.

And while he continued to create graffiti on the walls of London, he also started selling limited edition prints and original artworks which proved popular with fellow artists and art collectors.

The Filipino-French artist used Philippine imagery in his work to comment on social issues.

At the same time, he became increasingly visible on social media, inspiring others with his unflinching determination to fight for his life against cancer, and continuing his artistic passions for as long as he could given his condition.

“Anyone that knows someone going through this situation, there’s always hope. There might not be the best options out there, but there’s always hope,” he told ABS-CBN Europe in 2013.

Born in France in the 1970s to Filipino and French parents, Naz migrated with his family to the Philippines shortly after his birth. He grew up in the capital Manila where he eventually pursued art.

His early works - many of them nudes or highly political paintings - were deemed too controversial by some in the local art scene, limiting the exposure of his work. He consequently decided to move back to Europe to explore his French roots and to pursue his art more freely, first in Paris and later in London.

His most recent exhibition, aptly titled “One Last Ride”, ended earlier this month at Graffik Gallery on Portobello Road in London. Along with his latest work, it featured the launch of a book and short documentary charting his 20-year journey in the arts.

Naz is survived by his wife, Carol, and their teenage son, Baron.