These walls can speak

Street artists in Buenos Aires enjoy a remarkable freedom to express themselves, writes Ben Stubbs.

IF YOU believe everything you read, Buenos Aires is a city of sexy, pouting Latinos who dance the tango on every street corner, eat steak morning and night and are born with a football attached to their toes. I'm hoping to experience something far from the cliches and sign up for a Graffiti Mundo tour to explore the street art of the city's northern suburbs.

Led by Marina Charles, an English expatriate living in Argentina, we begin our tour in the leafy suburb of Palermo Viejo. While graffiti is often scorned as the domain of degenerates and delinquents, it's quite the opposite in the artistic neighbourhoods of the Argentinean capital. "The walls are for the people here", Marina tells us. It's not uncommon for a graffiti artist to leave an email address on artwork and have prints available in local galleries.

Our first stop is Calle Conde 391, where we see a 20-metre mural splashed across a wall facing a suburban street. The graffiti was completed by an artist using fluorescent paint with mambo-esque images of living cactuses, angels and seahorses. Many graffiti exhibits in the city were painted as a response to the crippling economic crisis of 2001, showing that even when times are tough there is room for beauty, no matter how simple.

We see a gigantic, floating zeppelin-whale painted on the side of a TV production agency's wall on the corner of Calle Zapiola. Gualicho, a local artist, was commissioned to liven up the corner and, with whales, a startled deer making spaghetti and cartoonish characters blobbing along the wall, it changes the block from a drab grey edifice to a stream of consciousness-style exhibition.

At the next set of paintings, local graffiti artist Fede Minuchin joins us and offers to show some of his work. He tells me graffiti art is not a clandestine activity. He often works in the middle of the day on busy street corners rather than by moonlight, with a balaclava and head-torch.

Our next stop is the exterior of an old power station, which stretches for 100 metres. The wall is bursting with conflicting designs, zoo animals "protected" behind a mesh fence, robots and large scrawls of text. While the graffiti world can be competitive, Marina says: "It's ephemeral. It's not meant to last forever and that's what most graffiti artists want."

While there is still crude graffiti around the city that boasts of sexual conquests and football victories, much of the artwork has a deeper significance. We walk by a wall next to a children's playground decorated with the ghostly images of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, which pays homage to the mothers of 30,000 Argentineans still missing after the former military government's crackdown on citizens between 1974 and 1983.

Using the graffiti medium for social commentary, Fede shows us one of his works. On the side of an abandoned building is a painting of a melancholic pig wearing a surgical mask. With the hysteria last year about Argentina's swine flu contamination, this painting was Fede's response to the ordeal.

As we cross the street in Villa Crespo, an old lady approaches Fede and chats to him about his designs. She has a large wall she wants decorated. With the prospect of work, Fede waves us goodbye and leaves to survey more walls.

We later visit the trendy district of Palermo Hollywood and wander into a laneway that serves as an outdoor gallery of sorts. Prints, stencils and giant designs overlap along walls depicting the statue of David, the Piqueteros (protesters) who became well-known during the 1990s for blocking major roads in response to job losses, and a spooky, two-metre image of a smoking man whose face oozes on to the footpath.

We finish at Cambodia in Hollywood, a dimly lit pub that has been adopted by the city's artists. I buy a T-shirt from an artists and chat, over a beer, about where I can find other city hot spots. I mention that I'm Australian. "Wow, you have a kangaroo?" he asks.

I've learnt that there is much more to Buenos Aires than the cliches of football and tango, though I suppose it's going to take longer for me to shake the marsupial tag.

The writer travelled with assistance from Aerolineas Argentinas.

Trip notes

Getting there

Aerolineas Argentinas flies from Sydney to Buenos Aires priced from $1612. (02) 9234 9000, aerolineas.com.

Staying there

The Bo Bo Hotel in Palermo has rooms priced from $US150 ($173) a night. +54 11 4774 0505, bobohotel.com.

The Algodon Mansion in Recoleta has five classical suites. +54 11 3530 7777, algodonmansion.com.

See + do

Graffiti Mundo tours cost 75 pesos ($22). graffitimundo.com.

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