On a recent vacation to South America, I accidently became lost in the middle of Buenos Aires. Separated from my partner who had the maps, money, hotel name and address, not to mention a command of the native language, I panicked.
Should I ask to use someone’s internet or phone? Instead I wandered the streets hoping I would somehow magically run across my travel partner, and as it turned out later, we were wandering the same five or ten blocks looking for each other. Finally, after asking for a map from a nearby clothing store, I tried to get my bearings.
I had already been in Buenos Aires for several days, and as I headed in the direction I thought my hotel was in, I found myself recognizing the street art that I had been seeing since my arrival. After each turn I could tell immediately whether I had made the right decision; a familiar colorful mural with the bright eyes of a devious child welcomed me as I turned onto a correct street. It was murals, familiar and eye-catching, that gave me the kind of assurance we normally get from knowing an exact address. Based only on the local street art, I was able to find my way easily back to the hotel.
Street art in Buenos Aires has a very different history than graffiti in the States. Graffiti began in Buenos Aires back in the 1950s, when the dictatorial government coming into power paid people to write slogans and spread what was essentially political graffiti. In the 1970s all forms of self-expression came to a halt, and nothing appeared on the streets again until the 1990s, when hip-hop reached South America and spawned it’s own brand of tag-like graffiti. The street art movement first took shape in 2001, however, during the economic crash. With so many Argentineans out of work and living on the streets, the rise of street art was seen as a people’s movement, and continues on today with the same popularity and enthusiasm.
While it is illegal to paint murals on public buildings in Buenos Aires, it is legal if you have consent from the building’s owner. While the owners are not always asked or grant permission, the implicit police co-operation with the art form makes it a very different environment for artists to work in.
Most street artists work under the constant fear of arrest, but in Buenos Aires muralists take their time and paint in broad daylight. When you’re used to other laws, graffiti artists painting quickly and at night, Argentinean artists’ total comfort is strange to see, like people drinking on the street. As the Argentinean muralist Jaz Grafitero says, “painting with total freedom turns us into muralists not vandals.” Interestingly, most Argentinean muralists regularly show in local galleries, apparently unaware of the common distinction between illegal and commercial art.
These images are some of the murals I came across during my week stay.
Alissa Guzman is a freelance art critic who contributes to publications such as Hyperallergic Blogazine, Whitehot Magazine, and the Times Quotidian. She also writes and edits the art blog Escaping Artist. She lives and works in Brooklyn.
You can view a documentary on street art in Buenos Aires at Vandalog.