Do you remember the first time you saw graffiti art?
If you’re our age, you wouldn’t have tagged on the word “art.” It was just graffiti. Done by disaffected youth, mostly male, spray-can painting loud and incoherent 3-D lettering illegally, in subways and underpasses. Since its emergence in the late 60s graffiti art has grown up, although its locations and presentations are still obstacles to its mainstream acceptance.
Location and time were the obstacles to Magellan and me seeing graffiti art in Buenos Aires (BA), a city renowned for one of the best collections of it in the world. (Porteños—the residents of BA—prefer to call it street art rather than graffiti art.) BA’s street-as-studio art is scattered across its many barrios, often in quasi-abandoned industrial areas. Finding the street for specific street art was a major obstacle. I was eager to see the work of Blu (no addresses to be found) and Martín Ron’s Pedro Luján and his Dog (“on the wall of a factory building in the Barracas barrio”). I figured Graffitmundo’s graffiti and street art tours were the best, but they were three hours long, Saturday’s tour was too rushed for our dinner reservation at a closed-door restaurant and Sunday’s tour was in Spanish. (Yet again, we lamented not speaking the language….)
Early Sunday morning, we took our second cups of coffee to the circular table amid the towering bookcases in the lounge of the Legado Mítico Hotel. Magellan spread out a large map of the city and searched his iPhone for street-art locations. “I’ll find out where they are,” he assured me.
Meanwhile, I noted places to add to our Triposo travel app: Calle Lanín, the San Telmo market, La Boca and BA’s Hugo Echarri’s paintings of Woody Allen at Centro Cultural Borges.
Success: Magellan lived up to his namesake and found a Spanish site that yielded the street address for the Martín Ron artwork.
Success times two: we hailed a cab driven by a woman named Soledad who spoke English. She had no wifi and her GPS wasn’t working, so Magellan navigated using his iPhone.
Like us, it was the first time Soledad had seen Calle Lanin, a cobblestoned three-block street where all the houses are decorated with colourful tile mosaics. Wall candy. (For more flavour, click on any image.)
But nothing, not even artist Marino Santa María’s beautiful transformation of these houses, could prepare us for the breathtaking surrealism of Martín Ron’s mural. Emerging—like it was swimming toward you out of a portal in the broken-windowed factory wall—gigantic, and seemingly 3-D, was a turtle. We were mesmerized, hooked, had to see more. And there was more.
Within eyesight there were about five other murals, their size monumental. Also within eyesight was a favela (slum) and soon, a police car. “What did he say?” we asked Soledad after she spoke to the policeman. “Don’t stay too long in this area and keep your car locked,” she replied.
While we enjoyed the rest of the day, we could hardly wait to return to the hotel and see if the helpful staff could arrange a Graffitmundo tour for us for a few hours early Monday morning before we left BA. Success times three: we hopped in a car the next morning with Cecilia Quiles to see BA’s walls of art.
Cecilia is tall and wiry with curls springing loose from her tied-back hair, eager to share her many stories about street art. (We found porteños to have an abundance of spirit and generosity, starting with the first person we met: a cab driver late Friday afternoon who told us how to avoid swindlers in his profession.)
Cecilia explained how one Sunday afternoon during the economic crisis of 2001, a group of graphic artists, designers and architects were having a barbeque with their families, drinking wine and talking about Argentina’s bleak socio-political situation. Following years of military uprisings, coups and dictatorships, Argentina was defaulting on its $95 billion debt—the largest in world history at that time. Citizens had staged Argentinazos, revolts urging the country’s corrupt politicians to resign in disgrace for the nation’s plummet into poverty. The Sunday lunchers decided to “go to the wall” to brighten the outlook of people in their city.
They got out paint cans. (Spray paint was illegal and couldn’t be imported into Argentina at that time.) Went outside and put up ladders on the host’s walls. Dipped their brushes into pails of vibrant colours. Painted a whimsical mural in a few hours. BA’s street-art movement was reborn.
Their neighbours, once they got over the shock of the new, loved it. Street artists started painting walls, some of the work illicit, some of it commissioned: people’s homes, city property, business establishments, abandoned warehouses…. Although it’s illegal, BA’s authorities mostly avert their eyes and a new bill has been proposed to build a registry of street artists and assign them designated spots throughout the city.
As we conversed non-stop over two hours, the perspicacious (delighted to use this word as there aren’t many people you can attach it to, eh?) Cecilia regaled us with her passion, intelligence and inside knowledge of the evolution-after-the-revolution of this art, which has been expressed and repressed in various forms in BA since the 1920s. She told us how Graffitmundo got started in 2009 when two young women from the UK, Marina Charles and Jo Sharff, were blown away by the city’s vibrant street art and discovered there was no company offering information about it.
