When I arrived in Buenos Aires, I had no idea the city was so well known for its amazing graffiti – but even in my first few hours of exploring, I began to discover splashes of color and creativity on almost every block. And I’m not just talking about the quickly-spray-painted tags and angry acts of vandalism that you see in most cities; I’m talking about beautiful works of public art. Now, that’s not to say that Buenos Aires doesn’t have more than its fair share of tags and vandalism, or that these forms of graffiti aren’t art in their own right. But the porteño street art culture is indisputably unique – and incredibly accessible.
As such, numerous organizations have popped up to support Buenos Aires’ graffiti scene and introduce tourists and locals alike to the city’s unique artistic heritage through street art tours throughout the barrios. After a few months of my own exploring – during which time I became more and more obsessed with street art culture – I finally joined one of these tours last week with Graffiti Mundo. It was amazing! Although one of the wonderful things about street art is how accessible and public it is, the tour took me to some street art havens I might otherwise have missed, and more importantly, provided the context between the graffiti we were looking at; Graffiti Mundo works directly with many of BA’s most prominent street artists and is familiar with the local scene and its history.
Now, I recognize that “prominent street artists” might seem like an oxymoron given the oftentimes-anonymous nature of the art form. And yes, much of the city’s street art and graffiti is anonymous. But as our tour guide explained, one of the things that makes Buenos Aires’ street art so unique is how tolerated – and even appreciated – it is. There may be laws against graffiti, but they’re not strongly enforced as they are in most other cities. The result is artists who, rather than spray-painting a quick tag in the dark, set up their paint beside a sun-drenched wall to work on a beautiful mural for hours or days on end without fear of punishment. This also means that artists have less reason to stay anonymous, and it’s not uncommon to see artists leave not only a signature but an email address or website as well.
Buenos Aires has a long history of political graffiti, often in the form of political party names or slogans painted in huge block letters on highly visible areas like bridges and along major highways – one of the most effective form of advertising to reach marginalized populations who might lack access to television or internet. Other times, like during the country’s oppressive dictatorship, graffiti was the only safe form of self-expression.
But in recent decades, a new form of street art began to appear in the city, much of it decidedly apolitical. Emerging from the devastating Argentine economic crisis of 2001, street art provided a new generation of young artists with a way to add color and optimism to the city’s grey walls and lift its dampened spirits. The optimistic and playful beginnings of the “new” street art movement surprised and inspired me, and I think it says something about the city and its people that so many responded to the depression with optimistic splashes of color rather than scrawling angry messages on walls (not that this is always uncalled for – I love political graffiti and peaceful protest as much as the next girl).
Now for the good stuff: some of my favorite stops on the tour…
Mysteriously Nameless Square at Matienzo and Zapiola: a Street Art Haven
Both of these pieces were completed as part the street art festival Meeting of Styles, which used this square as its main hub. The piece on the left is by British street artist Jim Vision, and the piece on the right is by local artist JAZ, whose style you’ll come to recognize throughout the city. He paints with a unique mixture of latex paint, tar and gas, which makes his paint last longer and also gives it the beautiful oil painting look he’s so well known for. Teta and Salta, the names painted above the minotaurs, are a tribute to the piece that was there before this one, of two local boys who were killed by police.
Some other amazing pieces in the square:
The stories behind these amazing pieces made my 150 pesos worth it. Standing alone, these are beautiful works of art. But with context, they become meaningful works of self-expression.
Street Art Haven Number Two: Villa Crespo Bus Depot
This was probably my favorite stop. The walls around the bus depot are covered in colorful graffiti, and new pieces are added all the time. I love thinking about the layers and layers of paint on these walls; like the city and its people, the art is always changing. One beautiful piece is painted over with another; nothing is permanent. It’s one of the most unique things about street art, and also one of the reasons I find it so fascinating. It creates a community of artists who are constantly collaborating and adding to each other’s art, respecting unspoken rules about when it’s okay to paint over an old piece and, in the process, accepting the destruction of one’s own art to make room for the expression of a neighbor. In many ways, it’s art in its truest form and spirit.
Stencil Mural in Palermo Soho
This piece by Cabaio Stencil stands alone on Costa Rica, hiding behind it a trendy Argentinean restaurant. It’s a mural done entirely in stencils, each made impressively by hand (a tedious task that can take up to thirty hours per stencil). If you get the opportunity to visit this piece, take your time: there’s a ton going on, and even on your tenth look I promise you’ll find something new. Interestingly, Cabaio Stencil considers this piece a decidedly apolitical departure from his previous political stencil work (which includes a pretty awesome parody campaign for the fake PCM party, standing for “Poder, Corrupción y Mentiras,” or “Power, Corruption and Lies”). Whatever you say, Cabaio – “the revolution will not be televised” sounds pretty darn political to me.
Our Final Stop: Hollywood in Cambodia
Our final stop was graffiti bar-slash-gallery Hollywood in Cambodia, collectively owned by many of the street artists we saw on the tour, with whom Graffiti Mundo works closely. As our tour guide joked, “this is what they do when it rains.” Stop in for a drink and admire the graffitied walls and terrace (which, like the streets, are always evolving as guest street artists drop in from out of town), or check out the gallery in the back and buy a painting or stencil print. The exhibitions are always changing, and the gallery gives the artists the opportunity to experiment with new media and make a living doing what they love.
**UPDATE: Check out my new street art photography blog!