Power Among the Walls: The Salience of Street Art in Latin America

By Olivia Bastin

South America is home to a kaleidoscope of street art that reflects each artist’s personal life, socio-economic status, and identity. Street art – such as murals and graffiti – is an expression of their worldview that tourists and members of the community alike are fortunate to look in on. Growing up amongst the sheer abundance of street art that South America has to offer, many of the most successful street artists focus on themes such as their personal indigenous roots and female empowerment. For instance, many street artists paint traditional Amazonian natives coexisting with indigenous wildlife. 

From a socio-economic perspective, urban art can be damaging to endemic communities. One such negative impact is the gentrification of local areas: presenting them as more desirable places to live, whilst encouraging business growth particularly within the retail and hospitality sectors. The cost of living in these aesthetic areas rises while, on the other side of the same coin, local businesses benefit from burgeoning consumer demand. In many countries, including Mexico, street art improves the tourism industry, serving as a stable and attractive development feature, which consequently improves the economic status of the country as a whole by bringing in foreign revenue. 

The economic success of street art reveals a new “creative economy,” which focuses on the dichotomous production of art and its successive consumption by a public drawn in by this artistic lifestyle. Street art walking tours are becoming a staple tourist attraction in many cities throughout Mexico and beyond, boosting their respective local economies. However, street artists can struggle financially to fund the realisation of their projects. Street art is an incredibly lengthy and resource draining process. The amount of materials needed for large-scale projects can grow to be financially burdensome for artists. Despite these financial obstacles, artists can improve the visibility of their art through media engagements, potentially increasing their income revenue from their projects. Furthermore, the birth of creative economies gives indigenous artists a platform in which to showcase their art as well as organically write their own narratives, engaging and educating onlookers seeing their murals.

Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro are home to some of South America’s most distinctive street art cultures. Annually, these cities bring in millions of tourists seeking out the colourful and distinctive murals. The residential area of Palermo, Buenos Aires is host to dazzling murals that illustrate a variety of aspects of Argentine history, culture, and society.  One of the most popular pieces is Girls Hugging by Julie Casas and Mark Bou. Others include Chispart’s Astronaut on a Bicycle, or The Thinking Person by Triangulo Dorado. The Thinking Person mural, in particular, is an example of such themes, and encourages onlookers to reflect upon the notion of peace, forgiveness and the power an individual has to change the world. After all, part of the mural features the phrase “no haya paz en la tierra y comience por mi” which translates to “let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me”. If you find yourself in Rio de Janeiro, then it is worth going to Santa Teresa, a relaxed bohemian neighbourhood located in the hills of the city; a home to colourful buildings and a multitude of popular murals. The telephone poles are no exception, as they depict unique patterns and designs, including narrative scenes. The cherry on the cake is the Santa Teresa Tram mural which depicts the Santa Teresa tram passing through the local neighbourhood. 

Not only is street art a critical economic and cultural driver, it also helps activists disseminate their ideas within the political and social sphere. In Argentina, many female street artists have put issues of gender inequality, the wage gap, and femicide at the forefront of their art. From the Ni una Mena’ marches to the group Nosotros Proponemos, art is aiding in the process of reforming the political landscape Argentina has long needed. Recent policy change that is a result of various grassroots movements has resulted in Argentine women obtaining a greater voice in their communities. 

For instance, the artist Ailen Possamay’s famous mural depicts female workers carrying out domestic chores attached with the phrase inspired by the writer Silvia Federici: “Eso que llaman amor trabajo no pago”. Aside from its clear allusion to gender inequality, the statement opens up critical discourse for complex conversations like this. The quote (which translates to “What they call a labour of love is really unpaid work”) references how women are tasked with demanding chores in return for little, if any, compensation, in addition to highlighting the prevailing economic violence that systemically confines women to the domestic sphere. As these roles are embedded in a long history of South American machismo, this art is deeply entrenched in patriarchal attitudes that continue to manifest themselves as the existing socio-economic imbalances that marginalise women. Glimpses into Argentine society like these reveal the pigeon holes women have been forced into, and reflect the areas in which transformation is necessary to establish a more just and fair society.

