BUENOS AIRES -- Marina Charles remembers the exact piece of graffiti that motivated her and Jonny Robson to found Graffitimundo, a Buenos Aires company that gives street art tours and promotes Argentine graffiti artists. Shortly after she and Robson moved to Argentina from England in June 2008, they grew fascinated by a huge collaborative painting (above) in the city's Colegiales neighborhood. Painted on the security wall of an electrical substation, the image showed brightly colored animals, robots and flying saucers gathered around a melting pink body of a huge, smiling cartoon blob. The playful painting was like no street art they'd ever seen.
"The art inspired us," says Charles, 31, who launched the company with Robson in January 2009. "Graffitimundo wasn't a business idea as much as an idea to tell a story that wasn't being told."
Charles and Robson's non-business idea has apparently found a market that wants to hear that story. Today, Graffitimundo gives Buenos Aires street art tours to some 2,000 people per year and recently raised $36,000 on the crowdsource site Kickstarter to finish production on "White Walls Say Nothing," a documentary about Buenos Aires street art and activism.
The sheer quantity of graffiti on the streets of Buenos Aires is both overwhelming and nostalgic; it is a bit like time traveling back to the 1980s in the northeastern U.S. But while the streets have been "bombed" with the same kind of tags and bubble letters that decorated New York subway cars and Philadelphia factories, one also finds a style of street art that is of Buenos Aires alone. An absurdist mix of painting and stencil--a kind of cross between Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein and Salvador Dalí--it speaks more to joyful self-expression than territorial marking.
Buenos Aires's unique street art was born from the country's historic oscillation between dictatorship and democracy, Robson explains. "In Argentina there’s been a fairly complex relationship between expression and repression," says Robson, 32. "Periods of military dictatorship were split by periods of democracy and expression, So, in the moments where you’re allowed to make noise, you make noise. Graffiti has always flourished here in these interludes between repression."
At the same time, Argentina's isolation--both geographical and cultural--meant that the expression it developed in those periods had little outside influence. Argentine political activists began using stencils to spread their messages in the 1920's, decades before stencils became trendy in the graffiti world, and supporters of President Juan Perón invented their own blocky bubble letter political graffiti in the 1950's. That meant that when U.S.-style graffiti finally entered the mix in the 1990's--a dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 slowed its arrival--Argentines had a very different reaction than Americans. They almost embraced it.
"In the U.S., graffiti is thought of as hip-hop related, gang related, vandalizing subways and in general being a menace to society," Robson says. "In Argentina, there had been a longstanding use of political propaganda in public spaces when graffiti arrived, so people didn't react in horror. It didn't represent social decay and gang activity, and it was more colorful and interesting than most political graffiti."
Just when Argentines were experimenting with graffiti, the economy collapsed in 2001 and plunged the country into a depression similar to the one Greece is experiencing today. In reaction to the bleak mood, a number of artists and graphic designers decided to start painting playful, apolitical street art. "They said they wanted to turn the street back into a playground," Robson says. Often they worked in groups, painting during the day with non-traditional graffiti tools.
"They didn't have a background in graffiti or any affection for aerosol, the symbolic tool of graffiti. So they used latex paint which is cheaper and covers the wall easier and you buy three primary colors and mix all the colors you need," Robson says. "It’s a different thing. If you run around with your hood up and your bandanna on, painting bridges at 4 a.m., you’re viewed as a criminal. If it's the middle of the day and you’re a half dozen guys in your late 20's with roller brushes and tubs of paint, you looks like painters, not vandals. The tools of the trade end up defining you."
Through the efforts of Graffitimundo and other promoters like the graffiti art gallery Hollywood in Cambodia, as well as via overseas street art festivals, Buenos Aires street artists like Jaz and Ever have begun to attract international attention. Gallery works by Buenos Aires street artists sold for some $3,500 at a recent London exhibition.
Argentine street art's rising popularity has brought it back to Argentina's political graffiti roots, as one political group that supports the country's current president paid a street artist to make propaganda stencils for them. Its popularity has also made the ubiquitous street art a difficult issue for local politicians to address.
"The city government is confused," Robson says. "They put money into an anti-graffiti squad and at the same time they sponsored Meeting of Styles, a festival celebrating graffiti. They do political graffiti themselves, they have to campaign against it because some people don’t like it, they support it because some people do like it, they want to show they are accepting and welcoming to get the youth vote, and they organized a festival. That’s reflective of how it’s viewed: it’s a scourge, it’s an important part of culture, it’s beautiful, it’s ugly as sin."
The Buenos Aires street art documentary "White Walls Say Nothing" is due to be completed in July 2013.
Photos courtesy of Graffitimundo, Kid Gaucho and Ian Mount.
Disclosure: The author made a small donation to the Kickstarter campaign for "White Walls Say Nothing." He has no financial stake in the movie's success or failure.