Street Art: Challenging Perceptions

Big cities around the world often have underground Graffiti and Street Art scenes, Buenos Aires is no different … or is it?

As part of this country’s deeply carved wounds in the political past, the graffiti and street art of today are a representation of the struggles, a reminder of the battles, a voice speaking out to create a movement.

From the outside looking in, the general public (at least where I’m from) view Street Art and graffiti as the enemy. It’s old. It’s ugly. It defaces and devalues property. It’s a hassle. It’s got to go. Rebellious kids are responsible for destroying property. Poor people and the uneducated are the cause.

In fact, this is exactly why there is a misconception of this form of art. It has been misunderstood by so many for so long. I’m here to challenge your perceptions.

Let me start with a very simple difference between Street Art and Graffiti as they are not the same.

Graffiti was where it all began. Various forms of painting large, blocky letters in public spaces. This was often done anonymously. Sometimes it would be legible to the average passerby, but often it was a language only understood by other graffiti artists.

Street art has nothing to do with letters and words, but everything to do with art, beauty and conceptual messages. Again, some may be obvious to a passersby, or it may be understood only within the artist community. Some displays are just for the beauty of it, with little conceptual meaning other than to give the viewer enjoyment.

Street Art in Buenos Aires
Street Art in Buenos Aires

Indeed, graffiti and street art in almost every city that has risen out of poor governments in power, loss of control or war. It is true, that in the beginning that those who went to the streets did so in the dark, illegally and in a hurry to avoid being arrested. They were driven by their passion for a cause, their audacity to stand against a dictatorship and to draw likeminded people together. They were the silent, but visual leaders of their time. Their art became a language to be shared and to unite them. They were not hitting the streets to destroy random property or to make their city ‘ugly’. They were going to the streets like men who go to war. They were fighting a battle of words against their flailing governments and building support without the aid of government funded media.

Graffiti in general started out as anti-government, or at least against specific government parties. It was a semi-permanent protest that could be spread across city walls by night and visible by day. It was a voice for those who were being silenced.

It’s a pretty dark history, but as with anything from the past, people learn and grow from it. Governments change, wars begin and end, cities make laws and then change them.

On my recent Street Art tour with Graffiti Mundo in Buenos Aires, I really began to understand more about the recent history of the art and how it flourished from the ugly past.

In the early 2000’s, the city went grey. Devoid of colour, devoid of hope. Huge billboards and public wall space was devoted to campaigning for government. Political propaganda was everywhere. Sky-high faces of leaders painted on previously blank spaces appeared.

Citizens were being silenced and the dictatorship was quashing any resistance. Artists started having secret gatherings in garages and clubs to discuss what they could do. They had no money, the government was forceful, and they were just a few people. What they decided was that they needed to put colour back into their streets. They needed to spread hope rather than disparity. They needed to move forward instead of being stuck. Artists began by painting the outside of their own homes and offices, making their own colourful art. The artists had no money, so they collected paint left overs from the street and started getting creative with mixing colours as well as trying new methods.

Spray paint is expensive to buy, although quick to use, so it was often the choice of Graffiti artists. Latex paint is free, if left over from someone painting their house, but takes longer to design with. This meant that you could not paint and run. People took to painting their own spaces, in broad daylight with whatever materials they could find. Painting, for the purpose of putting colour back in the streets; for doing something rather than nothing. This art also led to less space for political propaganda. It was a protective layer for their houses as propaganda messages from the government would easily be lost if they were painted on top of colourful art instead of on a clear blank wall.

The Artists thought that if everything else in their city was grey, boring and politically fuelled, that if they painted colourful art, with no political affiliation, it would stand out. It would disrupt the norm because it was different. And, so it continued to flourish.

A group of 12 artists collaborated on this wall below.

Soon enough, a few people painting one or two of their homes were asked by neighbours what they could do. The grand answer – Paint! Find paint and paint the grey away (or the politics away, depending how you read into it). Neighbours joined in by painting their own homes, or by offering up large blank building surfaces to be painted with full artist discretion.

