The walls have ears (and noses, eyes, bears, fish, aliens, astronauts…): the Graffitimundo of Buenos Aires

Two enormous burgundy bears prepare to fight on a corner in Palermo.  Nearby, a black-and-white pixilated Jack Nicholson in The Shining pops out of a wall to stare at a wild world of colorful spray-painted body parts.  A few kilometers away, in a residential neighborhood in Colegiales, a group of artist friends has turned a house into a comic amalgamation of cartoon birds, flying blue and yellow alien capsules, a giant bright green cactus person, and a phallic blue monster offering a stick of dynamite that turns into a string of chorizo sausages.

Graffitimundo group tour gathers in Colegiales. Photo by Springbyker.

Graffitimundo group tour gathers in Colegiales.          Photo by Springbyker.

Before I took one of Graffitmundo’s tours in March, I knew little about street art beyond what I’d learned from Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop.  I’d loved seeing the political messages scrawled on walls all over Buenos Aires on my previous trips to the city, but friends had told me that graffiti art extended well beyond the stenciled “Fuera Yankis de América Latina,” and I’d seen some tantalizing photos on the web.

Quick street art: Stencil outside Buenos Aires zoo, May 2011. Photo by Springbyker.

Quick street art: Stencil outside Buenos Aires zoo,       May 2011. Photo by Springbyker.

Our tour group of about 15 people – mostly travelers from England, Ireland, and the U.S., with an Argentine student, journalist, and our guide – met on a sunny Saturday afternoon outside the cartoon-saturated house in Colegiales.  Ana, our affable, bilingual leader, gave us a quick history of Graffitimundo, a nonprofit organization founded by two young English women who were impressed by the Buenos Aires street art scene and wanted to share it with porteños who passed by the art every day, and tourists who might not see it as they visited the usual city sights.

Stencil and decal, Colegiales neighborhood. Photo by Springbyker.

Stencil and decal, Colegiales neighborhood.                Photo by Springbyker.

When our group did introductions, Ana asked us to mention our reasons for taking this particular tour.  Some folks were familiar with the street art scene in other cities and countries, and some wanted to see Buenos Aires from a different perspective.  A family visiting from the U.S. had two young adult daughters; one was in a relationship with a young porteño, who was able to show her his old colegio (roughly the equivalent of middle school) when our tour van stopped on a street in the Palermo neighborhood.

Art by Gaulicho. I think John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Peter Max influenced this one... Photo by Springbyker.

Art by Gaulicho. I think John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Peter Max influenced this one…                                 Photo by Springbyker.

I didn’t want to rattle on and on about my previous trips, so I tried to cram everything into a couple of sentences – this was my fourth trip to Argentina; I’d taken a two-week course through the University of Massachusetts in 2011; we’d studied the dictatorship, civil society response, artists’ work about the desaparecidos, the economic crash of 2001, some of the factories recuperated by the workers afterward…  Ana smiled and said something like, “Wow, you probably know more than I do!”

Ana explaining some more pedestrian tagging: "Catita, Happy Birthday. I love you, Papa." Photo by Springbyker.

Ana explaining some more pedestrian tagging: “Catita, Happy Birthday. I love you, Papa.”                   Photo by Springbyker.

Two years ago when porteño/as made remarks like this, I was simply stupidly flattered.  Now I realize that the response is a solid “yes and no” – of course they know much more than I about Buenos Aires because they’re born and raised there.  But as the fish-in-water cliché indicates, we often don’t see certain things because we’re immersed in them.  I’ve learned that very few Argentines who don’t work in them ever see the inside of a fábrica recuperada or other worker-owned cooperative, although academics, co-op workers, and other Left activists outside Argentina have studied the daylights out of a handful of these businesses that open their doors to outsiders.

Art by Probs & Jim, End of the Line collective, East London. I'm not sure this is based on San Martín and not just a typical gaucho image, but it is "muy lindo," as the collective says on their website. Photo by Springbyker.

4-story spraypainting gaucho. Art by Probs & Jim, End of the Line collective, East London. I’m not sure this is based on San Martín and not just a typical gaucho image, but it is “muy lindo,” as the collective says on their website. Photo by Springbyker.

For me, the joy of the Graffitimundo tour was not only seeing the art, but also learning more details about its cultural, political, and social aspects and how they intersect with what I’ve already studied. I learned a bit about how cooperativism and worker self-management – a rough translation from Spanish of “autogestión” – worked in the open-air art world, which overlaps with punk rock and skateboard culture.  Ana explained, for example, how the young street-art movement in Buenos Aires was a direct result of the economic crisis of 2001-02.  And she gave details about the evolution of the Nestornauta (or Eternéstor), a stencil I’d seen around the city two years before but only vaguely understood.  This graffito is based on comic art first published in the late 1950s, and the struggle over the image rights continues today.

The subject of “rights” came up in other ways too – as it’s bound to do during any good discussion of street art.  After Ana explained some of the origins of the world-wide graffiti movement in hip-hop culture in the South Bronx in the 1980s, I overheard one of my fellow USians asking a companion why tagging and creating other graffiti was considered art, rather than “juvenile delinquency.”  This stuck in my craw all afternoon, making me ask more profound questions:  What is art?  Why is “private property” considered more sacred in capitalism than the right to free expression and the general welfare of human beings and the earth?  How is this connected to gentrification and other, larger problems that helped give rise to the Right to the City movement in the United States?

