Street art

Seizing public space

In Latin America, artists and activists have found a way to make controversial issues public for all to see – even in restrictive political environments and even for the illiterate. They use street art. Wall paintings called “murales” mark the public space in many parts of Latin America.
Guatemalan mural dipicting fate of indigenous people. Sprague/Linair Guatemalan mural dipicting fate of indigenous people.

"In a wall painting, the message is crucial, but it needs to be well painted," says 42-year-old Dardo M., a well-known muralista from Buenos Aires. Street art is intended for public consumption, not for perusal in a gallery or living room. Dardo M. speaks of an artist’s attempt to communicate with the observer and put across a specific message. In his eyes, wall paintings are an art form as well as a form of communication.

Since prehistoric times, human beings  have painted on walls to convey mythical or ritual messages. The pictures in the Altamira cave in Spain are a striking example. In the first century AD, early Christians painted on walls in catacombs to communicate with one another. Only Christians understood the messages; Roman persecutors could not decipher them. Those wall paintings are the earliest known antecedents of the street art and graffiti we know today, and just as today, they had secret codes and a social function.


Mexican pioneers

In the past century, Diego Rivera, Clemente Orozco and David Siqueiros revived street art in Mexico. In the early 1920s, they founded the Movimiento Muralista Mexicano (the Mexican street art movement) and set out to make art for the people. The movement identified with the Mexican Revolution of 1910, in which intellectuals joined forces with workers and farmers. They sought to revitalise the indigenous culture that had been brutally suppressed since colonial times, and they wanted to create a modern state.

Paola Maurizio, professor of art history in Buenos Aires, says that "the muralists were formally trained artists breaking free from formality". They were inspired by indigenous and folk art as well as by 19th century Italian frescoes. With wall paintings, the Movimiento Muralista Mexicano opened a new channel for public communication. The large-format murals reflected elements of Mexican culture and impressed the largely illiterate rural people, Maurizio says. After centuries of white domination, they finally saw themselves depicted on walls as protagonists of history.

During the Great Depression after 1929, the Movimiento’s approach to aesthetics and ideology spread to the USA and beyond. The mural art movement had been confined to Latin America: Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. But during the devastating economic crisis, which exacerbated social inequality in the USA, its anti-authoritarian approach was increasingly adopted. Later, in the 1960s, leftist students did so in Europe, and street art found its way to the United States again by that circuitous route. In the 1970s, graffiti art, a successor of muralismo, emerged in New York and Philadelphia and then spread around the world.  


Art for everyone

Graffiti tend mostly to be text, not images. The inscriptions get their significance from the social context and serve a social function. Walls are not painted just for decoration; graffiti make statements and express protest. 28-year-old graffiti sprayer Santiago Amrein from Buenos Aires claims that anyone who paints on a public building without permission commits a political act by seizing public space. "That's what I like best about street art," he adds. "We are trying to democratise art."

"Street art" is a very broad term and covers diverse forms of expression alongside wall painting and graffiti. Stencil graffiti, which makes text or images easy to reproduce, is increasingly popular, "tags" – stylised signatures – are very widespread, and digital art forms are now emerging, such as video mapping and digital graffiti, which are stored on a tablet, PC or mobile phone and broadcast via social media.

Argentine artist Natalia Rizzo points out that a muralista planning a wall painting needs to take account of the dimensions of the building and the routes of passersby. "Passersby will only stop for a closer look if the work awakens their interest. Otherwise, they just walk past," the 34-year-old says.

In recent years, street art has increasingly become mainstream. Graffiti have been institutionalised by galleries and even "confined" in museums. Major brands and companies use street art techniques and even commission street artists for advertising campaigns. At the same time, there is still a strain of revolutionary political street art that opposes commercialisation. The Bolivian anarcho-feminist artists' collective Mujeres Creando is one example.


Feminist messages

Mujeres Creando have been active for more than 20 years at various levels, engaging in political activism, artistic activity and feminist empowerment. The artists use graffiti as a form of expression, spraying walls and buildings in La Paz with aphorisms such as "Eva is not made from the rib of Evo" or "Pachamama (Earth Mother), you and I both know that abortion has always been around", "Women who unite don't need to put up with violence" or "There can be no decolonisation without depatriarchalisation". In 1993, the collective used graffiti to call for an election boycott in protest over widespread vote-buying ahead of the presidential election. 

Mujeres Creando denounce racism and violence at various levels – from state agencies, family and sexual relations through to institutional settings. Their public criticism of patriarchal violence and the abuse of authority has influenced social movements across Bolivia. Mujeres Creando staged a major event at the 31st Biennal de São Paulo in September 2014. The group created an installation called "Space to Abort" at the modern art exhibition, featuring giant uteruses onto which short films were projected.

In São Paulo, a special form of graffiti known as "Pixo" or "Pichação" is found at every turn. The young artists, the pichadores, compete to spray their tags on the city's tallest buildings, in places that they reach by free-climbing or with the support of ropes. Juneca, a 28-year-old ex-pichador, declares: "If it was legal, no one would bother. We are part of the periphery, of the marginalised community, and we say very clearly: I exist, I'm here, and I want you to see me."

This extreme artists’ movement is made up largely of very young people, many of them teenagers. It uses creative means to represent marginalised sections of the city's people. Jannis Seidaris, a German graphic designer, writes: "Pichação consists of tagging in a distinctive, cryptic style inspired by runic and Gothic script and the logos of many nineties rock bands. Poverty and isolation enabled the style to survive without being influenced by Western graffiti or basic typographical rules." In the past, Pixo was an expression of punk or resistance against military dictatorship; today its motto is "Down with the dictatorship of the mainstream".


Controversial art event

Wall paintings have an influence not just on the art world but, more importantly, on the social environment. The city of San Miguel de Tucumán, the capital of one of the poorest provinces in Argentina with the highest child malnutrition rate in the country, was shocked by an art event in early 2015: a series of stick-on graffiti images of hanged children with four balloons appeared on walls in the city, triggering a public and media debate. The art event was entitled "Felices los niños" (Happy Children) – a reference to a Catholic foundation of the same name, whose director, Padre Julio Grassi, is serving a jail sentence for child abuse.

The art event criticised not only the Catholic Church but also the state, which supports the foundation. It also referred to child labour during the lemon and strawberry harvest in the province. Artist Sofía Jatib, who initiated the event, recalls: "Everyone was shocked by the image. But it is so hypocritical to portray childhood as innocent.”  She considers that idea an authoritarian dream.  

Many of the wall paintings can still be seen in Tucumán today. Despite the negative press, people are open to the artists' message. 55-year-old domestic helper Ana María says: "I don't find the images disturbing. What I find much more disturbing is hearing people say that slum-dwellers should be slain before they grow up. It's a remark I hear often because the children of the poor in this society are worth nothing." Raúl López, a car mechanic in Tucumán, believes that the press may be outraged by the horrific images of the art event but "the politicians in this province don't give a fig when children  die."

The great strength of wall painting is that it triggers public debate. And that is precisely the intention.

Sebastián Vargas is a journalist and lives in Buenos Aires.

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