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Rebelling against authority - One artist and his rebel band’s fight to awaken the masses

When David Hons was 33 years old he pierced his hand with a nail and spilled his blood onto paper. He used these bloodstains to produce large prints, and installed them onto city lights at tram stops around Prague. This artistic echo of crucifixion, titled “Stations of the Cross,” was a way for Hons to protest the fact that members of Ztohoven, an art-activist group which he co-founded, were due to appear in court the next day for an stunt titled “Media Reality” in which they hacked into a news broadcast and aired video of an atomic bomb exploding.

Hons, born in 1974, known widely by his pseudonym, Roman Tyc, is a byproduct of a generation that experienced both oppression and the wild aftermath of freedom. The name Roman Tyc does not have any significant meaning, but is merely a play on words. However, the name Ztohoven has multiple possible meanings, one of which means “out of it,” and one of which means “full of shit.”


David Hons (Foto by Amanda Morris, PragueConnect.cz)

He claims to be part of a generation that is very distrustful and sensitive to authority. He also represents people who have been disappointed with the transition from a communist to post-communist capitalistic society, who feel that they have gone from one type of tyranny to another. About this transition, Tyc said through a translator, “the regime has changed but the system remained,” and declined to elaborate.

His work, “Nothing to Celebrate” captures this feeling. In “Nothing to Celebrate,” Tyc refashioned a Velvet Revolution Memorial and added on his own interpretation, without damaging the monument itself. The monument, which originally featured sculpted hands in the shape of peace signs for the date November 17, 1989, when collapsed in the former Czechoslovakia, suddenly found itself flanked by new hands. On the left hand side, with the date November 17, 1939, it shows many hands in a Heil gesture, symbolizing the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. On the right hand side, with the date November 17, 2009, 20 years after the fall of communism, Tyc added many fingers in a “fuck you” gesture with their middle fingers raised. When asked about the work, Tyc said, “It shows the evolution of how society has changed,” and refused to explain further.

“It’s not good for art if the artist describes it too much,” he continued. “The best outcome of art is that it has many layers.”

Tyc claims to be part of a generation that is very distrustful and sensitive to authority. In his fight against authority, Tyc and the guerilla artist collective Ztohoven have carried out numerous public art antics. Most recently, members of Ztohoven trespassed and flew a pair of giant red underwear over the Prague Castle. This action was symbolic of airing out the president’s dirty laundry and criticized what Ztohoven called, “a man who is ashamed of nothing at all.”

On their official website, Ztohoven lists numerous actions of the president which they criticize such as supporting school segregation for special needs children and associating with questionable dictators. For this act, Ztohoven members faced threats of jail time, just as they did with their atomic bomb stunt.

Often, many of Ztohoven’s works involve pushing legal boundaries. Another example is a project titled “Resident K,” in which twelve members of Ztohoven assumed false identities for six months and demonstrated that they were able to marry, obtain weapons licenses, vote and travel abroad under these false identities.

Fans of Tyc appreciate his courage to cross borders, even if doing so is illegal. On his own, Tyc has pushed the envelope with works such as setting a human sculpture on fire in front of the National Museum of Prague, titled “The Rotting Fire,” which was emblematic of self-immolation, but which raised alarm from passersbyes. He has also released so-called video art such as a video of himself, titled “Cap Cop Cup,” in which he is shown stealing police officer hats.

He often points out flaws within society, such as when he illegally bought a Beretta sub-machine gun on the Czech black market and smuggled the gun back into Italy. He displayed the gun at an art installation in Rome with the caption “What the fuck was an Italian sub-machine gun doing in Czech lands?”

Most of these stunts have been in broad daylight. “It wasn’t working for me to work at night in secret. I kept getting caught,” he said. “But no one anticipates that you would dare to do it in broad daylight, that’s why it works.”

His work is similar to that of David Cerny, another famous Czech rebel artist who criticizes society, especially within the Czech Republic.  While Cerny painted a communist army tank pink in 1991, Tyc displayed a cow in Kinske square in Prague which was painted to resemble the original tank—it was military green with a red star and number 23 on its side. This cow, titled “Romeo 23” was later bought in a benefit auction.

