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A Glimpse into the ‘Pasacalle’ Culture of Buenos Aires

By | [email protected] | July 10, 2018 1:51pm

Leo portrait - Jason Sheil PhotographyLeo Moscato at his workshop. (Photo by Jason Sheil)

The scene seems almost taken from a Julia Roberts flick, albeit one staged in Buenos Aires Province. A guy had reached out to Leo to make a pasacalle, one of those handmade street banners that are still, to this day, enormously popular in these parts of the country. The reason? He wanted to propose to his girlfriend and had concocted a simple design that featured a drawing of a clear sky, some stars, and the traditional “Will You Marry Me?” He had asked Leo to hang it at 10 AM outside the train station, an hour before he and his possible future wife were to step out. But she had arrived sooner, and the whole operation risked going up in smoke. Leo told the guy to take her for a walk, confident that he could hang the sign in an almost record pace.

As Leo climbed a lamppost to hang the sign, things really got into romantic comedy territory when a woman from a terrace came out to dry her clothes and began to tell Leo to get down from there. He summoned all his patience and appealed to her romantic side: “Please take a look at the street, ma’am, you’re about to see something special,”he told her. The couple came around the corner, the girlfriend saw the sign, her boyfriend gave her a bouquet of roses, and a happy marriage was on its way. Just another day in the life of Leo Moscato, a man who not only survives, but thrives, in an old-time business that somehow still exists in today’s digital day and age.

Leo tying a sign up. (Photo by Jason Sheil)


“I guess it all started when I was 5 years old, drawing stuff at my parents’ house,” Leo, now in his 40s, recalls from his workshop on Venezuela street in San Justo. “I would draw all the time, my parents took me to drawing and painting workshops. By the time I was a bit older, I managed to study a technical career in design and advertising, and soon after I started working in a shop that made posters.” His father was Italian and had arrived as a child to Argentina, where he forged a career as a shoemaker. He instilled in Leo several traits that would turn out to be crucial for his later success. “He always had a very strict work ethic. Do things right, wake up early, fulfill your duties, keep everything clean, and make things that last. I learned a lot from him.”

After several months at the poster shop, he was approached by a neighbor who asked him if he would do a pasacalle for his daughter’s 15th birthday (known as a quinceañera). “Back then, pasacalles were pretty much reserved for special occasions, mainly birthdays, births, and anniversaries,” Leo recalls. He made it on the floor, using a very small paintbrush and taking three days to finish (nowadays, he claims he can do one in 20 minutes).  Word of mouth began to do its thing, and, shortly after, Leo had a steady amount of customers for whom he would work at nights after he would leave his day job. Even though the poster shop gave him the possibility to further enhance his abilities by learning techniques and tricks that would prove to be useful, after eight months he quit and decided to go all in on his own business. The year was 2001.

“I opened Pasacalles Leo at the lowest point in Argentine history. The country was in chaos, there was no work to be found, there was looting, everything was crazy in 2001.” Amid the crisis, Leo’s mother came to him with an idea, one that in hindsight, must have seemed beyond crazy at the time. “People were using barter or trueque because there was no cash in the streets. You could exchange a chair for some food, or stuff like that. So my mom told me to get into that with my signs. I told her: ‘Who’s gonna want to buy a pasacalle in crisis?’ But I was wrong.”

With barter as his business model, Leo flourished. People jumped at the possibility of giving their loved ones a special detail for their birthdays in troubled times and, above all, do it without spending precious money. “People would pay me with cans of paint, painting tools, even food. I was able to open my own workshop with everything I exchanged, and at the same time I was able to amass a lot of customers that I’ve kept over the years. We were helping people that couldn’t afford a gift for their daughters at the same time.”

By the time the crisis had passed, Leo had nurtured a solid following, thanks also in great part to his work ethic. “I don’t sell painted signs, I sell calls to action,” he likes to say. In that sense, he began to work with small companies, advising on everything from the messages they wrote to the location of where to place them so that they had more exposure and lasted longer. “I always had a good relationship with my clients, I adapted to their ideas. I think the way I treat them made a difference in my success. For example, when one of the signs would fall down, I would always go and fix it for free. My competition would shut off their cell phones once the job was done.”


Leo works on a Pasacalle. (Photo by Jason Sheil)


Even though much of his attitude toward customer service comes from his father, Leo likes to give credit to a particular turning point in his life: 2009, when he became an Evangelical Christian. “I learned some great values thanks to my religion. I started to strive for excellence, to talk to clients on a more personal level, manage problems in a different way, calmer and with more wisdom. It became a tool for interacting with others.”

