A new government campaign threatens the work of rotulistas, long a part of the urban and rural landscape in Mexico. (photo courtesy Martín Hernández)

“This book reminds us that underneath the smugness and logos there are still human beings,” wrote David Byrne for the prologue of Sensacional de Diseño Mexicano, one of the most extensive visual investigations on graphic imagery and popular design in Mexico, authored by Juan Carlos Mena. Byrne’s observation echoes the role that design and popular graphics play in Mexican culture: Through them, we are free to shape or channel our identity, always in conflict and always in constant change.  

But this fundamental aspect of our nation’s heritage came under threat this year when the iconic rótulos of Mexico City — the name for hand-painted signs, murals, or commercial graphics featuring distinctive images and lettering — were whitewashed and replaced with generic visuals. The work of rotulistas has been part of the urban and rural landscape in Mexico since the beginning of the 20th century, visible on the facades of businesses offering cakes, tacos, keys, smoothies, and coffee or services such as dentists, electricians, and endless commercial activities. In a way, we could say a rótulo is a proto-meme, but instead of existing on our computer screens, it lives in our streets.

Businesses were forced to give up their creative graphics and paint over them in white. (photo courtesy Óscar Reyes)

It’s not a secret that Mexico has long suffered from deficient or almost null cultural policies; this time, sign painters are on the receiving end of these inadequacies. At the beginning of this year, the Cuauhtémoc District, one of the largest and most touristic demarcations in Mexico City, launched what Mayor Sandra Cuevas called an “Integrated Journey to Improve the Urban Environment” (“Jornada Integral de Mejoramiento del Entorno Urbano”). The campaign consisted of homogenizing every single one of the district’s street stalls. All these self-managed businesses were forced to give up the creative graphics they use to advertise their products, paint over them in white, and place the mayor’s logo on top — a kind of political branding financed by citizens without prior consultation.

Although the campaign began in January, it was not until designer Hugo Mendoza posted a video on his Instagram in May — captioned “What happened to the signs in the Cuauhtémoc District?” — that a larger public took notice. The video went viral on social media, and countless voices from citizens and writers to architects, designers, artists, and curators began to speak out in support of the work of Mexican rotulistas, freedom of expression, and the preservation of cultural rights in the country.

It is paradoxical that in Mexico, on the one hand, there exist programs to preserve cultural rights, those essential liberties linked to individual and collective expression and identity; on the other hand, efforts are being carried out to erase them. In light of the uproar, the mayor held a hearing at the nation’s Congress where she managed to widen the wound by declaring that rótulos, while part of the nation’s “uses and customs” (“usos y costumbres”), are not art.

A sign in Mexico City in response to the Cuauhtémoc Campaign (photo courtesy @camisasfrescasink)

In her eagerness to fulfill the task she has defined as “Order and Cleanliness,” Cuevas proved to be unaware that popular graphics are an important part of Mexico’s visual patrimony, overlooking all the work that has been done by museum curators and independent researchers who have specialized in both graphics and visual grammar.

When the topic went viral, groups such as the Red Chilanga en Defensa del Arte y la Gráfica Popular began to organize archival projects with the goal of rescuing and protecting painted signs in Mexico. While this may be too ambitious a task, previous efforts illustrate the importance of creating a visual memory that can be consulted by future generations. In 2017, for example, Mexico City’s University Museum of Contemporary Art (MUAC) launched an archival collection focused on the graphics and imagery employed by key social movements during the last 10 years in the country. The collection includes anonymous and authored posters, newspapers, pamphlets, photographs, installations, graphics, digital files, and other visual records provided by artists, designers, activists, and activists who have taken part in social demonstrations such as those related to the 2014 Ayotzinapa disappearances, among others. 

A post by the Red Chilanga en Defensa del Arte y la Gráfica Popular, one group that has tried to preserve Mexico’s rótulos. (screenshot Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic via Instagram)

Other important exhibitions or projects related to rótulos in Mexico and abroad include ABCDF, an exhibition and editorial project organized in the early 2000s by Cristina Faesler for Mexico’s Palacio de Bellas Artes; and Rótulos de México, a residency program that invited six rotulistas from different areas of Mexico City to share their knowledge.

Cuevas also seems to have forgotten Martín Checa-Artasu and Pilar Castro Rodríguez’s pivotal essays “Deje que la barda hable” (2009) and “El rótulo popular, común denominador del paisaje urbano en México,” a paper published in 2015 by the José María Luis Mora Research Institute, the National Council of Science and Technology, and the College of Michoacán.

A sign reads “I don’t measure my life in feelings; I measure it in colors.” (photo courtesy Martín Hernández)

It is sad to see the new landscape of the Cuauhtémoc District of Mexico City without its colorful, charming, and distinguishing rótulos. However, it has been encouraging to witness how citizens and the media have strangely coincided in their approach to the matter. Op-eds by art historian Aldo Solano and journalist Tamara de Anda, and the installation “Rotular la ciudad es servirla” by El Rey del Pincel for Machete Galería’s storefront window, are examples of how this controversy, like few others, has achieved a consensus among Mexican citizens. Using the hashtags #ConLosRótulosNo, #RótulosMexico, #RótulosMexicanos, and others, social media users have shared signs already erased or new works inspired by them.

“Rotular la ciudad es servirla” (2022), a window installation by El Rey del Pincel for Machete Galería (photo courtesy Aldo Solano Rojas)

It has become clear that the public space of a city as irregular, unpredictable, and creative as Mexico City cannot be standardized. Byrne’s quote recalls the naivete and radicality of the Situationists, who valued the decentralization of creation and avoided the notion of authorship, proposing a city that can be experienced poetically and creatively.

Violeta Horcasitas is a curator of contemporary art who lives and woks between Playa del Carmen and Mexico City. She is interested in new exhibition formats and ephemeral actions in public spaces.