I’m fond of this part of the patio wall at Post St. Bar – it combines so many of my weird personal totems. Who can resist a pregnant man with a chicken head, a praying mantis, and Alice writing an obscenity? Photo by Springbyker.

I’m fond of this part of the patio wall at Post St. Bar – it combines so many of my weird personal totems. Who can resist a pregnant man with a chicken head, a praying mantis, and Alice writing an obscenity?                  Photo by Springbyker.

Ana talked about related questions that have arisen in Buenos Aires.  In many cases, the buildings upon which artists paint are public property, or the owners have explicitly offered their walls as canvases.  Later in the tour, she spoke about how street artists make enough money on which to live – some are professional graphic artists who moonlight in the graffiti scene, some receive commissions from individuals for projects, and some have had to grapple with what they’re willing to do for pay.  This is not a new question:  What happens when artists who are questioning the entire system suddenly become hip, and corporations want to pay them to produce images to sell stuff to consumers? It’s not a question to be taken lightly in a nation that suffered a complete economic collapse barely a decade ago, after many state-owned industries were privatized, fat-cat owners shuttered their factories and tossed the workers out without paying them, and billions of pesos were whisked out of the country overnight.

Ana said it can take a few hours to a month to create and cut a stencil, depending on size and complexity. Photo by Springbyker.

Ana said it can take a few hours to a month to create and cut a stencil, depending on size and complexity. Photo by Springbyker.

The Graffitimundo gang recently used Kickstarter to fundraise for a documentary they’re filming about Buenos Aires street art, White Walls Say Nothing. (See link below.)

A wall in Colegiales painted during the 2011 Meeting of Styles street art festival. Photo by Springbyker.

A wall in Colegiales painted (or started, anyway) during the 2011 Meeting of Styles street art festival.               Photo by Springbyker.

We ended our tour in Palermo at a pub, Post Street Bar, and street-art gallery, Hollywood in Cambodia, named loosely after the 1980 punk song by the Dead Kennedys.  It seemed like a fine place to hang out and have a drink, but sadly, our group scattered almost immediately.  It was my last night in the city and I had plans, so I took off for San Telmo after buying a print to hang in my apartment.

Ana explaining the creation of a piece in Palermo. Photo by Springbyker.

Ana explaining the creation of a piece in Palermo. Photo by Springbyker.

I’m going to try to let the pictures speak for themselves, and I want to encourage people to take the tour, so I’m not going to spill all the Graffitimundo secrets! I’ll conclude with several felines on the scene.

One of pum pum's pieces in Palermo. I find her style a little cutesy, but I love the color. She's one of the few female street artists on the Buenos Aires scene. Photo by Springbyker.

One of pum pum’s pieces in Palermo. I find her style a little cutesy, but I love the color. She’s one of the few female street artists in Buenos Aires.           Photo by Springbyker.

Different kind of cats: art by Jaz in Palermo. Photo by Springbyker.

Different kind of cats: art by Jaz in Palermo.      Photo by Springbyker.

This fella, in the studio shared by Jaz and other street artists, had no comment, in English or castellano. Photo by Springbyker.

This fella, in the studio shared by Jaz and other street artists, had no comment, in English or castellano. Photo by Springbyker.

Links:

Graffitimundo:  http://graffitimundo.com/

White Walls Say Nothing film site:  http://www.whitewallssaynothing.com/

Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shophttp://www.banksyfilm.com/

Ana y los osos -- Ana and the giant bears. Art by Jaz. Photo by Springbyker.

Ana y los osos — Ana and the giant bears. Art by Jaz. Photo by Springbyker.

About springbyker

See more at: springbyker.wordpress.com. Feminist QBLTG Left activist grammarian & general crank. Love grassroots political movements, literature, independent film, travel in Latin America, bicycling, & good vegetarian food. I plan to write about all of these, plus being a recovering clutterer, writing, and saving the planet from suburban sprawl.
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6 Responses to The walls have ears (and noses, eyes, bears, fish, aliens, astronauts…): the Graffitimundo of Buenos Aires

  1. katti says:

    But then you are a far better writer then me🙂
    I have been wanting to do this tour, but I had forgotten the name of the organization.Thanks for reminding me, hehe. Buenos Aires is full of really great urban art, but these tours bring you to places you don’t really know….
    Great!

    • springbyker says:

      Thank you, Katti!

      Some of the folks in our tour group said they’d taken Graffitimundo’s “Hidden Walls” tour and liked it a lot. I’m sure you could take hundreds of interesting photos!

  2. meeksinherits says:

    I’ve been thinking of taking one of the street art/graffiti tours offered in the city – thanks for the reminder. Really enjoying your blog!

    • springbyker says:

      Thank you! It’s great to have readers dropping in from all over the world. The tour was a lot of fun, and the guides enjoyed answering questions. I’m sure the tour is a little less sleepy on a non-holiday weekend, too!

  3. tookaz says:

    I am loving your blog! Your description of the tours are great

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