During Cecilia’s fascinating tour we saw the works of about 15 diverse artists, including Cabaio’s kaleidoscopic stencils covering an Asian restaurant near our hotel, Jaz’s multi-storey man-beast figures in combat—with a back story—and Zumi’s gentle animals. Haunting is the backstory behind the mural of white headless headscarves near a children’s playground in the Plaza de Mayo. During the Dirty War of 1976-1983 when it was illegal to demonstrate in groups of more than three, mothers began protesting the disappearance of their children by quietly walking the plaza every Thursday from 3:30-4:00 wearing white headscarves so they’d recognize each other’s plight. (The vigils continue to this day.)
Cecilia told us another interesting story of a mural covering an empty home in Palermo, its windows and doors bricked up awaiting the court’s interpretation of a contested will. The openings had been bricked because according to BA’s laws, if squatters moved in and a baby was been born to any of them, they would have had the right to live there until the child reached the age of 18. The owners hired Fintan Magee to paint a mural that ironically, depicts a man with a house on his back, a political reference to the burden of impoverished homeless citizens worldwide who struggle to find a place to live.
The tour concluded in the art district of Villa Urquiza with the piece I had been dreaming about seeing, the disquieting factory man created by the enigmatic Blu in 2007.
For us, street art was the #1 attraction in Buenos Aires, nicknamed the “Paris of Latin America” more than a century ago when it was the sixth wealthiest city in the world and, like Paris, had neoclassical buildings, wide plane-tree-lined boulevards, outdoor cafés, thriving bookshops, a proud sense of style—and a lively arts scene.
The murals we saw over two mornings in BA, a city that has thousands of them—even on churches—made me think about the evolution of art over the last century.
At the turn of the twentieth century in Paris, Picasso revolutionized art by assembling a guitar from steel—a radical leap from the traditional method around the world of sculpting objects in marble, bronze or wood.
At the turn of the twenty-first century in the Paris of Latin America, a group of friends revolutionized art by creating an outdoor mural on the walls of a house with colourful paint—a radical leap from traditional graffiti art around the world that was mostly vandals spray-bombing subways, gangs tagging territories, amateurs dabbing the walls quickly, covertly. Art of, and for, the people. The people who never see what’s inside on the walls at places like BA’s Museo de Arte Latinoamericano.
Magellan, in his Google virtual car this week searching for addresses for our favourite outdoor walls in BA, discovered the fleeting nature of street art. “Come see this,” he said. As Cecilia told us, the people of BA respect the work of street artists but outdoor art is vulnerable and after a period of time, sadly, tagging occurs.
In what direction will street art evolve? Inside? Perhaps. An example is graffiti painted by the internationally renowned artist Damien Hirst in the Soho House members’ club/hotel in Berlin. And murals by street artists are being commissioned by individual homeowners who want to wake up to walls with edgy statements. Evolve outdoors? For sure. BA’s street artists are painting wall murals on buildings in Europe, North America—even in New Zealand. As reported in Business Insider, “‘The murals are here to surprise, to add pleasure, art, culture and joy to the public space,’ says Patricio di Stefano, the sub-secretary of public space for the city of Buenos Aires, which spends more than $60,000 a year commissioning graffiti.” Plus, this art form controls vandalism. Clearly, BA’s street artists have something to say to the rest of the world.
UPDATE: July 16, 2021: “What Makes Good Street Art?” Ozy. “It manifests in many shapes and forms — spray cans, but also paper, glue and stickers. So how can you actually tell what is Banksy-hot and what is not? Australian Fintan Magee, who paints large-scale hyperreal pieces depicting humans in vulnerable situations, says it all depends on the eyes observing it. “From the artist’s perspective, it is about intention and self-awareness,” he tells OZY. “If the artist intends to express a certain idea or image and is able to pull it off, then it’s good work.” For Boneta-Marie Mabo, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait artist based in Brisbane, Australia, the key is in the message an image can convey. “Street art is supposed to be political,” she tells OZY. “It’s supposed to scream at you, to tell you something, but I feel that it has been diluted so much that now it’s just pretty pictures on the walls that make people feel nice.”
Magellan and I highly recommend a graffiti art tour with Graffitimundo, a thriving non-profit group that has also created a documentary, White Walls Say Nothing, funded through Kickstarter and scheduled for release this year. Here’s a brief history Graffitimundo has done on BA’s street art.
The Legado Mítico, a great boutique hotel in Palermo Soho where Magellan and I stayed (and highly recommend), has only 11 rooms, each named after a famous Argentinian. Walls and shelves decorated with memorabilia of Tita Merello, the film artist, tango dancer and singer who was prominent for six decades, surrounded our dreams for three nights.
Despite intensive searching, Magellan never did rediscover the Spanish site he found over coffee Sunday morning in BA that led us to Martín Ron’s Pedro Luján and his Dog in the Barracas. What Magellan did find was Street Art with Google Art Project, a recent work-in-progress catalogue that contains many significant errors in location. On the map provided below you can find the exact location of many of our favourite pieces in case you don’t take a tour and happen to be nearby while in a taxi or walking.