Artists of the streets are reclaiming their public spaces. While in the past, South American dictators would lock you up for painting on public facades, today governments of countries like Argentina and Colombia are commissioning street artists to add color and some needed inspiration to local neighborhoods. This need is especially true for larger cities where buildings are often made of cement, and therefore grey and drab in color.
Street art, originally defined as visual art in public locations that’s unsanctioned, includes spray paint graffiti, stencil graffiti, and street installations. These days, however, it has gotten so popular that business proprietors and homeowners actually hire artists to liven up their walls. Though street artists are generally welcome by the public and accepted by police, graffiti in prohibited spaces stills draws criticism and in some cases even jail time.
While a street artist’s motivation can vary from the pure creative to an adrenalized ego, Latin America’s artists are for the most part conscious of the neighborhood they’re working in. The global fame of the anonymous street artist Banksy is also inspiring many young Latin Americans to pick up their first spray can, and Latino street artists have also had creative influences dating back to 1920s Mexico.
Much of the elegant street art we see today across Latin America has been inspired by the work of politically powerful muralists such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera. These artists were conscious of the power of using public space for depicting their country’s history and struggles directly to the people and not in privileged spaces like galleries or museums. Here are a few global hot spots for street art and the big names in their art scenes.
United States of Latin America
Leading the trail of politically conscious street artists is none other than a Colombian American whose family fled violence in Bogotá, only to find that the U.S. is just as caustic. Her name is Jessica Sabogal and her street art is making white supremacists quiet uncomfortable with her murals. The San Francisco based artist has made an international name for herself painting 65 feet high murals with messages against misogyny and racism across the United States. She has become so hot, in fact, that the Democratic Party commissioned her to paint a mural in favor of immigrants.
Her art work can also be seen on San Francisco’s public buses. She first gained attention in 2017, when street artist Shepard Fairey (who created that legendary graphic portrait of Barack Obama with the message “Hope”), tapped Sabogal on an activist art project entitled “We the People,” which flooded the public consciousness with images of the true spirit of America: diversity, democracy and shared humanity.
Most of her murals are portraits made by stencils and aerosol paints and feature women with Indigenous, African or Latin American roots. One of her captions reads “Women are Perfect;” another “White Supremacy is Killing Me” or “Walls Can‘t Keep Out Greatness.” In 2010, when she painted the adored Chicana poet and writer Cherríe Moraga, a hero to Latinos and feminists, it immediately went viral.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires’s walls tell the city’s story with messages of protest and rage from the darkest days of its dictatorship and its economic crises to its always inspiring passion for life. And while there is no longer a dictator to lock you up, the police still jail some graffiti artists if they don’t have the owner’s permission. These days street art is all over neighborhood’s such as La Boca or the trendier districts of San Telmo and Palermo Soho. Some of the city’s most recognized artists are Martin Ron, who has garnered international fame with a piece featuring a giant, hyperreal turtle entitled “Pedro Luján and his Dog.”
Another artist is El Marian, who deals in political and social activism and his murals and paintings often depict scenes of riots or marginalized societies affected by social oppression.
Street artists usually feel the need to place their art over grey urban landscapes that lack life. But in the last decade Chile’s second largest city of Valparaiso, known for its hodgepodge of multicolored homes, has exploded with even more color thanks to its street art trend. In this city it’s legal to paint anywhere you’d like as long as you have the permission of the building’s owner. And even if you don’t, the penalty is lenient. This has allowed for its reputation as one the best street art cities in the world to develop. With its 42 hills, long stairwells, alleyways, and winding streets, “Valpo” is the perfect venue for viewing street art that seems to cover every open space imaginable.
Two of the most influential artists on the scene are the couple Sammy Espinoza and Cynthia Aguilera, who work together as Un Kolor Distinto. Look out for their art in the city port and then check out Cerro Concepción and Cerro Alegre neighborhoods to view all of Valpo’s incredible street art.
Legalized in 2009, this city’s street artist can be seen everywhere from the favelas up in the hills down to the neighborhoods surrounding the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. The recent World Cup and Olympics increased the number of street art related projects city wide as did the campaign to showcase local female residents entitled “Women are Heroes,” a project created by the international street artist JR. Graffiti pioneer Marcelo Ment ́s work is also known around the globe, featuring a mysterious, big-haired female siren that stares out at you from the walls all over the city.
When asked by Time Out how Rio’s influence is seen in his work he said: “I always put some words into my work and Rio is always present. I believe that graffiti absorbs local characteristics, maybe the colors, although the influence of music and the carioca lifestyle is really strong in my work. It’s always in constant development, I’m always looking for new elements that I can identify with, that reinforce my identity.”
Decades ago, and to many a mayor’s dismay, this Andean capital had a long tradition of unwelcome graffiti in its commercial downtown district. But today it’s gained a reputation for top quality street art since its legalization. Now there are hundreds of artists working in Colombia, which include the Bogotá-based Guache with his giant murals about indigenous cultures spotted throughout the Santa Fe area of the city to Stinkfish, who commands large fees for his projects these days. He’s most known for a series of yellow-faced human figures, which are based on photos Stinkfish took of people he met during his travels.
Best neighborhood for street art viewing? Head to the La Candelaria where local owners commission artists to paint murals on the sides of their buildings to prevent random tagging by other artists and to limit police interference.
While street art may still be against the law in Quito, that doesn’t mean you’ll spot too many white walls high up in this Andean capital. In fact new laws that prohibit street art include steep fines and even jail time. One of the city’s most famous artists is BLN Bike (aka Belen Jaramillo), who includes images of empowered women, birds, words, and yes, bikes, as main themes in her murals. Perhaps some of the best street art spots can be found in La Mariscal and the Centro Historico. But if you want to go off the beaten path to less touristy parts head to Floresta, Guápulo, and Monteserrín for street art paradise.
Lima’s street artists are some of the fiercest when it comes to the city destroying their work. Their motto is #BorraronUnoPintaremosMil (They erased one, we’ll paint a thousand). In the less popular hipster neighborhood of Barranco, which is filled with beautiful large-scale pieces, there has been an ongoing war with local politicians who continuously paint over street artists’ work in yellow paint. In protest, an unstoppable street art movement has emerged in Lima over the years driven by artists such as Jade Rivera with his culturally powerful miniatures and murals of and Yandy Graffer’s psychedelic swirls depicting local tradesmen.
Mexico City, Mexico
Given its long history in political murals by renowned artists like Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, street art is an integral part of Mexican urban life. This is why Mexicans are much more open to the idea as long as the work is good and has an argument. Its influence from the United States’ graffiti scenes in New York and Los Angeles also heavily influenced the sprawling metropolis when migrants returned home with what they saw in the North. While the drive behind its arte urbano scene has always been part rebellious part beautification, this city has also seen the rise in businesses and government ventures encouraging their work with generous commissions. So what are the best neighborhoods for street art? Head to the Condessa and Roma neighborhoods and check out one of the city’s most prolific street artists Edgar Saner’s work well as Jenaro de Rosenzweig’s signature Dalmatian.