Eddie Ramirez has just shattered all my preconceptions about street artists. He didn't arrive on a skateboard. He doesn't appear to have any tattoos or piercings and his sky-blue shirt is clean and neatly ironed.
Despite not conforming to my ill-informed stereotype, the enthusiastic 28-year-old has been part of the street art community in Valparaiso, the port city 120 kilometres north-west from Santiago, for the past three years. As well as creating his own street art, he helps visitors understand more about Valparaiso's art scene by leading walking tours.
What started as a form of protest against Augusto Pinochet's oppressive dictatorship during the 1970s has since blossomed into one of the world's finest collections of street art. Valparaiso has become a magnet for artists and now there's barely an unadorned wall, alleyway or staircase left in the city.
After meeting in Plaza Anibal Pinto, we stroll up one of the city's many "cerros" or hills. Along the way, Ramirez explains the difference between graffiti and street art, showing us examples of the simplistic initials or "tags" of the former and the more complex, colourful murals of the latter. Unlike tagging, the murals have all been painted with the permission of the building owner and many are genuinely spectacular, soaring several storeys high.
He also provides some insight into street art's rules and etiquette. Artists often work in crews (he's part of the Mambo For Life, or MFL gang) or in a master/apprentice relationship with a more experienced artist. Occasionally, there are rivalries between crews but most of the time people are respectful and won't knowingly paint over an existing artwork.
Unsurprisingly, Instagram is the preferred method of communication and Ramirez often uses the social media platform to connect and collaborate with other artists.
As we zigzag through the city's vertiginous streets, he points out the wide variety of styles – everything from stencil-based images of Jimi Hendrix to colourful cut glass tiled mosaics to monochrome cityscapes created using black marker pen. Some of the works are hyper-realistic – an image of a semi-naked sleeping woman looks like a photo from afar – while others are more symbolic, such as a vibrant depiction of a Peruvian Indigenous girl surrounded by parrots in the courtyard of a church.
Ramirez's speciality is characters from video games and well-known '90s cartoons, such as Wile E. Coyote. Although he's been painting for more than two years, he stresses he still has a lot to learn. "It can take 15 years to make a name for yourself," he says.
Unfortunately, we only have 15 minutes to make our mark because the tour culminates with the opportunity to create our own masterpiece. Ramirez wraps clingfilm between two neighbouring wooden posts to form a makeshift canvas, hands us each a spray can and gives us some basic instruction. "Move your whole body, not just your wrist," he says. "And stay square to the surface."
The three of us take it in turns, adding elements to what will eventually become an epic landscape of soaring mountains, meandering rivers and a Jack and the Beanstalk-style flowering vine. We initial one corner and step back to assess our efforts. Let's just say Banksy needn't be too concerned.
Rob McFarland was a guest of Chimu Adventures.
LATAM Airlines flies to Santiago five times a week direct from Melbourne and daily from Sydney via Auckland. See latam.com
Chimu Adventures can create a tailor-made Chile itinerary including flights, accommodation, transfers and tours. The Valparaiso Graffiti tour costs $US179 a person based on two people sharing. See chimuadventures.com