Interviews

An Office in Madrid Pairs Street Artists With Empty Walls

The “Oficina de Gestion de Muros” (Walls Management Office) is an independent Spanish project that wants to fill the empty spaces around the city of Madrid with art. It was at an art event “La Noche En Blanco, 2010” in Madrid that the Walls Management Office announced their intentions to put the best street artists on the planet in touch with Madrid locals, neighbors, shopkeepers, and businesses who had walls waiting to be painted.

For their first projects “Medianeras de Madrid” (Joint Walls of Madrid)  they worked with two renowned street artists: Blu and Sam3. Now, they are putting together a listing of artists to collaborate with other wall-owners. This effort to provide legal walls for artists to work on is a welcome initiative in a city where the penalty for graffiti is a 3,000 euro fine. Instead of risking arrest working alone, street artists can work with WMO to create pieces that involve the community and cooperate with rather than subvert joint ownership of public space. It might be that some communities wouldn’t accept overly political or confrontational work, but the two murals WMO have produced are both impressive and innovative, with Blu’s apartment-side project openly critiquing corruption in its money-grabbing symbolism.

Moscow's The Wall Project works with artists to fill a vacant wall in an art neighborhood. This one is by Pasha 183. (image from winzavod.com)

Though Walls Management Office isn’t the first organization to try and fill vacant urban walls with street art, it represents another step in a movement that could go mainstream the world over. In Gambia, the Wide Open Walls project led by Lawrence Williams is using street art to turn the village of Kubuneh into a tourist destination by having artists travel to paint its empty walls. Participating artists include Logan Hicks, Lucy McLachlan and Broken Crow. In Moscow, Moscow Centre for Contemporary Art’s Winzavod oversees The Wall Project, which curates murals painted on to an open wall in the city’s up and coming industrial gallery district, including scathingly critical political images. In England, Blank Expression hooks up artists with open spaces, including “turning a disused railway tunnel underneath the old Eurostar terminal into an open air exhibition space for stencil monkeys and spraycan kids,” writes blog We Made This.

The person responsible for founding Madrid’s Walls Management Office is Remedios Vincent, an emerging personality in the Spanish contemporary art scene. Hyperallergic spoke to her to learn more about this simple idea with a potentially big impact.

Blu's mural for WMO in Madrid

Jorge Martin: What is the Walls Management Office and how does it work?

Remedios Vincent: WMO is a way to locate legal street art walls around the city so they can be offered up to artists as open space. We don’t have a physical office yet or anything. Basically, WMO is just me, my computer, my phone, and a website that I have created to start showing the walls that are available. Artists get in touch with me and together we talk to the neighbors to see if they like the ideas artists have as to what to paint on their wall. There are no sponsors, no institutions involved or anything. It all happens thanks to the artists and the neighbors. I’m just the link that puts them together.

Up till now we’ve only done two murals. We have located over 30 walls in the area of Usera (Madrid) and we have been talking to City Hall for the painting permits; so now we are starting the negotiations between neighbors and artists, and hopefully artists will be getting started on the buildings pretty soon.

JM: Do you go with the artists to talk to the neighbors? How do you do that, exactly?

RV: I was able to get a letter from City Hall in which they explain what the project is about and that they give permission for the walls to be painted. I also include some images of walls we’ve already painted, information about the artists, and so on. I drop everything in the mailboxes of the residents. I ask them to call me, and we start the dialogue. Once they agree to have the wall painted, we start selecting artists and sketches.

JM: How long have you been working on this project?

RV: It’s been going for a total of two years. It took me a while to figure out a way to put it all together, to find the correct moment to approach City Hall and ask for permits. The first project of the Wall Management Office was at the “Noche En Blanco” (White Night) in Madrid 2010, an event organized by the City of Madrid. We were able to bring Sam3 and Blu to paint some really big walls, which gave us a really firm start. Jorge Rodriguez Gerada and Erica Il Caine were supposed to paint at that event, but we had some problems with the owners of the building they were going to paint.

JM: Do you know of similar projects in other cities?

RV: Not really. I’ve heard of another open walls office in London. I think it’s managed by a nonprofit organization or something similar, but I don’t know much about it, not even if they’re still operating. It would be fantastic if there could be a WMO in every city, so the streets will look nicer. The law is getting harder and harder for urban artists, so they are not risking painting illegal walls anymore. There’s a need for legal walls.

Blu's mural for Walls Management Office in Madrid (all photos from albertodepedro.ekosystem.org)

JM: What’s the next project for WMO?

RV: First, we want to paint more walls. We are now dealing with smaller facade walls, because they’re not that big and there’s no need to use scaffolds or cranes when painting them. The smaller walls are also more economical to paint. We have been given permits to paint walls in the neighborhood of Usera, in Madrid; probably because the City Hall wants this area to become a locus for alternative culture and the arts.

In the long term, I would like to create a physical office and a residence for artists, always keeping an eye on the budget. This can be done in buildings that already exist and are empty, or maybe we could create some sort of contest for architects to design something nice and useful. It would be really good if we can recycle some old buildings and bring them to a new life.

A residence would be almost necessary, the idea being that artists would come to the city, check out the area, and work on something that can be meaningful for all the residents. Besides, a physical space will give us the opportunity to create art workshops, lectures, and more that can help to put this neighborhood on the cultural map. So many other things can develop.

Sam3's mural for Walls Management Office in Madrid

JM: Do you have any sponsors or any institutions that help financially?

RV: Not at all. This is about art, so I don’t want companies using it for their own publicity or anything like that. Also, the city has no money right now, so I don’t ask for it. What I want is to get some kind of insurance for the artists because they are walking on roofs and I don’t want anybody to have problems. Right now, that’s the economic priority.

JM: What is the reaction of the neighbors when they know about your project? Do they like it?

RV: It always takes a lot of effort to convince them and to make them understand that having big walls painted by famous artists can bring a lot of popularity to their area and so, more attention from City Hall and tourists.

The good thing is that now that we have the “Noche en Blanco” event as a showcase, people can see exactly what we have in mind for their walls. Maybe the next artists are not going to have the quality of Sam3 or Blu, especially since this is a non-curated project, and anyone is free to come and paint (as long as the neighbors agree).

We sure hope this project can become international and we can start seeing new offices popping up to manage walls in other cities. We have proven that big murals can bring a lot of attention when they are done right, and can benefit different communities, helping to revitalize deteriorated neighborhoods, at the same time that can bring art closer to people.

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