BA’s rise to street art prominence
The last few years have seen Buenos Aires come to rival cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro as a centre of street art in South America. Artists from all over the world have come to the city and left their mark on neighbourhoods from San Telmo to Palermo Soho. The work of internationally renowned street artists such as Blu(from Italy), Jim Vision (the UK), Jef Aerosol (France) and Ron English (United States) sits alongside murals fromArgentine artists such as Martín Ron, Ever, Chu, and Spok Brillor.
Buenos Aires is now firmly plugged into what critic Martin Irvine calls the ‘global urban network’ of street artists. Examples of the city’s art are nowdocumented extensively on the web via sites such as graffitimundo and the Google street art project. Street art tours are also now on the ‘to do’ list of many of the tourists who visit the city.
What has facilitated the rise of Buenos Aires to street art capital? Well, openness for a start. Whereas in many countries, street art is seen as vandalism, in Buenos Aires it is largely embraced. There is a recognition that imaginative and large scale pieces of art can really add to the flavour of a neighbourhood. As sub-secretary of public space, Patricio di Stefano noted ‘the murals are here to surprise, to add pleasure, art, culture and joy to the public space’.
Artists need only the permission of the building owner to paint. Indeed, it is quite common for home owners and local businesses to commission artists to paint the facade of their building.
Matt Fox Tucker, co-author of Textura Dos: Buenos Street Art, writes that ‘In Buenos Aires, street artists don’t need to wear balaclavas and sneak around at night with aerosol cans’.The fact that artists include website addresses or social media handles alongside their signatures is indicative of this acceptance. Street artists are not faceless, underground types in Buenos Aires, but figures who are in dialogue with the urban environment and the communities they are working in. The murals are ‘seen in the most routine’ of circumstances says artist Martín Ron. They ‘take you by surprise’ and help you to ‘interpret’ the area around you he adds.
Medianeras as Street Art Canvas
It also helps street artists that Buenos Aires has of a lot of wall space and abandoned buildings on which to paint. Architect and street art critic, Sorcha O’Higgins describes the medianera (the walls between houses) as a ‘distinctly porteño architectural feature’. The ‘ubiquity of them’, she writes, ‘defin[es] the visual language of the city’. The proliferation of medianeras in Buenos Aires is testament to the speed of demolition and rebuilding in the city.
While much Buenos Aires street art is comparatively small-scale, there are some extremely large and striking murals painted onto the sides of high rises dotted around the city. Some of these were painted as part of Proyecto Duo, an initiative launched by the City Government in collaboration with Underground Producciones, with the intention of ‘bringing art to the streets’. The project saw 12 artists collaborate in pairs to paint six extremely large murals onto the sides of buildings across the city. Spoke and Lean Frizzera’s extraordinary three-headed dragon painted on a medianera on the corner of Avenida Cordoba and Malabia is perhaps the most striking example.
Art and Repression under the Dictatorship
Political art or pintadas políticas have long tradition in Argentina. As academic Tanya Filer notes ‘The walls of Buenos Aires and other Argentine cities have long offered themselves as sites for […] and social and political commentary’.
In his book Political Protest and Street Art, Lyman Chafee traces the origins of pintadas in Argentina back to the end of the nineteenth century and the first couple of decades of the twentieth century when political parties including the Socialists and the Radicals, and then later the Liga Patriótica Argentina and the Anarchists, would plaster posters across Buenos Aires to get their message across to the population. That tradition carried on through to the 1950s and 1960s when groups were paid to paint slogans on walls supporting various political parties. That tradition is ongoing, as the film-maker Julián D’Angiolillo has documented in his film Cuerpo de Letra. The film tracks bands of letristas as they trawl the city looking for empty walls on which to paint slogans in support of one candidate or other.
The kind of street art that we see in Buenos Aires today, however, is a more recent phenomenon. Whereas in the UK, street art started to enter the public consciousness as part of the hip-hop scene that emerged out of New York in the late 1970s, street art didn’t come to prominence in Argentina until the mid-1980s after the end of the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 until 1983. In the wake of the dictatorship’s fall, activists would daub the walls of those who were known to have committed human rights abuses.
