When I first visited Buenos Aires in December last year I remember my first impression was that it was like Barcelona but with half the rules and twice the graffiti.
To fit in here, physical expression is mandatory and it's not just the people that are expressive. Every empty wall is a blank canvas, waiting for any budding street artist's next masterpiece.
The law here states that no one can be arrested for decorating a public or private space unless the arresting officer has a written complaint from the owner in his hand.
The law aside, graffiti has become a sought after adornment for many homes and businesses here. Owners not only give permission, they commission individual artists. La Cresta, my favorite takeaway restaurant is a great example. Instead of waiting for street artists to claim his rolling doors, Stuart, the owner and chef jumped the gun and created his own design. (You can see Meg, my best friend with two wheels leaning against the tree.)
Buenos Aires capital city is a living art gallery, telling stories of struggle, of love, of solidarity, all open to interpretation. New art appears daily, forcing people who are numbed by their daily commute, to ask questions and see their city with new eyes. I learned about the artists from Cecila, a passionate member of Graffiti Mundo – an organization that promotes 'regular guys doing amazing things' on the streets of BA.
Cecila says, "We like to be invisible. None of us are artists, we are here to highlight the work and tell a story."
That story goes back generations, starting in the 50s when politicians paid painters to decorate city streets with their names and party colors. It brought up the interesting issue of whether it is legal or illegal in a public space and a whole new channel of communication was born. One of the big differences here is that street artists normally get prior permission and work during the day, rather than the stereotypical vandals who sneak around at night.
We started our tour at the botanical gardens where the awesome guys from Biking BA hooked us up with bicycles to cruise around the different neighborhoods. Our group was made up of people from all over the globe and we had 8 or 9 stops over 3.5 hours of pleasure cycling on a Sunday afternoon. (The best time to be on a bike in BA.)
We started to recognize familiar artists, like Jaz who went to Barcelona when he was 14 years old and was influenced by the street art there. In the 90s, MTV and hiphop reached BA and tagging took off. Since all aerosol cans were imported, materials were expensive so the young artists learned to mix colors in the cans and work with a limited palate.
Jaz's technique evolved to combine tar and spraypaint, a creative solution to the huge import taxes in Argentina.
Ever, a local artist said he feels he is changing something in the world every time someone stops to look at his work, whatever conclusion they come to, they put their own judgement on his art.
One of the most impressive concentrations of graffiti is at the Villa Crespo bus terminal. Apparently Jaz had asked for permission to paint the dilapidated walls and been denied three times. It wasn't until his mother stormed the place, found the manager and demanded he come to his senses that permission was granted.
Another popular artist, Pum Pum got caught painting on a garbage can by a local policeman. However, instead of receiving a serious reprimand and possible arrest, the policeman saw the cute bunny rabbit she was painting and invited her to paint a mural on the wall of his daughter's bedroom! Classic Argentina.
Walking in a new neighborhood here is always a treat as you're never sure what will be revealed. Challenging themes and ideas like violence as a ritual and examination of football hooliganism share space with rainbows, bunny rabbits and whimiscal characters. The best bit is when another artist stops and adds something new to the design. It's an organic reinterpretation of the public space and opens up a whole new kind of dialogue.
Now the guys at Graffiti Mundo want to share their story of empowerment through urban art & activism, and show how the walls of Buenos Aires became the voice of its people.
They've just raised $36,630 through Kickstarter to fund their documentary White Walls Say Nothing.
I went to their pop-up fundraiser event a couple of weeks ago and got to meet my graffiti hero, Jaz in person and just like Cecila told me, he's just a normal dude, doing amazing things.
Now where's my spray can? I've got some stories to tell.