Street art generally gets no respect. At best, it is ignored. At worst, perpetrators are hunted down like hardened criminals. Going from a society where “street art” is a euphemism for vandalism, to one where it is a celebrated institution, makes for an excursion that can test long-held values. Since travel is about acquiring new perspectives, this might just be what the doctored ordered. I sign up a street art tour prepared to spend the day looking at spray-painted walls created by crack-fuelled adolescents.
The tour, conducted by Grafitti Mundo, a non-profit outfit in Buenos Aires dedicated to promoting the city’s art scene, takes us right smack into the heart of the city’s vibrant urban art culture. We visit hidden graffiti hotspots, artists’ studios and a street art bar and gallery. The tour, complete with accompanying bodyguard, allowed participants to venture into grittier, no-go zones of the city.
Anyone with more than a cursory interest in the street art here makes this observation – political graffiti and activist art dominate the landscape. Street walls are marked by all manner of posters, stencils, murals and graffiti. It’s not just disgruntled artists making a point. The politicians are in on this, commissioning artists to paint party slogans and logos on any available space. There’s a method to this madness. Apparently. Politicians get to use a wall for a week, or thereabouts, after which someone else may paint over. Walls are caked inches-think with layer upon layer of paint. Another thing you can’t help but notice about the street art is the size of things. Works cover entire buildings whilst gigantic figures stare down at passers-by.
Not all of it is thought-provocatively beautiful and the first impression one takes away, coming from a graffiti-phobic society, is how unfortunate it must be to have to live surrounded by vandalism. “Nothing that empowered, effective policing could not resolve,” I hear you say, and you may be right. Yet for many of the city’s residents and artists, whitewashed walls have come to represent something sinister. A blog entry on the Graffiti Mundo page describes how the only periods in Buenos Aires’ history when the streets were empty of expression and the walls remained white, where when people were being forcefully repressed.
Plagued by corruption and economic mismanagement that brought crisis after crisis, decade after decade. Big, society-wide changes like these tend to create big, groups of unhappy citizens. Then comes repression, and with that, the fodder for which artists rely on.
It was nonetheless repression viewed from a privileged vantage. You needed to be fairly well-to-do to be a street artist in Buenos Aires though. This scene was, in general, not about gangland markings or opportunistic vandalism but a movement pioneered by “middle class kids with the means to support an expensive hobby,” says our tour guide, Ana Laura Montenegro. With a can of paint costing up to 100 pesos (SGD$1 = 10 Argentine pesos), street art was not a past time for the downtrodden, more so with half the population living below the poverty line. But for young artists fortunate enough to witness the birth and development of hip hop and street culture while on vacation in Miami and Barcelona, street art would became an exciting, novel way to connect with the masses.
Something else novel about the scene here is that artists leave their names and contact details on their art. Ordinarily that is akin to inviting a knock on your door at midnight although street artists here get away with this for one simple reason – they get permission. Most of the time. So the scene is not about delinquents prowling the streets at night with duffel bags filled with spray cans, and working hit-and-run. Many street murals are commissioned and some people have allegedly purchased property because they liked the mural outside. While I can’t say I’d ever have that kind of enthusiasm, this adventure has certainly changed the way I look at white space.
Photos: Graffiti Mundo