This tool Leo talks about has helped him on several levels. On the one hand, it allowed him to become a neutral player in the pasacalles game, a world that, oddly enough, is plagued with confrontation between competitors that for years would make a habit of tearing down the other one’s signs to put theirs up in its place. “Location is crucial in this business, since pasacalles don’t have an expiration date and are usually taken down either by the client themselves or simply a strong gust wind. There were companies that would send five guys to put up their signs at a certain location and they would get into a brawl with five from another company. It was war. But I talked to them separately and told them there was surely work for all of us, and they never really messed with me after that.”

At the same time, he made peace with police officers who should, according to the law, be obliged to take the signs down. But since local government officials have become some of Leo’s most prominent clients, they let him be and even protect him when he has to go hang signs in rouger neighborhoods.

His people skills have also come in handy when facing some of the most intimate parts of the job. “I end up being sort of like a therapist. There are guys that have come in my office crying, asking for a sign to help reconcile with their girlfriends. I tell them that I need to know what happened so that I can see what message we can come up with, and they usually break into tears asking for advice. If he’s cheating, I’ll tell him to stop and become a better person. That also fills my soul, that you can give some words of advice and change an attitude, a family.”

As you might expect, a lot of pretty incredible stories have come out of Pasacalles Leo. There’s the guy who wrapped one of his signs on a hot air balloon before proposing to his girlfriend, the man who surprised his son for his birthday with a sign at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, the guy who chose to hang a threatening sign just below another one hung by one of his girlfriend’s suitors… During his career Leo has helped people make amends, assisted owners in finding their lost pets, and even went viral with a sign demanding the resignation of then Racing coach Mostaza Merlo, from the club. His easygoing nature has let him remain neutral in some of the most divisive topics Argentina has to offer, working with supporters of both Boca and River or Cristina and Macri, all the same.

A father surprises his son in Madrid with a sign from Leo. (Photo via Leo Moscato)


However, this is not to say that Leo doesn’t have limits. He prides himself on running his business with a strong moral compass. For example, he doesn’t hang pasacalles that disturb visibility of traffic lights or street names, choosing to put his neighborly duties first. At the same time, he refuses to hang signs that clash with his values. “If it’s something immoral, I turn it down, no matter how much money they offer. I recently was approached by a group of mothers from a school who wanted to expose another mother for supposedly sleeping with one of the other fathers from the school. I thought it would affect not only those two people but the kids as well, so I said no, even though they wanted to pay me a lot of money.”

Nowadays, Leo’s business is booming more than ever. Under his careful eye, the shop now employs 10 workers, including two more illustrators. His enterprise now includes renting large inflatable beds and foosball tables, but the true jewel of the crown is still the pasacalle. He estimates that they produce, on average, ten a day, seven days a week. Chances are, if you roll around a ten block radius through La Matanza, you’re bound to come face to face with one of them. Pasacalles Leo has become quite a company, but it still thrives thanks to its core values and its insistence on doing things the old fashioned way. “It’s a romantic gesture. It’s made by hand and not by a machine, so you can tell there is a real effort behind it. I think people tend to appreciate that.”


Leo working with his team. (Photo byJason Sheil)


In his 17 years in the business, there are few things Leo hasn’t seen. But on Sunday, June 17 Leo was treated to a first. He had noticed his coworkers acting particularly strange for about a week, asking him to leave the workshop earlier than usual and cringing every time he would enter the room. He was, to put it slightly, suspicious. He had, nonetheless, forgotten about it once Sunday came along. His baby boy, Benja, had been born in February, so this was to be Leo’s first Father’s Day. Mela, his wife, dragged him against his will to the seat in front of the TV set in their room. She held him there until a WhatsApp message signaled it was time to go outside. They went out to the street, with little Benja in their arms, and Leo finally saw his surprise: a pasacalles, made in his own workshop, the very first Leo had ever received. “It was very exciting, it actually brought me to tears. To receive one was to experience what my clients experience, and that was pretty great.”

The “pasacalle” Leo recevied from his wife and son on Father’s Day


A couple gets engaged in a hot air balloon wrapped in one of Leo’s signs. (Photo via Leo Moscato)


A guy threatens his girlfriend’s suitor with another sign. (Photo via Leo Moscato)