Graphic Art Walls – GAW

The walls of the Argentine city – enlivened by massive murals, whimsical painted figures, moody graffiti and subtle but emblematic stencils – carry a powerful political charge.

By Bridget Gleeson, BBC– First published, 28 May 2013

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An artistic record of history

The walls of Buenos Aires tell the city’s story, enlivened by massive murals, whimsical painted figures, moody graffiti and subtle but emblematic stencils – many of which carry a powerful political charge. Throughout the barrios, these urban artworks convey messages of protest, grief, rage and partisan loyalty, tracing the nation’s modern political history from the darkest days of the military dictatorship through to the panic of the 2001 economic crisis and the ongoing drama of the tumultuous Kirchner era. Like all of the public artworks adorning the Argentine capital’s garage doors and factory walls, these painted statements serve as testament to the great porteño appetite and tolerance for art in all its forms. (Bridget Gleeson)

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Expiration dates

Human rights organisations estimate that 20,000 to 30,000 Argentineans “disappeared” due to their perceived ties to socialism during the military dictatorship that spanned from 1976 to 1983. These desaparecidos (disappeared) included left-wing activists and their sympathisers, as well as huge numbers of students, journalists and their family members. During this dark era, the Ex-ESMA military training school served as the city’s largest centre of detention, torture and extermination. Today, the complex has been transformed into a memorial and museum called Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos (Space of Memory and Human Rights), and prominent street artists have been invited to pay homage to the desparecidos. Positioned on the entrance gate, this brutal painting of a naked girl stamped with a bar code and a fecha de vencimiento (expiration date), pictured next to a bloodied Oferta (for sale) sign, is a bold condemnation of state terrorism. It is the work of Milu Correch, a young female street artist whose lush, large-scale portraits of women – at turns austere and dreamily romantic – grace several city walls. (Bridget Gleeson)

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Crime and punishment

One of the most striking images in the former military complex is the larger-than-life mural created by Nazza Stencil, an Argentine street artist famous for the ornate, politically driven work he has added to city walls in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and other Latin American capitals. The child is holding a photo of one of the desaparecidos, and the Juicio y Castigo (judgement and punishment) icon is a symbol for the human rights group HIJOS (Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Forgetting and Silence) that continues to demand justice and retribution for the government-sponsored mass genocide. (Bridget Gleeson)

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Faces of the disappeared

Of the approximately 5,000 people brought to the ex-ESMA torture centre, only 150 survived – and a disturbing number of the desaparecidos were innocent teenagers who had nothing to do with politics. Across the walls and buildings of the former military school, wheat-paste collages show the faces of these young victims, many of whom were high school students in Buenos Aires at the time of their disappearance. (Bridget Gleeson)

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Motherly love

In 1977, at the start of Argentina’s military dictatorship, the Madres (mothers) of the first desaparecidos began demonstrating, demanding that their children and grandchildren be returned to them alive. Because the government imposed a law prohibiting public congregations of more than three people, the Madres began wearing pañuelos (handkerchiefs) so that they would be identifiable to one another; 36 years later, the pañuelo remains a symbol of their ongoing protest and plea for justice. Pictured here, the placement of their emblem – painted high on a brick wall overlooking a popular children’s playground near the border of the Palermo Hollywood and Colegiales neighbourhoods – is significant, serving to remind the public that the Madres are always watching, ready to protect today’s children from the horrors their own children endured. (Bridget Gleeson)

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Connection to the street

Graffiti writer-turned-muralist Jaz (Franco Fasoli) is one of the most talked-about figures in Buenos Aires’ street art scene. While his work is not overtly political – he is known for the series of whimsical, larger-than-life zoo animals he painted across the city’s walls – the artist’s choice of materials speaks to the nation’s rocky modern history. After Argentina’s dramatic economic meltdown in 2001, salaries were cut, bank accounts were frozen, unemployment rose and inflation skyrocketed. Many street artists, unable to pay for paint, had to turn to alternative materials, and Jaz began mixing cheap asphaltic paint with petrol and industrial emulsion. The dreamy, highly textured watercolour effect is more than an aesthetic. As Jaz often points out in interviews, he is intentionally still using these unconventional materials, which are usually used to make roads and roofing, to affirm his connection to the street. (Bridget Gleeson)

