A fabulous monster, with an elephant’s head, the legs of a pig and a multi-striped body, strides across a wall. A bandoneon player leans nonchalantly across another wall. A panda bear sits eating bamboo shoots against as dazzling snow-white background.
These are a few of the striking images created by young street artists who are enlivening the often drab grey walls of Buenos Aires.
Thirty years ago, it was the Mother of the Plaza de Mayo and other protestors against the human rights abuses of the military dictatorship in Argentina who claimed the streets with images of the disappeared, holding up photographs or drawing outlines of those shot down by the security forces on the streets of the Argentine capital.
Then with the economic crash of 2001, a new generation felt the need to reclaim the public spaces of the capital. As factories, shops and warehouses closed and buildings become unoccupied, they began to fill these empty walls with their huge, colourful creations.
Mart, now in his late twenties, describes his first experiences:
‘I used to paint at night because I thought it was against the law. But then a cop stopped his patrol car and said: ‘that’s great, carry on.’
Encouraged in this way, Mart began to use his spray cans in the day-time. As he says: ‘I didn’t train as an artist, you learn by doing it, and start to feel free to make walls your own.’
This too has been the experience of Zumi, another street [painter in her twenties. A fashion designer, she aims to bring ‘quiet and calm’ to the usually loud and chaotic streets of Buenos Aires. Her figures are soft and non-threatening, and she has been commissioned to paint on the walls of local schools and hospitals.
Zumi says she meets more often with approval than censure:
‘Some people have shouted at me, but others come up to you when you’re painting, ask what you’re doing, and then often start to tell you about their lives and the changes they’ve seen in the neighbourhood.’
Zumi and her friends have used this interest to create cultural events with music poetry and dance alongside their paintings, in order to build up community spirit.
‘It’s important to get people out of their homes and into the street, so that they feel they own these public spaces,’ she insists. ‘All too often, they’re afraid to come out.’
Several of these Argentine street artists created works for an exhibition in London in September 2012. The organiser of the show, and the man who co-ordinates many of their initiatives in Buenos Aires, is Jonny
He points to the movement’s roots in the tradition of Mexican muralism from the early 20th century, and also the long tradition in Buenos Aires of painting buses, newspaper kiosks and elsewhere with bright lettering.
He stresses though that in many ways today’s street artists are reacting against all the political slogans so often daubed on the walls of the Argentine capital.
‘People are fed up with that kind of politics, which is done in their name perhaps, but is carried out by professional activists who have nothing to say beyond slogans. The new artists paint fantasies in bright colours, and allow people to dream.’
Jonny stresses that this form of expression hopes to transform public space, and to challenge conventional ideas of what graffiti is, what street art represents, who creates it, and why.
He points out also that the street artists are starting to fall victim of their own success. He speaks of an art collector who paid to remove the wall of a shanty-town dwelling because he liked the mural on it so much.
Zumi admits there are some unscrupulous dealers who try to lift paintings off the walls they are painted on. ‘But what’s important is to get people talking about what they want from the public spaces they live in, and whether they feel they have the right to intervene in something so directly connected to their everyday lives.’
To see more of the Buenos Aires’ street artists’ work, go to: www.graffitimundo.com and facebook.com/graffitimundo; watch: