The following was adapted from an excerpt of a Word document that may one day, by the grace of David Simon and the Holy Ghost, become a thesis. Amen.
Graffiti, also referred to as street art or guerrila art, depending on an artist’s C.V. and willingness to make money, is not a new phenomenon. Handprints dating back to 3000 BCE have been found on cave walls deep in the jungles of Venezuela. Today’s urban culture, which revolves around burning (def: producing high qual- ity work) and bombing (def: scribbling your name on every wall, train, and B Level Firestone bathroom stall between here and the Canadian border), developed in New York City during the 1960s as part of Hip Hop culture. Over time new styles emerged, such as “wild style,” a kind of writing where distinctions between image and idiom become fuzzy, as well as eye-catching mural work.
Yet street art has suffered a fate similar to that of both auto-erotic aspyhixiation and daily showering, practices once considered alternative and dangerous that have slowly creeped into the mainstream. While street art’s inherent source of cool comes from its anti-corporate and anti-government origins, it is now also a part of the modern art world. The emergence of Bristol-born artist Banksy almost a decade ago and the success of Shephard Fairey’s HOPE posters are two popular examples of street art’s global presence. The MoMA and the Tate have also both put on street shows to attract younger audiences. But the incorporation of street art into the art world has had its share of difficulties. Art galleries rely on increasing demand by limiting artists’ production. Street art’s presence in the mainstream, best exemplified by Fairey’s HOPE poster, suggests a heightened importance of the messages being promoted by the works themselves.
Perhaps more than any other form of expression, street art is both powerful and peculiar in that it is inseparable from the urban landscape. Context is key. To “write,” as street artists call it, is illegal in the eyes of the law and is often an ex- pression of protest or dissatisfaction with government or corporate practices. Its proliferation in worldwide metropolises is no surprise.
Among major world cities, Buenos Aires has experienced as much tragedy as any. For years, oppression reigned as its citizens were kidnapped and tortured, or “disappeared” under an era of state-sanctioned terrorism. Men and women were taken from their families, beaten, or dropped from airplanes into the murky waters of the Rio de la Plata. The city has had its fair share of economic turmoil as well. In 2001, the Argentine economy collapsed. Tragedy, for the porteño, is not unfamiliar.
Today, Buenos Aires’ street art is in high regard, in the same league as that of other major cities such as New York, London, and Sao Paulo. Colorful murals and tags are all over the city, but the best work is found in the neighborhoods of Palermo, San Telmo, Recoleta, and La Boca. The city has its fair share of crews, RUNDONTWALK being one of the most well known, with their lighthearted stencils of pigs, pandas, and gorillas dotting the cityscape. Pum Pum, a popular female artist, uses latex paint to create works that are known for their precision and recurring images of cuddly things such as cats, bunnies, and pretty blond-haired babies.
The street art of Buenos Aires is not only comparable to that of other major cities in terms of creativity and aesthetic power, but in its innovation as well. After the economic collapse of 2001, many artists were put out of work. Some took to the streets and experimented with different sprays, paints, and materials. They started covering the city with stencils, juxtaposing images of everyone from George Bush to David Bowie, sometimes with ironic captions. Pictures of animals now coexist alongside fantastical monsters and memorials to the disappeared. There is also a high concentration of politically themed stencils along the Avenida de Mayo down to the Plaza de Mayo congregate, where the mothers of those who have been disappeared congregate. Messages about world leaders, the state of the economy, and the fate of the disappeared cover the buildings, benches, and doors of this avenue, along with a noticeably high amount of anti-Semitic scribbling. A duo known as Vomito Attack, which coincidentally was my nickname in high school, utilizes cut-up scraps of newspaper and stencils to create controversial messages. “Vote Poder/Corrupción/Mentiras” reads one poster, “mas hambre, mas pobreza… mas drogas… mas idiotizar.”
The rise of political stencil art is not the first time in recent history that street art has been used to political ends. In her book entitled El Siluetazo, Ana Longoni writes:
“The realisation of silhouettes is the most memorable of the artistic-political practices that lent a potent visuality to the public space of Buenos Aires… [The silhouette] consists of a simple design in the form of the outline of a man-sized body on paper, later pasted on the city walls as a way of representing the presence of an absence of the thousands of prisoners who disappeared during the last military dictatorship… Eduardo Grüner thinks of the silhouettes as “attempts at representing the missing: that is to say not just the ‘absent’—given that by definition the entire representation is of an absent object—but that of the intentionally absented, those who were made to disappear through some form of material or symbolic violence; in our case, the representation of bodies missing due to a systematic polity or a conscious strategy. […] The Siluetazo signals one of those exceptional moments in history in which an artistic initiative coincides with a demand of the social movements, and gains form by the impulse of the masses. It involved the participation, in an improvised and immense open-air workshop that lasted well past midnight, of hundreds of demonstrators who painted and put their bodies for the sketching of the silhouettes and later pasted these on walls, monuments and trees, despite the threat of police action. In the middle of a hostile and repressive city, a (temporary) space was liberated due to a collective creation that can be thought of as a redefinition of artistic and political practice.”
Therein lies the power of street art. Strip off all aesthetic sheen to nothing more than a figure on a public space and it retains its potency. Regardless of what is drawn or written, beneath every little fleck of paint or strip of poster lies an inherent little fuck you. When it encapsulates something real, a popular sentiment of mourning and frustration, it can make a profound statement. In the case of the silhouettes, their compelling nature comes from their prohibition, a harmless practice in a state that sanctioned torturing and murdering its citizens.
The best work in Buenos Aires is found in La Boca, a neighborhood any local will tell you to shy away from at night. While an observer might see graffiti as defacement of property, the creator sees it as him or herself. When asked how he felt upon seeing his work displayed in a gallery for the first time, a New York street artist said it felt weird. Seeing his mark on an MTA train, he added, was extremely profound, and much more affecting. To appreciators of street art, these works are more than an outwardly directed invective. In the context of Buenos Aires, or any other place where failures of the system are as visible as national treasures, it is a mark on the urban space, an act of self-recognition in an unforgiving setting. Latin American cities tend to be poorer and more socially polarized than those of the United States. They also have more graffiti, on average. An abundance of graffiti in an urban area is not necessarily indicative of a derelict citizenry. It may however, point to a flawed system.
Street art is more than artistic protest or public murals. In the case of Buenos Aires, it has manifested itself simultane- ously as therapy, memorial, and aesthetic expression. Street art may technically be defacement of property, but to quote the good book, “Where there is no law there is no transgression (Romans 4:15).” In other words, imagine a city with no graffiti. Now imagine the horrors necessary to make that a reality.