Daniel Arzola is behind the “I’m Not a Joke” campaign, which features a series of 50 posters that contain a sentence and a digital illustration.
The campaign — known as “No soy tu chiste” in Spanish — has appeared in the U.S., Venezuela, Brazil, Australia, Uganda, Russia and two dozen other countries around the world. Arzola’s posters have also been translated into English, Portuguese and 18 other languages.
“It’s about being different,” Arzola told the Washington Blade on April 14 during an interview at Amherst College where an LGBT student group had invited him to speak.
Katy Perry selected several of Arzola’s posters for Madonna’s Art for Freedom, a project for which she is a guest curator.
Arzola told the Blade that his life changed when Madonna tweeted a picture of one of them on Oct. 8, 2013.
“At that moment ‘I’m Not a Joke’ was not only for activists,” said Arzola. “I received a lot of interview (requests) from a lot of countries. And the people from Venezuela who hate me knew my work because Madonna made that tweet.”
“It’s a little cliché but Madonna changed my life,” he added.
‘They tried to burn me alive’
Arzola, 26, grew up in Maracay, a city that is roughly 70 miles south southwest of the Venezuelan capital of Caracas.
Arzola, who has an older brother, told the Blade that he was a “very shy” and “lonely” child. He said that he used “art to communicate with other people.”
“If I liked you, I preferred to give you (a drawing) than to talk to you,” said Arzola.
Arzola said he came out to his mother when he was 5, telling her that he liked a boy in his kindergarten class.
“I told her and she beat me,” said Arzola.
Arzola told the Blade that his mother, who is a teacher, is “not homophobic anymore.” He said she now wears a t-shirt that promotes his art in her classroom.
“She’s like my biggest fan all the time,” said Arzola.
Arzola said that three of his neighbors attacked him when he was 15.
He told the Blade that they took off his pants and shoes before tying him to a telephone poll with cables. Arzola said he was able to escape when one of his attackers tried to find gasoline to set him on fire.
He told the Blade that his assailants destroyed all of his drawings.
“They tried to burn me alive because that’s the way that some people in Venezuela react to the differences in another person,” Arzola told the Blade. “It’s not only if you’re gay.”
Arzola said he was unable to draw for the next six years “until one day I understood that my story is not the only story and I had the luck to escape and survive.” He told the Blade that an 18-year-old man from Maracay who was attacked because of his sexual orientation suffered burns over nearly 50 percent of his body.
“There’s a lot of people burning people alive or hurting other people in Venezuela for being gay,” said Arzola.
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime notes that Venezuela has one of the world’s highest homicide rates. A deepening economic crisis has caused a shortage of basic goods, triple-digit inflation and growing political and social instability.
Tamara Adrián, a Caracas lawyer who is a member of Popular Will, a left-leaning party, in December became the first openly trans person elected to the Venezuelan National Assembly. Anti-LGBT violence and discrimination remains pervasive in the South American country in spite of this historic election.
Arzola, who studied graphic design and art in Venezuela, told the Blade that he wanted to use art as a way to challenge anti-gay violence and homophobia in his homeland.
“This is the way that artivism burns in my head,” he said. “I need to fight violence with other things and in Venezuela being gay is always in the media. People laugh about being LGBT, so I was wondering (about) when we start to laugh about tragedy, about the pain of others. In Venezuela people are always saying that, ‘We’re so cool because we find a joke in everything.’ But that everything sometimes includes the pain of others.”
“That’s where the name ‘I’m Not a Joke’” comes in,” added Arzola. “I want to talk with people like you and me, so I’m not your joke. I’m not a joke.”
Threats forced Arzola to move to Chile
Arzola told the Blade that he began to receive threats because of his art and advocacy.
“I had to leave Venezuela because of threats,” he said. “When ‘I’m Not a Joke’ started to be so famous I had the opportunity to talk to so many media, so I exposed the government and the homophobia in Venezuela.”
Arzola met Jaime Parada — a Chilean LGBT rights advocate who became the first out candidate elected to public office in the South American country in 2012 when he won a seat on the Providencia Municipal Council in Santiago — in 2014 during a trip to Buenos Aires.
Arzola moved to Santiago, which is the Chilean capital, in April 2015. He now lives in Providencia — a wealthy Santiago enclave — and works for the municipal government.
“I like Santiago,” Arzola told the Blade. “It’s the first time in my life I have experienced peace…and for me it’s something new. For me it’s very weird being in my bed without fear.”
“For me coming from the chaos in Venezuela and being in Providencia is like, ‘Oh yeah. I create all the time with chaos and now I am in peace. I’m like, what should I do now?’” he added. “I don’t know what to do with so much peace. I’m still creating.”