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Destination Argentina

Buenos Aires The Walls that Talk

When one pays attention to the walls lining the cobblestone streets of the capital, a loquacious and rebellious city, both playful and meditative, is revealed. From its colorfully defiant viewpoint, urban art comments on dynamic Buenos Aires. Here we present some of the artists who best capture its essence.

By Myriam Selhi-Ousset
Photos: Noelia Vittori

Subversion and Diversion: Federico Minuchin, a.k.a. Run Don’t Walk, Stencil Artist

Street art has an element of protest, but it simultaneously beautifies cities and brings art to the people with a hint of surprise or perhaps provocation.

“This is political. Instead of being at home watching TV, you are in the street doing something creative that puts you in the public space. In a way, you are appropriating the space,” explains Fede Minuchin, a.k.a. Run Don’t Walk, between two strokes with an aerosol paint can. On a corner of Palermo Soho, Minuchin is painting a stencil that is approximately ten by thirteen feet. Someone approaches and asks for directions. A neighbor draws in close, “You’re improving the block!” There doesn’t appear to be much objection to the artist’s work.

Buenos Aires has a unique understanding of the public sphere: it belongs to the people rather than the government. In summer, it’s not uncommon to see girls sunbathing in their bikinis in a park in the middle of the city, or to come across an improvised sidewalk “asado” where construction workers hold a makeshift BBQ to celebrate that  it’s Friday. The street is considered public and the public is composed of people, therefore the street belongs to the people. It is also the home of the social protest in which graffiti is solidly rooted.

In the 2001 crisis, Argentina went bankrupt, generating a period of deep social unrest. In this context, stencil art started popping up on walls in the neighborhoods of San Nicolás, Monserrat, and Congreso, where the country’s political and financial power was concentrated.

“The idea of being on the street and intervening in the life of the street is a legacy of the post-crisis period of 2001-2002. At that time, many artists became best known for the walls they painted and eventually they ended up collaborating.”

Stencil art values collaboration, just like punk culture, with which it shares an aesthetic. Minuchin, who comes from the punk and hardcore music scene, began street painting about ten years ago. “I was already making posters, playing in a band, and making album covers and screen prints when I realized I didn’t need a reason to do all this work. Stencil art is like screen printing’s less polished cousin. I could go out into the street and do it.” And that he did. Now you can see his work in the neighborhoods of Congreso, Palermo, and Almagro, as well as in the Hollywood in Cambodia gallery, a street art gallery and urban artists cooperative.

The crisis provided fertile ground for stencil art in Buenos Aires. Many Argentine artists returned from abroad, bringing new experiences and friendships. Stencil artists, graffiti artists, and muralists, both Argentines and foreigners, formed groups with different influences.

Bustling and Ephemeral: Nicholás Romero, a.k.a. Ever, Muralist

He began making graffiti on the streets of the Congreso neighborhood of Buenos Aires when he was seventeen, but now he paints street murals. He often portrays Mao Zedong and other images from Chinese iconography without eyes, although he has other projects. For example, he has just returned from Belgium, where he painted a four story mural of the face of a black teenager at the entrance of Ostende. This figure, a resident of the seaside resort, was not a random choice.

“Before, I wanted to say things, now I want to raise questions,” says the artist about this mural, painted in the former summer resort of King Leopold II, who is credited with the deaths of six to ten million Congolese. “What would the king think if he saw an African person welcoming him as he was entering his summer resort? I’m not exacting revenge; the boy I drew really exists. He was born in Belgium and speaks Flemish. I just think it’s good to remember how things happened.”

Romero spends a few weeks in Buenos Aires, his hometown, which he describes as “the only place where I can laugh without reservation.” From there he is going to paint in Cordoba before once again heading out to the Ukraine for a street art festival. Ever is in perpetual motion, like the city where he grew up. For him, painting in Buenos Aires shows that nothing stays the same from one day to the next. “The street is unpredictable. What happens there is out of my control and when I paint a mural, I have to give myself over to the ephemeral. This city is improvised during the day.”

Standing in front of the first mural he painted of Mao, he explains that he loves that the locals take ownership of his works. “Once I’ve finished them, they are no longer mine. I offered to re-paint the façade of this wall for the owner, but she refused. She likes that people know her as ‘The Mao Lady.’ People want to be a part of this. That’s what I like about Buenos Aires.”

