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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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?
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.
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.)
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.
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.
White Walls Say Nothing film site: http://www.whitewallssaynothing.com/
Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop: http://www.banksyfilm.com/