Buenos Aires Street Art
Buenos Aires Street Art

The camaraderie, the appreciation of art and the common passion for revitalizing the city was thriving. No longer did artists have to buy spray paint, tip toe around after midnight and rush to pain their message on a wall before being caught. No longer was it a taboo. The city opened up and embraced the art with many businesses now commissioning artists to paint their walls. Sometimes these are paid gigs, other times artists do it simply for the joy of painting and sharing their vision.

Still today there is a law in Argentina that says you have the right to paint your house however you wish. Neighbours don’t complain about it being an eye-sore, if you own it, you can paint it.

A few years ago, Buenos Aires even hosted a large scale festival dedicated to painting the city. Well-known graffiti and street artists came from around the world (by invitation or by choice) to participate. Being a government run project, sadly, the festival rubbed many artists the wrong way as the funds coming in from the festival all went back to the government (to their consulting and construction fees) while none of the money went back to support the artists.

The festival was held mainly in an area of the city near Palermo Hollywood, but known for social housing, the city dump and a main bus hub. Not the prettiest or most desirable of neighbourhoods. Hundreds of artists joined the festival and painted a piece of themselves on the walls, brightening up this otherwise monotonous neighbourhood.

Two pieces of note:

Street Art in Buenos Aires
Street Art in Buenos Aires by Jim Vision
Street Art in Buenos Aires
Street Art in Buenos Aires by Jaz

Over the years, street art studios have opened and closed. Sadly, most of them are now closed. It has been a losing battle as the government prohibits artists from exporting their art to an international market. This means their art has to be purchased by other Argentinian’s, who for the most part are in the same constant struggle to get buy with the little money they have. They don’t have money to buy art, leading to the closing of many of the galleries and lack of exposure and recognition for deserving Argentinian artists.

Even today, as European and first world as Argentina appears to the outside world, it’s internal struggles are tormenting it’s people every day. They are stuck in a hamster wheel where they can’t get off. Their money is monitored, their currency has no value and citizens are not allowed to earn or spend USD.

In the year 2015, Argentina is still in political turmoil, but the vision and artistic passion of it’s people lives on through the streets. No matter where you look, you can see walls popping with colour, you can see images of conflict amongst images of roses. You can even find an entire street block filled with Homer Simpson’s face as an effort to be the world’s largest wall of Homer Simpson.

The spirit of these artists is friendly, open and without shame for the work that they do. Although their government stings them with restrictions that are unbearable for many of us to consider, they march on spreading their vision throughout the city.

These are not the poor, uneducated criminals that the media would have us believe. These are talented, educated, intelligent leaders who believe in a better Buenos Aires, a better Argentina. Their voice runs through the streets and colourfully joins neighbours and strangers together against the government’s disparity.

Santiago, Chile – 10 First Impressions

I like to think that I’m a little bit of a unique traveler in that I don’t do much research on a destination before I arrive. I don’t want to hear about the destination from other people’s views, I want to see it, taste it, experience it for myself and make my own opinions. Now, this isn’t for everyone. Lots of people love to read all about it before they arrive so that they know what they want to see and do. Me, I just like to arrive and see what I feel like. Since I’m writing a blog and you are reading it, I’m glad you are the type of person who likes to hear about other’s experiences. If we were all like me, I wouldn’t have anyone out there reading, instead I’d be sending everyone to Chile to experience it themselves!

We all know that first impressions are important, for better or worse, so here are 10 of my first impressions of Chile.

1. Mountains. Mountains. Mountains. For about the last 45 minutes of the flight approaching Santiago, you are soaring high above beautiful mountains. You land amongst the mountains and the city of Santiago is surrounded by mountains. The mountains run the length of the country, but also split the width of the country. They also are responsible for dividing the climate between coastal and humid to inland dry and desert-like. No question, the towering mountains are everywhere and they are spectacular.

