The city of Buenos Aires is a vast soapbox, where Porteños voice outspoken opinions at any given opportunity. From permanent protests in the plazas to the occasional crazy woman screaming at traffic, everyone has something to say.
Few aspects of Buenos Aires culture better illustrate people’s desire to be heard than graffiti, which is more prolific in Buenos Aires than any other city I have visited.
Scribbled tags cover the walls and doorways of every non-government building in town, and larger graffiti bombas can be found on the walls of shops, parking lots and beneath bridges, from the centre of the city to the residential suburbs and everywhere in between.
Political parties pay gangs of grafiteros to scrawl ideological propaganda on street corners at night, sometimes championing their particular candidate or cause; sometimes responding to opposition graffiti on a neighbouring street.
But in the wake of the Argentine economic crash of 2001, a third wave of graffiti took root, known alternatively as muralism, post-graffiti or street art. In Argentina, they call it muñequismo.
This more elaborate and decorative form of urban art was a response to the anti-establishment graffiti that proliferated in Buenos Aires after the currency devaluation of December 2001, when bank accounts were frozen and the life savings of ordinary Argentine citizens turned to dust overnight.
Slogans like “Que le vayan todos!” (“Get rid of them all!”) and other anti-political graffiti covered Buenos Aires’ public spaces (many of which also saw scenes of violent protest) and the mood of the city was understandably low.
In an act of anti-rebellion, groups of graphic designers and artists started painting colourful murals featuring metaphorical, sometimes ironic characters – often avatars of the artists themselves – on walls around the city. A new style of graffiti emerged that was still highly satirical, often charged with social or political commentary, but it was primarily positive and uplifting.
It was a form of moderate, upbeat self-expression in a country where governments have traditionally taken a dim view of those who express a difference of opinion or threaten their agenda.
On a quiet street in residential Colegiales, the former home of an artist named Tec is covered in bright characters including a giant green cactus and a sabre-toothed black and white dog. The story goes that Tec was enjoying an asado with friends when they decided to go outside and brighten up the house. The result is a vibrant mural that still makes the house pop out on the otherwise unremarkable street.
On seeing the bright mural on the wall of the house opposite, the owner of the building across the street approached Tec and asked if he could do something with his own garage door, which was covered with scrappy tags. It’s a response that epitomised the city’s reaction to this new form of street art: better good art than bad art.
Spray paint and materials were expensive, so artists would often paint people’s homes or walls for free, providing the client paid for materials. 'Commissioning' became common among private individuals, cultural centres and other organisations, who would rather have a bright piece of art covering their building than scrappy tags.
I visited the northern neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires with Graffitimundo, a company that takes clients around the city, showcasing the public work of major players in the street art scene and shedding more light on the world of graffiti and muralism.
Formed by two British graphic designers who became fascinated by Buenos Aires' street art, the organisation now works on projects designed to bring awareness and understanding of BA urban art to the public realm.
Graffitimundo (which means graffiti world) runs a street art gallery called UNION in San Telmo, which hosts exhibitions and stencil workshops. They’re also working on a documentary called White Walls Say Nothing, which is being funded by a successful $36,000 Kickstarter campaign. Check out the trailer here.
The opening of UNION last year followed the successful launch of Hollywood in Cambodia in 2006 – a Palermo-based gallery-cum-workshop created and managed by the artists themselves to showcase their work.
Tucked away behind and above the Post Street Bar in trendy Palermo Soho, Hollywood in Cambodia is run by some of the street art scene's leading protagonists, including Stencil Land, rundontwalk, Tester, bs as stencil and Malatesta.
During a tour of Palermo, Villa Crespo, Colegiales and Chacarita – where you can find some of the best street art in the northern part of the city – we get to know the styles of some of the big names in streets art: Nerf, Pum Pum, Cabaio, Jaz and Stencil Land to name a few.
The works range in size from small sections of wall to enormous murals on the sides of towering apartment blocks, with themes ranging from football hooliganism and police brutality to hero princesses and 100-foot tall dragons.
As graffiti becomes increasingly popular on the global stage, international artists are visiting Buenos Aires to collaborate with local talent, sharing ideas and helping spread the story of Buenos Aires’ muñequismo around the world.
At the same time, local artists are travelling to take part in foreign residency programmes or join collectives whose presence at shows like Art Basel Miami Beach is helping to champion the street art cause around the world.
Whatever their mission, the soapbox is getting bigger and bigger.