Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Street Art of Buenos Aires, Argentina

A few weeks ago, just before leaving for Buenos Aires, I randomly got a recommendation from a stranger.  I was in the Golden Crown Panaderia in Old Town Albuquerque yammering about our upcoming vacation.  Out of nowhere, a woman exclaimed, “You have to take the Graffiti Mundo street art tour!”  She went on to tell me that it was the highlight of her visit to Buenos Aires and that I needed to make a reservation a month in advance.  Her fervor was so convincing that I booked it that week.  Thank goodness I did.

Kirsty of Graffiti Mundo at the first graffiti wall we visit, which spans an entire block.  Here we get an introduction to the first collective of pioneering artists and how they got started.  They simply asked a store worker nearby if they could paint the wall.  He said yes, and so began an ever evolving, often repainted installation. 

Founded by two British expats in 2009, Graffiti Mundo leads several different tours of Buenos Aires’ unusual and fledgling street art scene.  We chose the bike tour, which takes place on Sundays when there’s less traffic.  For $35, you get a bike rental, helmet and bike guide (all provided by Biking Buenos Aires) plus an engaging art tour led by Graffiti Mundo.  You also get the equivalent of an international meetup.  An Aussie named Kirsty educated us on art, and the shepherding of our eight-person tour – which included Americans, Columbians and a Dutch chick – was done with Scandinavian precision and brio by a fellow named Karri

Bike guide Karri (right) keeping us hapless tourists safe.  Also, you can see here that each bike rental comes with a custom license plate from that bike's "sponsor."  You don't get to choose.  The unfortunate plate I got: SCHMERLZ.  

Over the course of four hours, Kirsty led our merry band of tourists around the historic neighborhoods of Palermo and Villa Crespo while Karri put himself between our group and oncoming traffic at many an intersection.  Amazingly, in this big city of speeding, lane-shifting traffic, every car (including taxis) politely stopped when he raised his hand or rang his tinny bike bell.  With the fear of death removed and a warm breeze wafting through the tree-lined (and often cobble-stoned) streets, I found myself as relaxed as the weekend vibe in Palermo, the hippest area of Buenos Aires.  I was also able to see more of the city than I had in the entire week prior.  On bike, you simply go farther – and take in more.

Is it a little bit odd to be standing on a cobblestone street, looking at a beautiful old building, that has a very bright, colorful, modern mural on it?  Yes and no.  But the street art of Buenos Aires is generally embraced by its residents.  Even painting over someone's work with a new mural is generally okay, although a few artists get upset about it.  Those held in the most esteem are somewhat safe - out of respect.  The biggest no no came when someone stole street art off the buildings and put it up in a gallery for sale. 

That was an entirely pleasant perk of the tour, but Graffiti Mundo also delivered the goods.  I learned a LOT about Buenos Aires through its street art.  As a whole, it provides a fascinating psychological study of what’s happened since the Argentine economy collapsed in 2001-2002 – triggering frozen bank accounts, soaring unemployment and an ongoing financial quagmire – and how art can both process and soothe the country's emotions.  This is such a clear realization for Argentines that street art, which only started here after the collapse, is not considered a crime.  In fact, artists can work in plain daylight without fear of arrest. In many cases, building owners welcome the artists - or even invite them to come.  Case in point:  the city's most buzz-worthy restaurant, Tegui, has a graffiti-covered exterior.

Below is a selection of my favorite street art “installations” with a bit of detail about each.  

A large mural by one of the city's first and best street artists, Mart, who started at age 12.  Like much of his work, it feels very dreamy, fanciful...and almost French.  He  uses aerosol paint yet achieves very fine lines somehow.  It's a very distinctive style that you can recognize instantly when you see his work throughout the city.

Part of a large wall by one of the handful of female street artists, Zumi.  It's a perfect example of how street artists tried to cheer up the city after the economic collapse - and why the police let them do it without punishment.  Animals and other universally beloved, non-controversial symbols became popular subjects. 

A large stencil piece that was put up section by section.  Kirsty said this one was meant to be a shocking statement of what could happen in the future if we trash the environment.  The artist tried to think of the happiest moment this scenario could affect to create an unsettling juxtaposition.

A piece by pioneering street artist Ever, who often paints faces...but never the eyes.  He always does something creative to avoid painting the eyes.  As a result, it's also easy to spot his work right away.  As for the Mao image, it made me think of how Argentina is currently inching away from capitalism towards isolationism.

One of several incredible, large-scale pieces we saw by Jaz, another early and influential street artist.  This guy is clearly one of the most talented - he drew these bulls freehand.  He's also pretty resourceful.  In the early days of the collapse, street artists couldn't afford paint,  so they used whatever materials they could get their hands on.  This piece has no paint - it is done in mud off the ground as well as charcoal. 

You recognize this as Mart's work, right? (Same artist as the boy on the bicycle above.)  I had to feature one more of his pieces as he was admittedly my personal favorite.  That said, don't ask me exactly what's going on in this mural.  I guess that's the point, though.  His work is otherworldly. 


MCooch said...

Great photos! I have written down the organization as I am hoping J and I can head to BA in the next year or two. Thanks for sharing!

Carla said...

I believe art can be performed in many ways. Last year I travelled to Argentina and I had to rent an apartment in buenos aires  which was next to a wall full of graffitis. At first, I didn´t like it, but then I got used to it and I started to admire it!
I loved the city and its paintings... Apparently there is a lot of social protest in them, which makes them political and controversial. Love it more!