2. Homeless. As I approached the historic centre of Santiago by taxi, the first thing that caught my eye in the green space dividing the main street was a person (man or woman, I’m not sure), sitting on a large tree stump with their pants around their ankles. I shouldn’t have stared, but it was really unusual and I just couldn’t quite figure out what was going on. That hot Friday afternoon when I arrived, the green space was laden with homeless people sleeping, peeing, defecating and puking. Not really the best first impression of the city, but none-the-less, I was there to experience the real Santiago, not just the tourist version.

3. Dirty. Despite seeing people out collecting garbage from the streets, the historical centre was a dirty area. Dust from the dry climate combined with lack of education for littering, left the streets strewn with garbage. The beautiful purple jacaranda trees were also starting to lose their petals, which left the streets carpeted with bright purple flowers.

Jacaranda tree, Santiago, Chile
Jacaranda tree, Santiago, Chile

4. Dry. I have never visited an area with such dry heat. I’ve always visited Caribbean areas that have high humidity, so I’ve always associated 30+ degree weather with sweating profusely. I was pleasantly surprised to be able to walk down the street in the afternoon sun and not need a shower 20 minutes later. The dry heat was a pleasant surprise and the sunshine on my face was most welcome.

5. Easy to navigate on foot. If you rent a hotel or apartment near the historic district, it is no problem at all to find your way around the central area of the city on foot. In fact, I did so without a map. However, if you have a map you’ll likely find all of the tourist spots much quicker and not miss out. Myself, I just wandered around the streets and then sauntered back to my apart-hotel.

6. No begging. No bothering. Despite what seemed like a lot of homeless people in the central historic area, I was never once asked for money or bothered at all. Even when I walked through the Central Market and down the main streets with stores, vendors and restaurants, I was not hollered at or begged to spend money on anything. Vendors simply existed there and if you wanted to purchase something you could approach them, otherwise, they continued about their day.

7. Tranquilo. A word aptly used to describe the overall atmosphere of the city, tranquil. No one was in a hurry, very few cars were beeping and over the weekend that I was there, there was next to no traffic. People walk slowly and take in their surroundings and conversations with friends. There were no fights or brawls. Simply tranquil.

8. Safe. Being in a new city is always a little bit intimidating for a solo female traveler such as myself. In any city it is best to always be on guard and follow general safety measures such as not wearing fancy jewellery, not carrying your passport or all of your money and making sure that you are aware of your surroundings. Personally, I felt very comfortable in Santiago because of it’s laid back attitude and slow pace. For a big city, it seemed to have a country attitude.

9. Street Art. After having visited Athens in October and going on a Street Art tour, I am much more cognizant of Street Art in other cities. Ranging from proper graffiti (with a purpose), to graffiti for the sake of defacing a building to murals and colourful drawings, Santiago does not disappoint with the street art. Although there is not much in the historic district, within about 10 blocks (near the Loreto Hotel) the streets come alive with bursts of colour and imaginative designs.

10. Hot dogs. Although I chose not to have one, hot dogs are a popular choice for lunch or a snack with hot dog stands spread throughout the historic centre. If you are not feeling like eating on the run, you can also choose a local restaurant on the street or in the market and chance are, they will have a hot dog with your choice of toppings or fully loaded that you can munch on while watching the futbol match of the evening.

Overall, I enjoyed Santiago. I felt safe and easily got my bearings. I had no safety issues and soaked up the dry heat whenever I could get outside in the sun. I was a bit disappointed that most shops and restaurants were closed on Sunday, but I managed to find what I needed.

Sadly, the homeless situation bothered me. Many large cities struggle with this problem and I certainly don’t know what the answer is, but I know that as I walked by men passed out on the streets in various positions, sometimes lying in their own vomit, that I felt horrible that there was nothing I could do to help these people in that particular moment.

