For first timers in Buenos Aires, one of the first things you notice is the amount of graffiti and street art that covers the walls of the city.
It’s everywhere: on schools, churches, shops, subway trains, public buildings, alleyways, garages and residential homes, and it varies in quality from ungainly, scribbled tags to artistic murals that cover entire walls.
During the half-day tour, I learned about the history of street art in Buenos Aires and how is it becoming increasingly respected as a legitimate art form, and got to know some of the big-name artists who use the streets as their canvas.
Now, after spending the last month visiting Iguazu Falls, the glaciers of southern Patagonia and the wine country of Mendoza, I’m back in Buenos Aires and Graffitimundo’s trip to the southern half of the city is at the top of my things to do list.
So, after a 20-hour bus journey from Mendoza and very little sleep, I head straight out to join the South City Tour, which covers the southern suburbs of La Boca and Barracas, two of Buenos Aires’ grittier neighbourhoods.
The tour begins at Fundacion Proa a design and cultural centre at the edge of Caminito in La Boca, whose colourful houses have helped turn the small neighbourhood into one of BA’s biggest tourist attractions.
The area overlooks the foul-smelling Rio Matanza (or Riachuelo), which is full of industrial waste and other muck. On the other side of the river are some of La Boca’s notorious villas miserias, or shantytowns.
Accompanied by Graffitimundo’s guide, Sorcha, and a burly chap who loiters at the back of the group with a reassuring bulge at his hip, we set out on foot to explore Caminito.
La Boca has maintained a volunteer fire fighting force since local resident Tomas Liberti founded the organisation in 1884, following a fire that threatened to destroy the entire neighbourhood. Since then, Los Bomberos Voluntarios have kept watch on the buildings of La Boca, preventing catastrophe on more than one occasion.
Images of heroic firemen appear frequently in the murals around the neighbourhood, as well as imagery celebrating La Boca’s immigrant population, which swelled the ranks of factory and dock-workers in the 1800s.
The area’s art also pays homage to the famous Madres de Plaza de Mayo – the mothers of young men and women who disappeared during Argentina’s Dirty War in the 70s – who continue to play a pivotal role in establishing the fates of those disappeared and reuniting the orphaned children of disappeared parents with their families.
From Caminito, we travel by minibus to a less salubrious part of La Boca, which was once the main port of Buenos Aires before a bigger facility was created in the 20th century. Today, La Boca is a poor working class neighbourhood where tourists are strongly advised to refrain from wandering beyond the limits of the heavily policed Caminito, so it is a rare privilege to be venturing deep into the barrio with our one-man security team.
We stop outside an abandoned prison whose walls have been claimed by local artists as a giant canvas. On one wall there’s a huge image of two fighting men by BA artist Jaz; a commentary on the violence and hooliganism for which the area and the fans of the local football team, Boca Juniors, are known.
Next to it, another image by a different artist shows anonymous men and women being toasted over a pile of burning money, and on the wall around the corner, two blue faces on squashed heads by an artist named Juanito peer down disapprovingly at a burned out car, which appears to have been there for some time.
I’d like to spend more time exploring this unchartered part of Buenos Aires, which is well off the tourist trail, but the walls of the prison are the extent of our La Boca exploration today.
Sandwiched between La Boca and lovely San Telmo, Barracas is another working class neighbourhood on the banks of the Riachuelo River, which was once home to many of the city’s abattoirs and factories. Today, it feels run down and neglected, despite whispers of gentrification and the presence of some of the most impressive street art in the city.
Local artist Marino Santa María began the artistic movement in Barracas when he decorated the outside of his house on Calle Lanin with a colourful tile mosaic. Today, the entire street is filled with mosaics, providing one of the only touristic draws in the barrio.
Barracas is home to the Argentina leg of the international ‘Meeting of Styles’ street art festival, which attracts big-name artists from around the world for five days of artistic collaboration. The first instalment of the show kick-started the neighbourhood-wide love of street art when it was first staged here in 2011.
One of the main sponsors of the festival was heavy machinery company Sullair Argentina, which also commissioned local artists Corona, Mart and Maese Warrior to turn the walls of its huge machinery compound into a living canvas. Today, a series of surreal bicycles cover the outer wall, forming a backdrop to life in the compound.
Nearby, artist Alfredo Segatori, better known as ‘Pelado’ is working on a vast mural covering three buildings on the banks of the Riachuelo.
Entitled ‘The Return of Quinquela’ after Argentine painter Benito Quinquela Martin, who features prominently in the enormous piece, the 100-metre-long mural depicts life in the neighbourhood and features several of the area’s residents going about their daily lives.
The work has been on-going since 2013, and is now the largest piece of street art in Buenos Aires. Last year the scope of the project spread around the corner of the street, where it now covers the entire façade of the adjacent metal factory.
Tour complete, we head back to Graffitimundo’s marvellous Galeria Union, where the work of street artists is exhibited and artists give workshops in stencil art and live demos. I’m positive I will regret my decision not to purchase a small print by Pum Pum, whose work often depicts punky female cartoon figures.
As well as providing a fantastic insight into the world of contemporary urban art in Buenos Aires, Graffitimundo tours shine a light on parts of the city that many visitors never get to see. In this respect, the company is unique, and I thoroughly recommend that anyone visiting Buenos Aires tag along on one if not both of the street art tours. Find out more here: http://graffitimundo.com