One of his most well-known stunts was in 2007, when he altered pedestrian traffic signs. He replaced the so-called obedient walker characters in 50 traffic lights with characters doing activities such as pissing, shitting, drinking, being hung, and committing suicide. “The system we’re living in tells us what we should and shouldn’t do,” he said. “The traffic lights represent the idea that you don’t have to stay or go where the system tells you to go.”

For this workmanship, he was fined roughly $3,333 for damages and another $2,500 in criminal fines. He paid the damages fee, but refused to pay the criminal fine. “What I did was not a crime, and I refuse to classify it as such,” he said. “I stand up for what I believe in.”

Tyc’s decision not to pay the fine landed him in jail for one month.

Once the media publicized Tyc’s sentence, fans of his work banded together in protest. Petr Vidensky, a current resident of Brno, started the movement along with his wife Mamagda. While both have argued about what constitutes as “crossing the border” in Tyc’s work, they agreed that this incident was not doing so.

“In this event it was clear that it was stupid for them to arrest and punish him,” Mamagda said. “If he was a famous person, they would have given him a prize, but because Roman Tyc is doing this and because he is against the system, he was cut off.” Although ironically, Roman Tyc is famous.

To show solidarity, Mamagda baked a cake for Tyc. Petr then created a Facebook page inviting others to do the same. Within 24 hours, they had over 700 supporters who had joined the online group. Despite these numbers however, the Videnskys say that there is not widespread support for the artist in the Czech Republic.

“He’s an artist, and what percent of the Czech population pays attention to an artist?” he said. “The Czechs prefer to drink beer and watch T.V.”

Radek Wohlmuth, an art critic and independent curator who is a fan of Tyc’s work, believes that he desires this type of attention.

“Unfortunately, Roman Tyc is a bit of a media junkie. He also, to stretch it a bit, suffers from a messiah complex,” Wohlmuth said. “He also didn't have to go to jail in 2012 for replacing the figures in traffic lights, but for him it was a question of conviction. He went demonstratively to "sacrifice" himself, in other words, because he wanted to.”

Czechs, who have the highest beer consumption per capita in the world, tend to retreat into private life instead of the public sphere. “Czechs, especially older generations, still do not dare to contest authority even in cases where injustice clearly happened,” said sociology professor at New York University, Vanda Thorne. “This is a direct result of communist-imposed fear of authorities - people were not supposed to ever stand up against the official representatives.”

Many Czechs seek to avoid the type of dramatic confrontation that Tyc encourages.

Tyc’s latest project with Ztohoven has been to open the world’s first café run entirely using bitcoins, a form of decentralized online currency. The café, Parlelni Polis (Parallel World), represents Tyc’s ideal version of the world. “It’s a space where people can meet freely,” he said. “It’s decentralized economics but also simultaneously a social network community.”

The café is a hub for hackers and is the so-called “embassy of the Crypto-anarchy Institute,” which teaches people how to protect themselves on the internet. Tyc sees this as an important mission. “It’s significant to educate people on how to secure themselves on the internet and behave,” he said. “Going online without this knowledge is the same as taking off all your clothes and running naked into battle.”

The café has yet to make a profit, but Tyc is not concerned with becoming rich.

He dresses simply in black jeans, a white t-shirt, and a black zip-up hoodie, accompanied by a fully grown beard. The only traces of his image that betray his creativity are a tattoo on his right shoulder and the stylishly twirled up ends of his moustache.

Tyc claims not to have let himself be raised by anyone or anything since he was ten years old. His family does not support his artwork, and he works to be self-sufficient—in this case by waking up past 1 P.M. daily and making money solely through provocative art. Tyc sells his artwork, sometimes for charity and sometimes for profit. He lives in an apartment that he bought twelve years ago with his now-estranged sister, and only owns two pairs of pants: a black and a blue pair of jeans. “I switch my jeans every other day, then change my underwear and shirt,” he said. “You don’t need much.”

In his childhood, Tyc’s rebellious nature emerged. His mother passed away when he was six, leaving him to be looked after by a father whom he considered oppressive. “It wasn’t very good with my father,” he said, and refused to say anything more about the topic of his family.