Romero began to make graffiti thirteen years ago and the arrival of stenciling led him to making murals. “I was fascinated with the power of the message that stencil artists managed to concentrate in such a small image; the conciseness that artists such as BsAsStncl or Run Don’t Walk used to convey such strong messages. Now the scene is very rich, very diversified. There are more artists. When you put colors on the street and change people’s everyday space, you generate freedom.”

Reinvented Classics: Daniel Stroomer, a.k.a. Nase Pop, Graffiti Artist

In Buenos Aires, urban art is constantly evolving and incorporating different genres. Graffiti, the first manifestation of contemporary street art, opened the way for other branches of urban art. Nase Pop is a figure of the new graffiti in Buenos Aires.

Stroomer’s first encounter with graffiti was as conflicted as it was naive. When he was fifteen, in his hometown of Almere Haven, Holland, he tagged his name on each floor of the housing complex where he lived. The first complaint about the awkwardly written “Daniel” took just twenty minutes to arrive. There was only one Daniel in the entire complex.

“My mother scolded me at first and later took out some books on graffiti. She explained to me that it was street art and what I had done was illegal, and that is why graffiti artists use pseudonyms. She ordered me to clean off each tag I had made and forbade me from painting in the street.” But the seed had been sown. Obviously, he disobeyed his mother. He secretly continued painting his native neighborhood and later the trains at the nearby Almere Stad station. After that came Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Buenos Aires.

“When I arrived, the graffiti scene was booming; many artists were returning from abroad and had premium aerosols to work with. This, combined with the fact that in Buenos Aires you can paint on the street without municipal permission, opened incredible creative possibilities.” That’s how Nase Pop’s first graffiti artworks flourished in Palermo.

Stroomer is a graphic designer with a particular affection for typography. “Writing graffiti has been an exercise in typography since its beginnings and it is increasingly deliberately focused on typography,” he explains. In recent years, there has been a global trend towards textual graffiti. For the “36 Days of Type” typography festival, a digital invitation was extended to artists around the world, asking them to produce one letter per day and then ten numbers. Nase Pop painted several letters around the city, a chaotic and rebellious city to which he always returns “for its craziness and its freedom.”

Gregarious Modern Aesthetes: Al Ver Verás

There are few stories more particular to Buenos Aires than that of the members of Al Ver Verás. This group of artists stages “music to see” on weekends with a unique traveling show. From a terrace, the collective transcends the dividing walls of the neighborhood buildings with their musical projections.

The founding members, Daniel Selén, a visual and spatial composer, and Diego Gentile, a musical and lyrical composer, are childhood friends from the neighborhood of La Boca. The artist Martina Fraguela contributes overhead lighting and optics using various craft media. Selén and Fraguela met at a milonga, dancing tango in La Boca six years ago. “She became a kind of inspiring muse, until she finally joined the project,” recalls Selén. Their musician friends, Maximiliano Di Monte on percussion and Alejandro Chomicz on the saxophone, and the dancer Leticia Fraguela, Martina’s sister, complete the team.

“The idea is that the stars of this show are the show itself and the city. We don’t want the building lady to turn off the lights or for the street to be dark,” say the founders. This project has existed since 2002 but really came into its own in 2007. It has since mutated into a fifty-minute audiovisual show with seven projectors, three musicians, and videos projected over the city.

The groups ideas have evolved. Percibo, the show that is now in its third season, is closely linked with time: “The city walls are like palimpsests, the Greek concept of writing on something that already has tracks of earlier inscriptions. That is what graffiti does and it’s what we do as well, the difference being that we write with light.” The Al Ver Verás project is a bridge between painting, music, and movement.

The concept of Al Ver Verás is unique. It resembles video mapping, building an optical illusion with the morphology of the building being spotlighted. Al Ver Verás uses several buildings as backdrops so Buenos Aires contributes quite a bit. “The dividing walls, so typical of the city’s horizon, are a perfect surface for us, but if there are no buildings, we use something else.” In the winter, the project moves inside and the collective offers a show, “Cielo adentro” (Heaven Within), that changes from function to function. The physicality of the dancer Leticia Fraguela is a big part of the inside shows.

Subversive, funny, boisterous, ephemeral, classic, modern, gregarious, and hedonistic, this city shares many characteristics with the street art that occupies and animates it, proving that while urban art is not a phenomenon particular to Buenos Aires, this city’s street art, intelligent and public, is a form unto itself.