Humans have sought refuge in art for centuries. Different mediums of expression have become an outlet for those whose stories, voices, and wisdom have been excluded from mainstream society and its narratives. This is particularly true for those who find purpose or even solace by leaving their mark on walls across cities.
Pieces of a city such as walls, alleyways, vehicles, and vacant properties are viewed by dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people every day, making them perfect spots to display messages, ideas, or impromptu pieces of art. While there are infinite nuances to graffiti, muralism, and street art, they have undeniably played a significant cultural role in history. Whether a community has consented to its creation or not, many have become prominent acts of resistance during uprisings, a way to spread awareness, iconic symbols of movements, and for many, the only canvas available.
In Puerto Rico, where access to different kinds of resources become harder to come across, funds for arts are the first to be cut, and 52 percent of its population is living under the poverty line after Hurricane María, many have looked to this kind of artistic expression to rebel, create, and heal.
Puerto Rican muralist and graffiti artist ActyTwo describes graffiti as the first artistic medium he was exposed to. Being from the caserío, it’s what was most accessible to him and his community. “It was accessible in my street, and I liked it. It was and still is the main method of mass communication for the poor,” he explained. As a result, he dedicates part of his time to educating kids and adults alike to take on the world of graffiti and art through workshops.
The Different Faces of Urban Art
From commissioned murals and exhibition festivals to painting without consent on public property, urban art takes on many forms and definitions on the Island. While some artists turn this into a career by creating murals for clients, collaborating with museums and institutions, or monetizing their social media, others create a reputation by marking public property and maintaining anonymity to avoid retribution. This duality is part of a centuries-long debate about the acceptable kind of art and which are to be considered vandalism.
While some graffiti artists and muralists intend to purposefully deface to provoke, not all forms of unconsented art are subversive. Though this practice is often linked to destruction, many don’t see their art as vandalism.
“People think that we’re trying to destroy the streets—I’m clear that I go out to create,” ActyTwo explains. “I don’t think my art is vandalism at all. While it’s true that it’s displayed without permission whenever and however I want, it’s only seen as vandalism because bigger entities have made it seem that way. For me, things like those massive and bright billboards that shine through the windows of the poor or those marketing phone calls trying to sell different services are the real acts of vandalism.”
Graffiti served as a gateway to different opportunities for ActyTwo. It inspired him to pursue an education. As a kid that didn’t particularly excel in his studies during high school, his passion for the art helped him achieve the highest academic honors while pursuing an adult program degree at the University of Puerto Rico.
It has also allowed him to live beyond the 9 to 5 by commercializing his art, working with clients, and traveling worldwide for festivals and exhibitions. “I’ve gotten to meet wonderful people, make friends, and travel places as far as Japan, Spain, and France thanks to graffiti. With such incredible moments, you definitely want to keep having experiences like that forever, so I keep striving to grow in everything from graffiti to murals to graphic design.”
Similarly, painting murals has also served as a way for artist Natalia Nicole to become known and sought out internationally. Also known as 2Bleene, she explains that she started her journey with muralism by practicing in abandoned spaces in Puerto Rico. This practice eventually led to her being commissioned to paint in residences, hotels, and establishments.
“My first commissioned mural was in Taberna Boricua in Hato Rey. After publishing the work I did for them on social media, other establishments started to reach out, and that’s how it started.” Like ActyTwo, her art started gaining recognition and granted her the opportunity to be commissioned for her murals in the United States, Spain, and Italy.
In a time and age where the world is inundated with overwhelming tragedies, inflation makes everyday necessities a challenge, and systems mute the voices of our communities, many artists see this as a way to bring light. “Murals help communities see spaces transformed for the better,” 2Bleene explains. “I painted a mural on a building that had been abandoned for over a hundred years in Italy, and the people in the community that passed by while working on it said things like ‘wow, this is beautiful. This will definitely make me want to walk by here more often.’”
A Tale as Old as Time
We now know that, as early as the 1st century BC, Romans inscribed messages on walls, Mayans used symbols to communicate on surfaces, and, in Pompeii, citizens marked public spaces with prose, political campaigns, and words of praise for their favorite gladiators. It seems there’s an innate desire as individuals to make our thoughts of pride, concern, and indignance known.
This still rings true today on an Island that continues to face precarious conditions and humanitarian crises due to political failures, economic turmoil, natural disasters, and more. In urban areas like Santurce, Viejo San Juan, Río Piedras, or even major highways like the Baldorioty avenue, paintings, murals, and words of resistance are on the walls catching the eye of passersby.
Urban art has become a tool for storytelling and a way to resist. A prime example is the black and white Puerto Rican flag, which has become a symbol of protest over the last few years. In 2016, Old San Juan had an iconic and bright Puerto Rican flag painted on a property on one of its streets, serving as an iconic photo-op for tourists and citizens alike. The same artists that initially created the piece changed the colors to black and white in 2016 to symbolize mourning in protest of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico (Junta de Control Fiscal). Since then, this image has been continuously used as a symbol during protests, especially those held in 2019 denouncing ex-governor Ricardo Rosselló.
Acknowledging the Potential Impact
What impact does this generally have on communities? Acknowledging the nuances and the need to examine case-by-case, there are a variety of outcomes. Former president of the Puerto Rican Planning Society, David Carrasquillo, explains that the desirability and consent of a piece of art in community spaces play a big role in the perception of space and the sense of safety and belonging it creates.
When the community doesn’t desire the piece, it can perpetuate the feeling that there is a lack of safety. Practices like tagging subtly allude to its origins and suggest that the act is unconsented, driving people, especially families, to stay away. “The mission of an urban planner is to bring people together,” explains David. “If the art doesn’t act as an element to congregate people in a space, it isn’t meeting its purpose as a unifier.”
On the contrary, if it’s consented and participative, it has the potential to foster a sense of purpose and community. “Democracy, identity, and participation are the drivers that inform how the art will be perceived.”