The street art of Buenos Aires: all for the people

In the past decade, the walls of Argentina's capital have become the collective canvas for a boom in street art -- works meant to beautify public places.
By Christine Dell'Amore
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 29, 2010; 3:31 PM

It's only fitting that in a city named for its pleasant weather, much of the most striking art should be found outdoors.

It's a flawless fall afternoon in Buenos Aires, and I'm standing on the street, staring at a painted power station wall that seems, aptly, to be electrified with color and whimsy. A charging elephant stares back at me, part of the jumble of giant bubble letters, monstrous faces and abstract designs that covers what would otherwise be an unremarkable gray space.

In the past decade, the walls of Argentina's capital have become the collective canvas for a boom in street art - works meant to beautify public places. Although this practice is technically illegal, police mostly look the other way, and portenos - or Buenos Aires residents - even commission pieces from an expanding stable of artists. A recent article in Travel + Leisure magazine ranked Buenos Aires ninth best in the world for street art - Los Angeles was first - and Graffitimundo, a new company supporting the medium, began offering walking tours that showcase street art in 2009.

As an artist who likes coloring outside the lines, I wanted to see this graphic revolution for myself. Which is why I've joined 21 other art enthusiasts on a tour that has brought us to this wall in Colegiales, a mostly residential neighborhood near Palermo, a middle-class pocket of expansive green spaces, museums and outdoor cafes. A banner at the top of the mural proclaims the street artist's manifesto: Porque pintar es lindo - because painting is beautiful.

"If you ask them why they paint, that's what they'd say, that sums up really that they love painting," says our tour guide, Marina Charles, a British transplant to Argentina and Graffitimundo's co-founder. "And they also love that other people really enjoy it."

Yet to portenos, street art began as more than just pretty pictures. When a 2001 economic crash wiped out private savings accounts and ushered in five presidents in five weeks, frustrated artists hit the streets in a sort of social experiment to uplift their countrymen with art.

"It was like the people were reclaiming the city," Charles says.

What was born from chaos blossomed into a bona fide movement that has since branched out into many diverse styles and subjects. The artists - who often go by pithy street names such as Chu, Nasa and Larva - use different methods. Some work with household paint and brushes, others with aerosol cans or stencils with paint. Subjects range from what Charles calls "traditional images with a twist" - such as an Argentine gaucho, or cowboy, holding a rock guitar, by Stencilland - to political statements, such as Buenos Aires Stencil's George Bush with Mickey Mouse ears, a critique of the Afghanistan invasion.

To be clear, street art - at least according to Charles - is a different animal from graffiti, which emerged in New York and France in the 1960s and was later adopted as a written form of hip-hop. A territorial language, graffiti doesn't mean anything to most. Street art, on the other hand, belongs to the people.

As Charles leads us through the quiet, leafy streets, my eye begins to pick out the various artists' trademark styles. An artist called Gualicho dreams up "surreal mystical landscapes" of interconnected building parts, animals and plants - all with a "darker edge." Jazz was partial to donkeys, but only for a while - he's now into painting wrestlers and rowdy futbol fans. There are Nerf's cubist 3-D shapes, shadowed with impeccable freehand. One of the few female street artists, Zumi draws from nature for her peaceful yet disorderly scenes of blooming flowers and teeming oceans.

This is not to say that street art is a solo activity: Just as it takes two to tango, it took several artists to make many of the tableaux Charles shows us (15 artists created the power-station mural, for instance). The artists - most of whom do street art part time - often meet on Sundays to throw back some beer, crank up the radio and literally paint the town, Charles says.

Open art

Accompanying our tour is one of the city's most prolific stencilists, who goes by the moniker Rundontwalk. Suddenly, on a wall in the fashionable area Palermo Hollywood, named for its many TV studios, he shows us street art in action. He unrolls his stencil and makes a small painting combining Janet Leigh's screaming mouth in "Psycho," the eyes of the late Argentine president Juan Peron, and the forehead and eyes of Argentine musician La Mona Jimenez - all overlaid on pink and yellow stripes.

