Wishing on a Wall

by Catherine Osborn:

My only instructions were to go the corner of Conde and Jorge Newbury Streets in Buenos Aires to meet my tour group, but I immediately identified the tour’s starting point by neon dolls and stars blossoming across a bright pink wall nearby. The attraction on that winter afternoon last July was the neighborhood itself, which is covered in graffiti by local artists.

“Welcome to graffitimundo,” announced Jo Sharff, our tour guide. Jo is a music producer who moved to Buenos Aires from London two years ago.  She may seem an unusual guide to a previously underground graffiti movement, but I soon discovered that little about the art or the tour is usual. The artists paint dolls and animals rather than “tagging” gang names and face minimal police opposition to their work. The positive publicity generated by Jo and fellow British expat Marina Charles has helped them show and sell their work in local galleries, changing both tourists’ and locals’ conceptions of street art.

Jo Sharff narrates the several styles of graffiti on the roof of Hollywood in Cambodia, a Palermo gallery. Spot the swine flu reference. (Osborn/TYG)

Art and Politics in Buenos Aires

Jo and Marina’s graffiti tour is the first of its kind of the world, and is only possible through the marriage of political and artistic history that has shaped the face of today’s Buenos Aires. Stanford student Charlotte Lau, who spent six months in Buenos Aires in 2008 studying this relationship, explained that “graffiti has always played a major role in Buenos Aires’s political consciousness.” By the time New York’s graffiti culture of gangs and hip hop gained international fame in the late 1970s, writing on walls in Argentina had already served purposes as diverse as plugging political parties, protesting working conditions, publicizing theater and the arts, and communicating general hippie sentiments.

According to Lau, graffiti first appeared in Argentina as political propaganda during the rise of populist President Juan Peron in the 1950s.  In 1976, the military dictator General Juan Carlos Onganía seized power and graffiti in Argentina hit a standstill along with other forms of free expression. It sprang up again upon restoration of democracy in 1983, with some newly emancipated artists driven to commemorate the human rights violations during the dictatorship and others drifting toward hip-hop style “tagging” in imitation of New York. Then, in 1998, a group of graphic design students from the University of Buenos Aires became the first of several graffiti collectives in the city to focus primarily on aesthetics. Over the past decade, their style, known as “muñequismo,” has come to be known for its sunny and cartoonlike aesthetic. Muñequismo forms the bulk of Jo and Marina’s tour and proclaims a simple, apolitical mission. Between a rosy goat and a smiling banana-colored robot sprayed across the top of a warehouse wall in the Colegiales neighborhood are the words porque pintar es lindo: “because to paint is beautiful.”

The graffiti in Colegiales and Palermo is more than just a tourist attraction: it has special meaning for porteños, or Buenos Aires residents. Ana Markman, a student at the University of Buenos Aires and frequent visitor to the Palermo neighborhood, said that beyond bringing “a new kind of liveliness” to the area, the graffiti’s spread celebrates allows a new freedom of expression for porteños. “Public space was never recovered as our own, even after the military dictatorship ended in 1983,” Markman explained. After democracy was restored, the public mood shifted from fear of being labeled a guerilla under the dictatorship to dismay at the 2001 economic crash to mounting unease with the policies of the current Kirchner administration.  Markman noted that “inequity and insecurity have grown scarily fast, and all of that affects our relationship with public space.”

The walls in this area are an outlet and a salve for the social angst of porteños as well as a living chronicle of the different graffiti styles of the past fifty years.  Across the street from the warehouse, a mural of a children’s park is watched over by silhouettes of white headscarves, symbols of the mothers of children who disappeared during the military dictatorship. Ten feet over, a giant “RPS” in bubble letters marks the visit of a grafitero, or tagger.

Law Enforcement

Crucial to graffiti’s success in Buenos Aires is the low level of police opposition.  “The only time law enforcement really minds graffiti is when the process of creating it gets violent, which happens most often between political parties,” explained Jo.  “Those spots along the main roads are competitive,” Sharff continued. “To take them, a van will pull up to them at night and six guys hired by the political party will jump out with spray paint and a gun to discourage challengers. “This” — she gestured to a muñequismo mural on a nearby bridge depicting a fleet of green submarines —“is obviously also done on public property, but in this case the community welcomes it.”

Lau characterized graffiti in Buenos Aires as “a political gray area” that contains far fewer urban violence overtones than does the graffiti in, say, New York City. Nicholas Conway, who teaches a “Hip Hop Music and Culture” seminar at Yale, argues that New York graffiti reflects a far more antagonistic relationship with authority. Law enforcement officials in the U.S. deal with graffiti aggressively, subscribing to the  “broken windows theory,” which posits that the mere appearance of lax policing causes crime, and therefore recommends dealing strictly with graffiti artists.

“For example, on July 3, 1976, the night before America’s bicentennial, three writers went into a subway storage yard in Queens and painted entire cars with 5 different versions of the US flag,” Conway explained. Although these were elaborate, patriotic symbols, “the city refused to let the subway run the next day because they thought it would legitimize the writers.” What is seen as subversive in New York is celebrated in other cities such as São Paolo, whose painted subway cars are world famous.

Formal and Informal Art Economies

One of Jo and Marina’s main goals is to incorporate street artists into the formal economy of local art galleries. The neighborhood tour stops at several of these galleries, where prints, paintings, comic books, shirts, and dolls are available for sale. Helped by this publicity and its hip expatriate consumer bracket, a few graffiti artists in Palermo have been contracted by homeowners and small businesses to paint and stencil building façades.

Conway said that that the commercial success of some muñequismo in Buenos Aires does challenge conventional definitions of graffiti: “By nature, does graffiti have to be this outlaw art that you do at night looking over your shoulder? Some graffiti artists are purists, and they won’t paint walls if they have to ask for permission or if a business would hire them.” In Buenos Aires these are the grafiteros, one of whom had tagged over some more cheerful stenciling at a stop on our tour. That happens on occasion,” said Jo, “although it is more ideological differences than actual antagonism between the groups. Besides, one of the most exciting parts about this art scene is that the content of the walls is constantly changing. We change the route of the tour accordingly.”

Several times on our tour, I was struck by the similarity between the graffiti and the work featured in the most recent exhibition at Malba, the contemporary art museum where I was interning that summer.  Called “Escuelismo,” the exhibit featured Argentine art of the 80s and 90s and highlighted artists’ tendency to “return to the basics” of primary school imagery, using cartoon figures as a way of dealing with senseless political and economic times, explained Malba education director Florencia González de Langarica (you could roughly translate esquelismo to “school-ism,” similar to muñequismo, or  “doll-ism”).

Muñequismo blossomed right after the 2001 economic crash, looking to the images of childhood for hope just as the Escuelismo artists may have looked to them for sense following the dictatorship. High art and low art often influence one another and draw inspiration from the same events.  At the end of the tour we meet with one of the street graffiti artists, Tek. Speaking with him about different prints he had for sale was not so different from meeting a visiting artist at Malba the previous week.

Broadening the question of art legitimacy to all styles of graffiti, Nicholas Conway pointed out that “a lot of tags are beautiful and stylized. A lot of them are in essence what a kindergartener would draw. What a kindergartener makes may not be beautiful, but it’s still art. I think if thought goes into it and there is an aesthetic intention, then it is art.” Such intention — aesthetic, yes, but also intertwined with Argentina’s politics, society, and local communities — sets the walls of Buenos Aires apart.

Catherine Osborn is a sophomore Latin American Studies and International Studies double major in Pierson College.