Street art in Buenos Aires is a visual way of conveying publicly what could not always be safely spoken publicly.
On a tour of the northern part of the city with Graffitimundo Blonde was shocked (and vaguely disappointed) to actually learn some history. The hope had been for some pictures that would lend themselves to funny, snarky captions. But for her $25 USD she got more than that. You will too and you’re getting it for free!
Our well-informed tour guide was Sorcha, an elfinesque Irish architect who, by the subversive act of now living in Buenos Aires, causes her parents no end of despair. Why be Irish if you can’t despair when your children are leading happy lives?
Sorcha gave us a quick rundown of street art’s role in Argentina’s politics since the 1930s when the country experienced a military coup that crushed its fledgling democracy. The head of that government, a General Uriburu, had the usual tolerance for dissent that Fascist rulers tend to exhibit; none. Activists used stencils, for the sake of speed, and worked at night to spread their messages of political activism.
Then (roughly, this is a travel blog not a PhD thesis on Argentina’s political history) Juan and Evita Peron showed up around the 1950s. They were so busy discussing if casting Madonna as Evita would doom the film that they put a serious damper on expressions of political dissent. This led to (dissenting) political parties beginning to pay street artists to paint unsupportive messages around the city.
Evita croaked, Argentina did cry for her, Juan got overthrown and in came a succession of other less than ideal governments – including a surprise second act from Juan himself. He croaked and wife #2 took over and botched the job.
Inflation hit 300% and, oddly enough, there still wasn’t widespread support for the government.
Another military junta took over the government and conducted “The Dirty War” which led to the disappearances of an estimated 9,000 Argentinians. Many of those who disappeared were pregnant women whose children were then taken from them and given up for adoption.
And don’t forget the Falklands War, a pissing match that hasn’t entirely run out of, well, the thing that’s needed for pissing matches.
Then there were the 5 Presidents within the span of two weeks in 2001. The debt defaults, 8 times in the country’s 200 year history, didn’t help things either.
Did I mention that inflation once hit 900%?
Democracy made a comeback when the Bill and Hillary of Argentina, Nestor Kirchner (has since croaked too) and his wife Cristina Fernandez took turns being President until a mere weeks ago. Phew!
Throughout all of that wackiness there was a compelling urge to engage in personal and political expression. (Raising the intriguing question that if political wackiness leads to an explosion of street art are there enough walls in the United States to possibly contain a Donald Trump presidency? Answer: no.)
When the tumultuous history of Argentina combined with the creative capabilities and need for expression of the country’s people they needed an artistic medium beyond tango (which, trust me on this, is quite powerful in its own right).
People taking back their public spaces in Buenos Aires has been very powerful and used to depict both political messages as well as happy images during times when negativity has been the prevailing mood.
During the Presidential “whack-a-mole” shenanigans in the late 1990s/early 2000s two street art collectives, DOMA and FASE, created whimsical, attention-getting art. That was really the period when the street art scene burst into being in a big and mostly “legitimate” way.
Street art in Argentina is not seen as a lower level art form but as an entirely legitimate art form in its own right. If you go on this tour you would be hard pressed to come up with a counter-argument to that opinion.
In Buenos Aires it is legal to paint a building if you own it. In most cases where you see street art the artists have received permission (and, in a few happy cases, commissions) to paint the building. Street art is widely embraced by the city and it has held international events to encourage and celebrate the creation of it.
One such event led to the creation of the painting below by the well-known artist Jaz. A painting of this size requires hydraulic lifts, the ability to work on a massive scale, and more physicality than traditional forms of painting.
Another city-sanctioned event was Project Duo. This video does an excellent job of showing the practical demands and often collaborative aspects of street art.
The painting below was done as part of Project Duo and was painted on what are known as medianeras, or the walls between houses.
Part of the fun of this art is looking closely to find humor. In the one below you see the representation of one of Argentina’s most macho cultural icons, a gaucho. But if you take the time to examine the painting you can see that the weapon he’s firing is a can of spray paint. It’s this feeling of a wink and a nod from the artist that makes so much of this art more compelling than you may expect.
For many of us (OK, me) street art at first sounded like a politically correct way of legitimizing ugly graffiti or “tagging”. But in a rare instance of a Blonde learning something it turns out that real street art is extremely skillful and engaging.
Damn, next you thing you know I’ll think tattoos are art. (No, I won’t.)
As you can see below street art isn’t all visually impressive. Actually, this seems to fall more into the graffiti category.
Graffitimundo is rightfully proud that they have created a gallery, Union, for exhibiting and selling the work of street artists. It was interesting to learn that artists often paint very differently when doing so on the scale of a canvas rather than a wall (duh).
The exhibit at the time was by one of the relatively few female street artists, Pum Pum. In this video, done by the BBC, Pum Pum explains why she prefers to keep her face unknown. (Although she certainly didn’t skimp on getting excellent highlights so perhaps she protests too much?)
There was a charm to her work, however, it seemed to this clueless and unqualified critic to be on the “Hello Kitty” spectrum and lacked the grit and humor of other artists.
The Buenos Aires street art walking tour (which actually involves a fair bit of transportation via an air conditioned van) concluded at a cafe/gallery combo business named Hollywood in Cambodia.
The name is supposed to be a play on the song “Holiday in Cambodia” by The Dead Kennedys but after reading the less than uplifting lyrics (File under “Political Disillusionment”) I have to confess to not really getting it.
But if we are going to speak of political disillusionment then it seems highly appropriate to show one of their works which is displayed on the outside, upstairs cafe – Zombie Donald Trump.
If you go to Buenos Aires consider doing one of more of Graffitimundo’s tours or even workshops.
They’re a non-profit so tip your guide generously if for no reason other than to reduce her parents’ right to any legitimate despair concerning the viability of her veering off her career path.
Down with legitimizing despair – hand me my spray paint!