Another powerful and thought-provoking example of street art that was inspired by the feminist movement can be contextualised in a recent campaign to legalize abortion. This example consists of women from all walks of life painted alongside the rallying cries of “aborto legal ya” on surfaces across Buenos Aires. Women in bandanas and green t-shirts bearing the same message went to the capital building towards the end of February to demand policy changes regarding the legality of abortion, or lack thereof. These protests ultimately helped the cause for legalising abortion in Argentina. ‘The streets’ have served as the ideal political battlefield for women to advocate for more progressive policies. Furthermore, the persistent presence of feminist street art continually challenges generally-held notions by those who occupy the public sphere (usually men).

A prominent goal of the feminist movement is accessing these spaces, and creating street art to promote the salience of feminism. Only four South American countries have legalized abortion: Cuba (1965), Colombia (2022), Guyana (1995) and Uruguay (2012). Activism through street art exposes the frequency, cost, and fatal consequences of abortion that too many women have experienced. In politics, street art functions as a medium through which the detriments of abortion can be broadcasted to the wider public when other forms of media fail. 

The political aims of street art are not exhausted at feminism. There are 476 million Indigenous people worldwide in over 90 countries and the majority of them are contemporaneously marginalised across the world. In many forms of media, indigenous groups are neglected or underrepresented in governing bodies due to residual (but highly impactful) effects of colonialism and exploitation. Indigenous groups are systematically misrepresented, stereotyped, and depicted as caricatures of themselves. 

One of the most famous South American street artists, Elliot Tupac, has been at the forefront indigenous media, amplifying indigenous voices. He is perhaps most widely known for his piece Esperanza from the Calle 26 Street Art Collection in Bogota. The Peruvian street artist uses the pseudonym Tupac to refer to the Incan Monarch Tupac Amaru and the indigenous revolutionary Tupac Amaru II. His espousal of the Chica art form, which uses traditional aesthetics to highlight various aspects of Incan culture, showcases the value of indigenous identities. He frequently juxtaposes indigenous and foreign influences in his art as being as fraught as the divide between rural and urban Peruvian communities. Elliot Tupac has mentioned the various aims of his art work: to inspire, educate and promote political change. The street wall is a platform through which street artists can communicate their visions of a more egalitarian world, whilst simultaneously celebrating community leaders who are working to make this world a reality. 

The Jimmy Nelson Foundation is providing funding for the Master Peace Organization to create As They Pass By – Walls of Connection (2017). This project encompasses four different Latin American cultures from four cities. With 50% of indigenous populations residing in urban areas, the project seeks to open up space for them to publicly express their cultural identities. This project has succeeded in creating an opportunity to illustrate their cultural practices, and honour their heritage artistically and aesthetically. 

Furthermore, Walls of Connection has increased indigenous visibility, encouraged understanding and empathy, and showcased indigenous pride. The communities taking part consist of the Zapotec community in Queretaro, the Mapuche community in Valparaiso, the Guarani community in Sao Paulo, and the Misak community. Many studies have shown that many speakers of indigenous languages face racism and discrimination, which can make it harder for these speakers to obtain jobs and find financial incomes in a country in which their mother tongue is not the dominant language. Indigenous peoples are excluded from the work force, and maintain lower governmental representation, confining these groups to lower socio-economic strati. These murals give these individuals a platform they can utilise to educate viewers on this lack of inclusion in the political and social spheres. Therefore, many murals focus on the lack of a political voice these indigenous communities have and details their fight to be listened to, raising awareness of political issues they are experiencing.

In summation, many South American cities have a fascinating yet exhaustive range of thought-provoking street art to see and learn about. Indigenous communities are telling their side of a narrative that has been, up until this point, written by the white man. However, the street art itself, as well as the indigenous communities they portray, is gaining more visibility in the global media. Their street art pieces foster a deeper understanding of their cultural practices, worldviews, and human experiences for many regional, national, and international communities. The street wall is a blank canvas that allows the artist to delve into their cultural being, and express how they and their community see the world. This sparks productive conversations in the art world as well as the political arena. Overall, I have to say I am inspired by many of these artists, and hope that someday I’ll have the chance to see this graffiti with my own eyes.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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