Although it is not a destination that I will rush to return to, it is also not a destination that I dread returning to. I wouldn’t suggest spending more than one or two days in the city, but it is an excellent starting or ending point with lots of day tours that you can do to surrounding cities, mountains and vineyards.

Vina and Valpo – Part 2

Valparaiso was the area that I was most interested in visiting as many people had told me of it’s beauty. I hadn’t realized that Vina del Mar and Valparaiso were so close to each other. In fact, there is no clear line between the two. The cities just gently join one another.

Valparaiso aptly translates to Valley of Paradise.

Valparaiso is the older of the two cities. It was originally the first port that ships arrived at when sailing from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Therefore, it was the most important and best known port on the Pacific Ocean in South America. At the time (late 1800’s), it was a melting pot for all different cultures as many immigrants came to settle in the area for it’s prevailing prosperity and economic situation. Many of the immigrants were from Eastern Europe and Russia, but others came from all over the world.

It is known for being home to Latin America’s first stock exchange, the continent’s first volunteer fire department, the country’s first public library and the oldest newspaper in continuous publication in the world. History truly runs deep through this enchanting city.

Other than being an important port for cargo ships, it was also widely known for the fishing industry as the cold arctic current turns the Pacific ocean into a highway for fish, bringing masses of them nearby throughout various seasons. Sadly, when the Panama canal was built in 1914, the route for ships was changed and Valparaiso was all but forgotten near the southern tip of the continent, causing a major economic downturn.

It is such a shame because Valparaiso truly is a unique area. Of course, the port was the main focus, but when the city grew by leaps and bounds, it had no where to expand except for up the surrounding steep hills. Houses were built mostly with cheap materials such as wood and corrugated metal and then painted with the same type of paint that was used on the ships as it was readily available and cheap. Today, most of the houses remain the same. Some say the bright paint colours were used so that the houses could be seen through the dense fog that covers the area every morning.

Valparaiso is also known for it’s variety and quantity of street art splashing the walls and gates with brilliant colours, throughout the residential areas, with beautifully designed paintings from artists around the world. Although street art is not officially legal, it is widely accepted as part of the community. Many locals seek out artists to design art for their outer house or business walls. And, many artists who find wall space available pitch their ideas to the owner and collaborate before permanently introducing their art.

And, they are very proud of their artistic talent in Valparaiso. Particularly, Pablo Neruda. We visited one of his houses which his wife turned into a museum after his passing. He was world-renowned in poetry, also a well-known and loved writer, politician and diplomat. Today, many of his works can be found translated into many other languages and some still grace the best sellers list.

House of Pablo Neruda
Writer, thinker, poet, diplomat and politician.

The central area of Valparaiso is protected by Unesco as of 2003. The areas warmly known as Happy Hill and Conception Hill have the only functioning funiculars in the area.

The funiculars were built starting in the late 1800’s to move people easily and cheaply up and down the steep hillsides. Every morning people would come down the hills to work in the centre or at the port and then in the evening, everyone would be tasked with climbing up the steep hills to their homes. The funiculars were put in place to aid the locals, mainly with their ascent up the hills. Originally there were approximately 26 funiculars throughout the city, painted in bright colours and street art to match the surrounding areas. But now, there are only eight remain in operation.

I was lucky enough to get to travel down on one, El Peral, built in 1902. The ride cost one Chilean peso and took about one minute. There are two funiculars at the same station. As one is traveling down, the other is balancing the gears by traveling up. It boggles my mind that any of the equipment still functions. From the clearly ancient gears, to the warped door that had to be wiggled just right in order to open and the questionable floor boards at the waiting station … it was quite the experience.

Sadly our tour was a bit rushed and I only got to view one or two of the other funiculars in passing. I didn’t have time to photograph them. I wish I had more time to fully explore the beautiful mess that is Valparaiso. I felt my time was too short and rushed to understand the community, but I could instantly feel at home in the disarray of streets and mess of colours. Despite the now poor economic situation, the city is alive with colour, culture and history.