In school, Tyc never drew what was typically expected. While other kids drew houses and cars, he would sit at his desk and draw abstract patterns of circles. “My drawings represented inside notions of the head more than a realistic representation of the world around us,” he said as he demonstrated. He pulled out a pen and paper, and concentrating, glided his pen to make rings of overlapping circles. In elementary school, his teachers appreciated his different approach and asked to keep copies of his work. However, this changed when Tyc attended an art high school in the 1990s.

“There was one assignment where we had to do a poster about ecological problems. Everyone was doing posters with factories and smoke. I took my poster and wrote ‘Recyclable is not recycled,’” he said. “Then I was almost kicked out of the school. But I was focusing more on ideas than on form.”

This was a turning point for Tyc, who then says he realized how an autocratic system stifles creativity. He decided never to attend universtiy, and is the only member of Ztohoven without a degree.

When communism fell in 1989, Tyc’s interest in graffiti and public art emerged. Initially, it began when he decided to join a secret boys scouting organization. He was inspired by his favorite childhood comic book series, Rychlé šípy, or “Fast Arrows,” which detailed adventures of five boys in the Czech Republic. His love for the comic book series is seeped into his right arm, where he has a 12-panel tattoo depicting scenes of the characters’ adventures. This comic book series has a cult following that originated in the 1940s and was revived in the 1960s.

Scouting was illegal in the Czech Republic during communism, so the activity attracted many countercultural crowds. It was within this scouting group that Tyc was first exposed to contemporary art and graffiti. “One of them showed me a book about graffiti and I really liked this form of protest by color,” he said. “The philosophy is to write your name powerfully in surroundings of grayness.”

But Tyc maintains that it is important to get people’s attention in order to educate them on how to be free.  “While I was in jail for a month, I had time to realize that the traditional role of the father, and the raising function of the people, has been taken over by the system,” he said. “I need for this to be known. Society is all set wrong.”

When asked if he considers himself an anarchist, Tyc said, “Yes.” He didn’t feel the need to explain further.

Critics say that he is dangerous, and even supporters can be wary about pushing the boundaries. “I can understand their meaning and message, but the atomic bomb explosion went too far, it could have negatively affected or panicked people,” Mamagda said.

Tyc will soon be moving on to other projects. He will continue to work with Ztohoven for two more years, then will work on his own for two years. He hinted that his next projects would be aimed more towards a global audience rather than just Czechs. “We made a mistake talking about global problems in a local way,” he said, referring to the techniques that Ztohoven uses to publicize their messages, which are aimed primarily at Czechs, and are not often known about on a global scale.

Co-owner and curator for the DSC Gallery in Prague, which has showcased Tyc’s work in the past, Olga Trckova, believes Tyc’s messages are relevant for a global society.

“For example, with his series of portraits he created in 2011 from the remains of human ash, he looked at how society deals with death and loss, drawing our attention to the unethical and degrading way of how we treat human remains,” she said. “This was a non-profit project which we worked on with him.”

However, Trckova admitted that the gallery received some criticisms and complaints from “people who do not understand his work.” She could not remember a specific example of criticism, but she mentioned that the amount of criticism Tyc receives varies from piece to piece.

“For example, he received a great response and support from the public with the traffic lights project as it was seen as a humorous addition to the streets of Prague,” Trckova said. “The work with the human ash, again was quite controversial, in theme and material, however the portraits were so wonderfully put together they had a real elegance to them and were fundamentally nicely framed silhouettes.”

Sometimes, his work is not seen as meaningful.

“Only a very small part of society supports such works, because only a small group of people is interested in art and able and willing to read artistic messages.” said Czech art historian Ludvik Hlavacek. “Most people take these artworks as a madness of spoiled youths or as something not so important, only for fun.”

Tyc takes his work seriously, and always tries to listen to constructive criticism. “If you’re trying to be an activist, you have to consider likability because you’re trying to reach a wide range of people for an audience,” he said.

He walks a fine line between trying to shock people to get their attention and trying to win them over to listen to his message. “He wants to awaken people more to think and be aware,” Mamagda said. “He puts light on the dark places.”


Author: Amanda Morris, PragueConnect.cz - Prague, 05.04.2016