In the past month, Lima has been shaken by the reminder that street art — even when officially approved — is inherently political. Mayor Luis Castañeda, who took office in January and had previously held the position between 2003 and 2010, ordered that all the murals painted during his immediate predecessor’s reign be covered over with yellow paint — the color of his conservative political party.
The art had been created between 2011 and 2014 under the mayorship of Susan Villaran, who saw it as a way of brightening tired city walls, increasing cultural capital, and drawing in tourists. She gave artists permits to paint dozens of murals featuring Andean life and folklore in the city’s historic downtown. Some say the transformation led to Lima’s winning the 2014 designation as Plaza Mayor de la Cultura Iberoamericana (Main Square of Iberoamerican Culture) by the Union of Latin American Capital Cities. But alas, this urban renaissance has been squelched.
PBS News Hour reported that the first to go was a portrait of the Bolivian indigenous activist Túpac Katari; next, a metaphor about the power of education, showing a boy stacking bricks on top of books. Altogether, 20 murals were slated for destruction.
The mayor’s actions were not well received. “It’s an atrocity,” Pedro Pablo Alaiza, Lima’s former manager of culture, told the AFP. Protesters formed human fences around the remaining murals and chanted, “El arte aqui se queda! Fuera Castañeda!” (“The art stays here! Out with Castañeda!”). They also took to Twitter and other social media sites to complain under the hashtags #SalvemosLosMurales and #MuralesenLima.
And, as The Art Newspaper reported, the gallery Revolver responded to the censorship by officially withdrawing from this year’s Art Lima (April 23–26), Peru’s biggest art event, which was partially sponsored by the local government. That inspired the fair to turn down the government funding, saying it was “not well received by our artistic community.”
For his part, Castañeda tried to justify his actions by contending the murals went against the city’s agreement with UNESCO, which declared the historic center a World Heritage Site in 1988 and was supposedly pressuring him to have them removed. But UNESCO soon issued a press release politely denying the claim. “[It] is not part of [UNESCO’s] mission to rule on decisions taken by States on their cultural heritage material and immaterial, unless it is in imminent risk,” it wrote.
The fiasco exposes the contradiction that exists between art and democracy — that without freedom of expression, it’s difficult for art to flourish, but that repression can also provoke as much art as it censors. As 36-year-old Elliot Urcuhuaranga told Reuters, “[Castañeda’s actions are] an invitation for taggers and graffiti artists to cover downtown Lima in paint. That’s what they’re going to do.”
And they’ve already begun. Since being painted yellow, one wall in the city center has been branded with the cursive proclamation, “El arte no se borra,” — which roughly translates to, “The art does not come off.”