When I ask him why he chose such a random mix of people for the painting, he tells me that he simply likes the combination. The former art director is known for his sarcastic stencils, such as a little masked piglet - a commentary on the hysteria over last year's outbreak of swine flu - as well as his fondness for cats, one of which we see writ large in black and white. Later, Rundontwalk tells me that because street artists don't run with the standard art crowd, their works are more accessible. "It's not in a museum or a gallery," he says. "It's an open art that anyone can appreciate."

Judging from the size of our tour group, - the biggest ever, Charles told me later - street art has its admirers. Olivia Grobbelaar, an artist and University of East Anglia student doing her dissertation on street art, tells me that she found Buenos Aires's pieces to be "deeper" - "like the artist is talking to you through the art" - than what she has seen in the U.K. Writer Andrew Green, also of the U.K., pulls out his smartphone to show me a photograph of a giant astronaut on a wall in Berlin. Many may see graffiti as visual pollution, Green says, but he believes that street art shows an artist "interacting with the world around them, [saying], 'This is what's affecting me.'"

Our walk ends in Palermo Soho, a neighborhood of funky boutiques that got its name for its bohemian, New York vibe. Charles takes us into the Post Bar/Hollywood in Cambodia Gallery, where many street artists sell their work and socialize. Not surprisingly, the bar's interior - and even the outdoor patio upstairs - is covered floor to ceiling with art, a free-for-all mishmash of every style I've seen on this day. As we relax over German beers and reggae, I ask Charles what she wants people to get out of the tour. "It would be nice," she says, "if their eyes have been opened" to street art as a legitimate art form, and not vandalism.

The people speak

That gets me thinking about what a, well, person on the street would think about street art. So the next morning, I go to the sun-dappled downtown park Plaza San Martin, where I talk to Buenos Aires resident Carlos Schenquerman. Through an interpreter, he tells me that he doesn't approve of street art on public buildings, many of which have historic value and should not be touched. But he says that he enjoys street art when it's "quality," and not depressing or violent.

Dario Estryk, visiting from the city of Bahia Blanca, supports street art wholeheartedly, he says through an interpreter. "It's like a seed, the beginning of everything. It keeps the city alive and [growing] in an artistic way. If there's no art, the city collapses."

Estryk's companion, Noelia Rodriguez, adds that art can keep "dodgy areas in a proper way. By having art, people will care."

Indeed, street art is popping up more in some historically rough barrios, such as San Telmo, a once ritzy area that fell on hard times and is now prospering again. The area boasts a popular mural of Che Guevara, for instance, which conveniently doubles as a PSA for practicing safe sex. An eclectic mix of colonial-style buildings, Catholic churches and Evita-era monoliths, San Telmo is also known for its Sunday feria, or flea market, which springs up weekly along the main drag, Defensa.

On my way there one morning, I make a stop at the famous Plaza de Mayo. The longtime stage of Argentine sedition, this is where first lady Eva Peron roused the shirtless masses from the balcony of the Casa Rosada, or Pink House. The large square is also where the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo gather for Thursday vigils for their missing children, many of whom were kidnapped and killed in the 1970s during Argentina's Dirty War. Their symbol, a haunting white head scarf, is painted on the ground in the plaza and on buildings throughout the city - Charles had pointed one out on the side of a school - as a reminder that the mothers are still waiting for justice.

Continuing on to the San Telmo market, I join the crush of shoppers combing through tables of old gadgets, jewelry and signs embellished with filete, a traditional flowery style of lettering and decorative swirls that once adorned the city's horse carts. Scoring an antique bird pendant for just 25 pesos, or about $6, I decide to meander back to my hotel on the next street over, the calmer Bolivar.

As I walk, I notice something flashy amid the monotone grays and browns of the apartment buildings. A street artist is at work, an array of aerosol cans at his feet. He meets my eye and smiles, the pride written all over his face.

Dell'Amore, a lapsed artist, now expresses her creativity as a freelance writer.

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