Strolling down the streets of any neighborhood in Buenos Aires and you inevitably come across walls covered in graffiti and beautifully painted murals. There’s the depiction of two bulls fighting in Colegiales. There’s the Nestornauta stencil peppering a few neighborhoods throughout the city, and there’s the giraffe’s riding bicycles in Palermo. It’s an eclectic mix of design. There are the graffiti tags, the colorful murals, and the block letters campaigning for a politician.
This is Buenos Aires’ free and open art gallery and it is on full display from Palermo to Caballito and La Boca. Like every great masterpiece, it all has a story.
In 2009, two ex-pats from London decided to chronicle those stories. Marina Charles and Jo Sharff first fell in love with the street art they saw around them. They watched as one artist would complete a masterpiece in one neighborhood, only to have that space commandeered by another artist with his own vibrant show of force.
Then, they started investigating. As they talked to Argentines, they soon met the artists, and heard their stories. The artists all had different backgrounds. Some had formal training, graphic design experience, fine art or architecture background and others started off tagging on the streets — the whole spectrum of social ties.
But it was soon apparent that the story behind the vibrant street art scene here was still going unnoticed. Their exploration led them to Hollywood in Cambodia, an urban art gallery in the heart of Palermo and Argentina’s street art hub.
Here, Charles and Sharff met the artists, and asked them questions. How did the street art scene begin? When did it begin? How many artists are involved?
It soon became clear that they had uncovered a sophisticated network of graffiti artists, who mentored and schooled each other, building a remarkable art scene that reflected the cultural and historical development of modern-day Buenos Aires.
“It took two people from somewhere else to realize there was something going on here,” said Sorcha O’Higgins, who came to Buenos Aires from Ireland and has worked for Graffitimundo since 2013. “No one knew about the scene.”
Determined to spread the word about Buenos Aires’ well-kept secret, they created Graffitimundo, a non-profit dedicated to exposing Argentine urban art, by conducting almost daily graffiti tours and educating others about what they had learned.
“Graffitimundo connected the dots,’’ by telling the story of “the development of the culture of street art in Argentina,” O’Higgins said.
While the artists welcomed Charles and Sharff’s interest at first, they also were wary. Not everyone was happy with the walking tours at the beginning, O’Higgins said. One of the artists would accompany Charles on every tour.
It took a lot of relationship building with the artists to show them they weren’t trying to exploit them or profit off of them but, over time, they grew to accept and appreciate their role.
Now the relationships they have with the artists are one of the values that sets them apart, described O’Higgins.
“This was at a time when street art wasn’t at the popularity internationally where we are today,” O’Higgins said, “Some of the guys were really receptive to it, but others were surprised that people really even cared.”
Graffiti arrived late to Buenos Aires compared to other countries. Argentina faced many hurdles before embracing a free and democratic society. The dictatorship that lasted from 1974 to 1983 ensured that many basic rights were non-existent and free speech was extremely stifled.
During the dictatorship, Argentina was also sheltered from what was going on in other countries. By the time the 90’s hit, then President Carlos Menem, oversaw an economic plan that pegged the value of the peso to the dollar, which despite being unsustainable (and credited as one of the main precursors to Argentina’s financial crisis in 2001) opened up the opportunity for more Argentines to travel. One of the things they brought back from New York and Barcelona was street art.
In 2001, Argentina faced another crisis. Due to a huge external debt that was not being paid off, the economy tanked.
“People were angry and they took to the streets to protest,’’ O’Higgins said. “Argentines love to protest. It is so important to them. After being ruled by the dictatorship for so long, they view it as their right.”
The protests spawned protest art like that of Santiago Spirito — also known as Cabaio Stencil and Alfredo Segatori “Pelado.”
Unlike in other countries where street art may be seen as a breakdown of society, in Argentina street art is not only tolerated it is expected. Today, politicians hire artists to produce their own street art propaganda.
“People were used to seeing politicians using the public space,’’ O’Higgins said. “It’s not some pretty place that is reserved for people in a museum. The street is theirs.”
For many homeowners, street art is actually a maintenance tactic. Here in Argentina, it’s up to the homeowner to get rid of the graffiti tags that they find on their walls rather than the job of the city. In this way, if an artist asks to paint your wall, many homeowners agree to it to prevent their home from being targeted by future taggers.
In Buenos Aires, street art often is more than social commentary, it also tells the story of Argentina’s history. Artists like Alfredo Segatori “Pelado” who painted the famous cartoneros, depicting Argentine’s who reclaimed the job of sorting through the trash in search of recyclables to earn a few pesos. This massive mural depicts one cartonero taking a cigarette break on the back wall of the famous antique market, El Mercado de Pulgas. “Pelado” is known for depicting local personalities, workers and the homeless, in murals he describes as “urban mirrors.”
La Campora political group earned its name painting the Nestornauta stencil, commemorating Nestor Kirchner on raising the country out of the political crisis. The Nestornauta melds together the protagonist of the Argentine science fiction comic novel, The Eternaut, who fights alien invaders after a deadly snowfall covers Buenos Aires with the image of former president, Nestor Kirschner.
For O’Higgins and the rest of the Graffitimundo team, they continue to look for ways to deepen their relationships with the local community and the artists.
“It’s one of the most unique things we have — the relationships we have with the artists,” said Melissa Foss, an American who has been working for Graffitimundo for the past seven years.
The idea of a street art tour is not so novel anymore, described Foss. The public is changing and looking for something that stands out.
“I think it’s a really important step in our evolution as a project,” said Foss.
Now they are forging ahead with educational projects that incorporate universities to serve those who want to learn more about art and art techniques.
“There’s a huge culture of learning here in Buenos Aires with all the universities, with all the courses. It’s all so accessible,” O’Higgins said.
To reach that goal, Graffitimundo is starting to work with universities, offering art workshops, and has recently added a new tour to their tour schedule for Argentines every second Sunday of the month. They also are developing the idea of art dinners with one of their artists who also happens to be a culinary connoisseur.
“There’s so much crossover between different artistic communities in Buenos Aires — the culture of sharing is so strong here — that it sort of naturally follows that they [artists] would want to share that with other people,” said O’Higgins. “There’s something particularly Argentine about that.”
This attitude of sharing and gratitude goes along with the spirit of street art in general, Foss said. All of the street artists learned these techniques thanks to other street artists who took them under their wing and passed on the torch.
While art scenes in many other cities can be stuffy and elitist, the street art scene in Buenos Aires is far from it. The street artists here are welcoming to the newcomers and open up the space to them.
“The more the merrier,’’ Foss said. “The more people painting in the streets, the better. It’s one of those things where the exclusivity factor really doesn’t seem to be present at all. When somebody new starts on the scene, the next thing you know there’s an exhibit.”
The next project Graffitimundo is working on is the release of their documentary, White White Walls Say Nothing. It recently was accepted to the ReFrame Film Festival in Canada and is pegged to be released in the first half of next year.
In the meantime, on December 2, they will be hosting the Fuimos Todos Gallery Show at Hollywood in Cambodia, where this all began. All are welcome.