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Street art by Mexican collective Lapiztola (all images courtesy of Global Justice Now unless indicated otherwise)

In the 1920s and ’30s, Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco painted murals that powerfully illustrated the issues of their day. Today, street artists rule the nation’s walls, addressing its problems with an arsenal of wit and aerosol cans.

Rosario Martínez and Roberto Vega are two of those artists. In 2006, when their native city of Oaxaca erupted in protests following the state’s brutal response to a teachers’ strike, they formed the collective Lapiztula. The name combines lápiz (pencil) and pistola (gun), an allusion to the old adage that the pen is mightier than the sword. Responding to the chaos playing out on their television screens, the duo painted pithy images around the city that cut to the heart of the stories they heard, drawing more attention to them. Each was an act of protest, solidarity, and poetry.

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Street art by Mexican collective Lapiztola

“[Lapiztola’s work is] a political tool to convince, to anger, and also unleash imagination,” explained Nick Dearden, director of the advocacy nonprofit Global Justice Now. Together with the Diversity Art Forum, the organization has mounted Democracia Real Ya! (Real Democracy Now!), an exhibition of the collective’s work on view this month at Rich Mix in East London. “By painting on walls in the streets, it quite literally opens up space, creating a public forum for ideas considered subversive,” Dearden added.

One stenciled artwork shows a teary woman embracing the dark specter of her absent son, disappeared during the Dirty Wars of the ’60s and ’70s. Another shows a man ripping paper patterned with caged birds off a wall; as it tears, the birds fly away free. It’s the group’s favorite image out of the ones they’ve created to date. “At first we did it to protest against political prisoners, however we’ve realized that it applies to issues revolving around freedom and oppression,” Lapiztola’s members told Hyperallergic. They added that while not everyone’s a fan of their public statements, they’re OK with that. “When someone does not like the work, we know it’s caused a reaction. And that’s part of what we’re interested in doing.”

Street art by Mexican collective Lapiztola (Image via Facebook)

Street art by Mexican collective Lapiztola (image via Facebook)

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Street art by Mexican collective Lapiztola

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Street art by Mexican collective Lapiztola

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Street art by Mexican collective Lapiztola

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Street art by Mexican collective Lapiztola

Democracia Real Ya! continues at Rich Mix (35-47 Bethnal Green Road, Shoreditch, London) through February 28.

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...