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El Cartonero

Thousands of workers lost their jobs in Argentina’s economic crash of 2001. In desperate attempts to support their families, many of the suddenly unemployed took to the streets, combing through the trash to salvage recyclable materials in the hope of earning a few pesos. The number of so-called cartoneros (carton collectors) rose from 25,000 to more than 40,000 by 2002, and tens of thousands still work in the streets today. This massive mural that depicts a cartonero taking a cigarette break on the rear wall of the famous antiques market El Mercado de Pulgas was painted by Alfredo Segatori “Pelado”, a street artist who often portrays local personalities, workers and the homeless in pieces he describes as “urban mirrors”. (Bridget Gleeson)

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Protest for paint

Near the entrance of El Mercado de Pulgas, this vibrantly hued stencil of workers demanding more paint (the signs read “we want paint now”) is no longer in good condition, but it is an excellent example of the work of Santiago Spirito, also known as Cabaio Stencil. After the economic crisis of 2001, he began painting in the streets with the Vomito Attack collective, a politically motivated group of artists who used stencils to spread their fiery anti-consumerist messages throughout the city. Cabaio Stencil started working independently in 2007; today he is known for using a delicate layered effect and a kaleidoscopic range of colours. (Bridget Gleeson)

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Recycling the trash

Argentina’s dark modern history features a cast of villains. Among the most reviled are Jorge Rafael Videla, chief military commander from 1976 to 1981, sentenced to life in prison for his involvement in the massacre and disappearance of tens of thousands of Argentine citizens; and Carlos Menem, president from 1989 to 1995 and notorious for pardoning military dictators and pegging the Argentine peso to the US dollar, prompting the 2001 economic crash. This stencil, found on walls across the city, makes a harsh comparison between Videla, Menem and current Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri, a conservative political figure that liberal artists love to hate. Though the caption varies on different stencils, the image draws a devastating parallel. (Bridget Gleeson)

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Death and rebirth

On 17 May 2013, Videla died in prison at the age of 87, and a host of new political artworks – like this powerful work by Nazza Stencil – have started going up around the city, offering caustic commentary on his horrific legacy and reflecting a sense of public relief at his passing. Though the military dictator defended his insidious actions until the end of his life and refused to reveal important information about the desaparecidos, Argentine people have widely expressed satisfaction in the fact that Videla – unlike some military figureheads who were pardoned or somehow able to escape the full weight of criminal justice – met his end while serving his sentence in a common prison. (Bridget Gleeson)

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El Nestornauta

Néstor Kirchner, president of Argentina from 2003 to 2007, is widely credited with easing the nation out of its post-economic crisis slump. Under his administration, wages increased, poverty and unemployment dropped, social services improved and public infrastructure expanded. After his sudden death from a heart attack in October 2010, the political group La Campora distributed this “Nestornauta” stencil to pro-Kirchner activists throughout the city, combining the face of the former president with the classic figure of “El Eternauta”, the protagonist of the eponymous Argentine science fiction comic novel who fights extraterrestrial invaders after a deadly snowfall covers Buenos Aires. Today, the image can be seen repeated across the city in tribute to the late president. (Bridget Gleeson)

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Kirchner’s mark

Argentina’s first elected female president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – widow of former president Néstor Kirchner – was first inaugurated in 2007 and is currently serving her second term. Though especially popular with the working class in many of Argentina’s provinces, she is less venerated in Buenos Aires, where critics charge her administration with corruption and playing a key role in the runaway inflation that is currently plaguing the nation. Her supporters remain fiercely loyal, however: when the resident of this house, located in the fashionable Palermo Soho district, learned that only 9% of his neighbours voted for Kirchner in the 2009 elections, he hired a stencil artist to cover the front of his home with phrases from the president’s political discourse in the colours of the Argentine flag. (Bridget Gleeson)

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Blinded by the flag

Towering high over Avenida Independencia, one of the city’s busiest arteries, is a controversial mural depicting the Argentine flag swirling through a sea of people, covering the eyes and mouths of everyone in the crowd. The piece was created by the Italian artist Blu, who came to Buenos Aires shortly after the October 2011 re-election of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The ominous figure presiding over the crowd wears a garment similar to the presidential sash; Kirchner critics recognise the message that her followers are blinded by an oppressive (and perhaps false) sense of nationalism. (Bridget Gleeson)

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Practicalities

To explore more of the city’s fascinating urban art scene with the experts, contact non-profit organisation Graffitimundo, which is dedicated to raising awareness of Argentine urban art. Their Hidden Walls tour offers a political bent and an off-the-beaten-path street art itinerary through some of the city’s grittier barrios every Saturday. If a trip to Argentina is not part of your upcoming travel plans, look for White Walls Say Nothing, the organisation’s upcoming documentary on activism and urban art in Buenos Aires. (Bridget Gleeson)

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