For most of us, graffiti or ‘tagging’ is considered an act of vandalism; the graphic representation of a bored and disaffected youth that feels it has no other outlet to express its societal discontent. In Britain, artists such as Banksy have raised graffiti-as-art into mainstream consciousness, introducing an unexpected element of commercialism if not respectability to the genre.
In Argentina’s capital city, Buenos Aires, street art enjoys an entirely different reception. Here, intricate, colourful, surreal and artistic graffitos and murals are virtually welcomed and celebrated, brightening city streets and buildings in a way that is inoffensive and accepted by city dwellers. In fact, the street art of Buenos Aires has gained commercial respect in its own right; many companies now offer guided tours of the finer examples to be found around the city.
The Political Origins of Buenos Aires Street art
As with much graffiti worldwide, the burgeoning culture of modern Buenos Aires street art had politically-motivated beginnings. In the political instability and economic depression immediately following the 1955 coup which deposed radical Argentinian President Juan Peron, competing political parties paid supportive activists to daub the capital city’s walls with political slogans. In retaliation, a counter-culture of purely aesthetic and non-political street art appeared at around the same time.
Further political upheavals in Argentina’s history inadvertently fuelled the fire of Buenos Aires’ street art scene. Following seven years of violent political protest and disorder which ultimately saw the disastrous re-election of the Peron family to Argentinian presidency, a military dictatorship was established in 1976 which saw all expressions of protest – including street art – declared illegal. A new era of democracy returned following public polls in 1983 and street art in Buenos Aires began to flourish once more.
The 21st Century – A Turning Point for Buenos Aires Street Art
In 2001 a combination of circumstances including the linking of the Argentinian Peso with the American Dollar, a dramatic fall in tax revenues and the fallout from years of heavy government borrowing resulted in Argentina’s worst ever financial crisis. Mass unemployment and the imposition of restrictions on bank withdrawals led to large-scale rioting and the ultimate resignation of then president Fernando de la Rua.
Once more a turbulent political scene gave new motivation and emphasis to the street artists of Buenos Aires. They did not, however, turn to expressions of anger or protest at the devastating mismanagement of Argentina’s affairs by successive governments, but instead painted the city’s walls with scenes intended to lift the population’s spirits, combining humour and vibrant cartoon colours to combat the prevailing grey mood. This form of optimistic, aesthetic and non-confrontational street art became the norm, and continues to dominate the streets and neighbourhoods of Argentina’s capital city today.
Buenos Aires street Art Today
In contrast with the world’s other major cities, graffiti and street art has been effectively de-criminalised in Buenos Aires. Free from the risk of prosecution and with the endorsement of the populous, street artists can take their time to produce true works of art on the city’s walls and buildings. The results are often breathtaking, but always imaginative, colourful and fun. Beautiful abstract and surreal works sit cheek-by-jowl with expertly executed portraits, whilst cartoons in bright primary colours sit alongside intricately stencilled images. Far from an act of vandalism, Buenos Aires’ embrace of street art has transformed the city into the world’s largest, most diverse and greatest art gallery.
Guest blogger: Enid Hutt Gallery sells art by contemporary artists including Buenos Aires-born Fabian Perez prints