Of course, this does not mean that Buenos Aires was a graffiti and street-art-free-zone during the authoritarian period. It wasn’t. Tanya Filer notes that during the dictatorship, street art provided a ‘creative outlet and a tool for political vocalisation’. Nevertheless, street art was a risky activity during the authoritarian period. Street artists’ capacity to disrupt the sanctity of private property (the notion that graffiti and street art was an act vandalism was still dominant of course) and their critiquing of the state was at odds with the goals of the dictatorship expressed through the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (National Reorganization Process).
Indeed, the Proceso viewed art, artists and culture more generally with considerable suspicion. The cultural sphere was seen as an arena in which the spuriously defined notion of ‘subversion’ could flourish. Noted Argentine thinker and jurist German Bidart Campos argued that the dictatorship thought it ‘logical and necessary for the State to practice its police power on cultural products’.
Art and artists were targeted and were disappeared as part of Operación Claridad.
The (Re)Emergence of Street Art in Argentina
The end of the dictatorship created the space for street art to re-emerge. Laura Tositti writes that ‘after years of repression, many young artists were eager to replace their arms with spray cans and paint brushes’ and ‘repossess public space’.
As in other South American countries, Argentines’ interest in street art really accelerated during the 1990s. Street art received a significant boost in the wake of the economic crisis that the country suffered at the end of the nineties and the beginning of the noughties. This period saw considerable economic hardship visited upon the population as the economy contracted by about a quarter. Buenos Aires’ street artists used their pieces to critique the crisis, with the slogan ‘Que se vayan todos!’ (They all must go!) being particularly prominent.
Buenos Aires Street Art: Styles and Themes
Today street art in Buenos Aires encompasses a whole variety of different techniques and issues.
Stencils, murals, stickers, mosaics and street installations are just some of the forms that street art can take. Some street art celebrates cultural figures like ‘godfather of tango’ Carlos Gardel or Argentine football legend Diego Maradona. Other pieces have a more political bent, memorialising particular figures such as Juan Perón, ‘Evita’ Perón, and Néstor Kirchner, as well as the Dirty War and the 1982 Malvinas conflict.
Politically-charged pieces are not just the preserve of Argentine artists either – witness Blu’s amazing mural of a crowd, their eyes covered by a ribbon in the colours of the Argentine flag, while a shadowy figure wearing what appears to be the presidential sash of Argentina stands in the background.
Political art is particularly apparent in the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires’ most famous square, which features both a long mural dedicated to the 1982 conflict in with Britain, as well as representations of the white headscarves worn by the mothers and grandmothers of the Plaza Mayo – the mothers of the disappeared – who continue their ritual of walking round the square every Thursday. Indeed, the headscarves which are painted on the ground actively demarcate the area that the mothers cover. That symbol adorns many buildings within the city. The fact that images of the headscarf are left untouched is testament to the respect with which the mothers and the grandmothers continue to be held.
Street Art and the Gallery
As in many other cities where street art is very prominent, street art in Buenos Aires has transcended the street and has entered the space of the gallery. Galería Union in Palermo is one of several galleries to have sprung up in the city in recent years.
While it is perhaps the case that street art loses a bit of its potency when it leaves street and enters the home, entering the gallery has provided a further opportunity for street artists to monetise their talent, and earn a living from what they do. And it’s not necessarily the case that moving into the gallery or into cultural centres somehow signals a loss of authenticity. As artist La Wife argues, ‘gallery culture can be used intelligently’. It can be used to ‘change people’s perspectives on street art’ and can reinforce the fact that the work is ‘not vandalism’.
Street art is now a very firm part of the identity of many Buenos Aires neighbourhoods, and of the city as a whole. It is as Porteño as Fernet and coke, pizza and Boca Juniors.