The Activism of Buenos Aires Street Art

Buenos Aires Street Art
Mural of Mao by Argentine street artist Ever (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Between 1975 and 1983, tens of thousands of people went missing in Argentina’s “Dirty War.” The exact number of the tortured and murdered in state-sponsored detentions is impossible to determine due to the discreetness of the disappearances and disposal of the bodies. Free speech was nonexistent; the members of the media and press who spoke out frequently became part of the missing. It was in this environment of fear that street art became a public voice, and in the decades that followed it has continued to be part of an activist culture of art, especially in Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires. This week, filming started on a feature-length documentary called White Walls Say Nothing (Paredes blancas no dicen nada in Spanish) that aims to capture the history and contemporary vibrance of Argentine street art.

Mural by Jaz
Mural by Jaz on an abandoned Buenos Aires building

White Walls Say Nothing is being produced by Graffitimundo with White Wall Industries, a production company partnership between Jonny Robson, one of the founders of Graffitimundo, and New York-based director Gates Bradley. Graffitimundo was started in 2009, and the Buenos Aires arts organization leads tours of street art, and also connects with the community of artists to support the local scene. In October of last year, they had a successful Kickstarter campaign for the documentary, and announced this week that they’d soon start filming. In a blog post, they stated: “Our researchers have been digging through video and photographic archives for material which will bring Buenos Aires’ past to life.”

Whale Mural
Mural on a house in Palermo, Buenos Aires

Back in 2011 while visiting Buenos Aires, I joined one of Graffitimundo’s street art tours and was stunned by the work. Murals didn’t hide in alleys or vacant lots — they wrapped over whole buildings. There were the dreamy realist murals of Ever, where colors flowed from the eyes of faces; the anthropomorphic wrestlers by Jaz; and the playful latex paint cats and girls with wildly flowing hair by Pum Pum.

Vandalism, even tagging, is rarely prosecuted in Buenos Aires, and street artists paint out in the open. Home and business owners regularly allow their buildings to be covered in murals and street art, an openness that goes back to the time of economic and political downturn in the early 2000s, a time where just two weeks saw five different presidents. Street artists tried to add some life and happiness to the city with their work, and many in the city embraced it as the return of their free speech.

El Eternauta
Stencil of El Eternauta

Most striking was the repeating image of “El Eternauta,” a post-apocalypic comic book character called “the eternal voyager” created by  Héctor Germán Oesterheld, who himself went missing in the Dirty War for leftist beliefs. The street art stencil is altered with the face of Argentina’s late president  Néstor Kirchner, a popular humanitarian, and is meant to continuously remind people of the not-so-distant atrocities, and to keep the missing from being swept into the darkness of history as the country moves forward.

Fighting cats by Jaz
Mural of fighting cats by Jaz in Buenos Aires

Graffitimundo will be posting regular updates on their blog throughout the coming eight weeks of filming. In the meantime, check out the trailer for White Walls Say Nothing below.





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