WHEN David Cameron first saw the scrawls across the smooth-skinned, appropriately concerned face of his campaign billboards last year, he probably had a thought or two about graffiti.
The oft-parodied and defaced billboards (remember ‘We can’t go on like this, with suspicious minds’?) were, for most Brits, about as contentious as mainstream election campaigning gets. Aside from, of course, those new-fangled televised leaders’ debates. We have meticulously crafted and timed party political broadcasts, enthusiasts on your doorstep, all very above board.
But in Argentina, where a general election will be held on October 23, graffiti is one of the most well-established and accepted ways in which political ideas are communicated. It is also illegal.
But in Argentina, writing on walls is engrained in the culture, often tolerated and respected. It is the go-to method for people to convey ideas, information and agendas – as well as the more familiar “te amo, Maria”s. Graffiti here has a long-standing cultural connection with expression and activism, and now, in the final weeks before the general election, the names of politicians are splashed in five-feet-high letters across hundreds of walls in Buenos Aires, Bahia Blanca, Puerto Madryn and other cities.
As Jonny Robson, part of the Graffitimundo organisation that works with street artists in the capital, says, “The streets have a legacy here they don’t have anywhere else. The street has a symbolic power to it, it is public space.
“There’s a tradition of people writing things in the streets, to complain or just to make themselves heard. The walls are a form of communication.
“During the dictatorship particularly there was a huge amount of noise; people complaining about the police and so on, but also stuff like, ‘I love my mum’, ‘I don’t like this football team’. The use of walls as art is really new.”
It may be relatively new – it only really took off in 2
001 – but wall art is rampant in Buenos Aires. Bright murals up to 20ft high adorn walls all across the Palermo and Palermo Hollywood districts. So many walls, in fact, that Graffitimundo has been running walking and biking tours of the artwork for several years.
The Argentine police will generally only get involved if a complaint is made. One police officer, upon discovering a street artist in action in broad daylight, asked him to paint his son’s bedroom. Or so the story goes, according to Graffitimundo’s effervescently knowledgeable tour guide Kirsty Ross.
An alien idea to the British mindset perhaps, but in Argentina graffiti is respected. Rather than being an expression of underground or alternative culture, painting on walls conveys popular culture and opinion here. And because artists feel comfortable painting in the daytime, the art form has developed differently. The works are more considered; bigger, brighter, more beautiful. But often even the less culturally evolved works are valued.
Robson recalls a woman who left her house one day to find that ‘METALLICA’ had been painted over the outside of it. “She was kind of pleased,” he says. “That’s hard to find elsewhere. Like her, many people who have lived through a time when they couldn’t express themselves value freedom of expression more than the right of a property owner to keep their house clean at all times.”
During the dictatorship years in Argentina, people did write on walls, but it was a risky business. “There was resurgence after the end of the dictatorship, of people saying what they thought and using their new found freedom to express themselves,” says Robson. ”All of this is from freedom of expression, writing what’s on your mind. In Argentina, people write things on walls that aren’t said in papers or in speeches.
“When people first started tagging walls – writing their names or the name of their crew – it was seen as new and weird here. People thought graffiti as art was odd because it had previously just been for politics and activism. That form didn’t take off until the 1990s.”
When politics became popularist, for which Argentina mainly has Juan Peron to thank, and parties began to rely on the support of voters for their power, politicians began paying painters to write on walls. The practice started in the 1950s as a way for politicians to speak to their people and to make their marks on a city.
Whether the painters of today’s big, bright election motifs are working for the parties or operating independently is essentially a moot point; it hardly matters here. One thing is for sure – the painters are passionate and dedicated. They operate in teams of three, and quickly: one will whitewash the wall, another will outline the letters in black, and a third will fill in all or part of the letters in a bright colour. But it is a very temporary process. Sometimes the allegiances of walls will change three or four times in 24 hours, as rival groups whitewash the opposition.
‘CRISTINA 2011’ and ‘CFK’ dominate the walls, though there are still a fair few ‘DUHALDE 2011’s and ‘ALFONSIN’s. After taking just over 50% of the vote in August’s primaries, the current president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is widely expected to win later this month. Her nearest two rivals, the Radical party’s candidate Ricardo Alfonsin and former president Eduardo Duhalde, each finished the primaries with just over 12%.
Cristina lost a lot of popularity during 2008 after a critical government conflict with the agricultural sector, but her approval ratings – and the economy – began picking up again last year. The primary results would seem to reflect that – as do the walls.
In Costa Rica, a street in Buenos Aires’s Palermo Hollywood district, one house is covered with pro-Cristina stencils: her name, her policies, things she has said, things that have been said about her. The words are layered again and again; ‘La chica que nos gusta’, ‘Cris pasion’, ‘porque yo sola no puedo’. The overall effect is fairly arresting. The owner of the house intended to provoke a reaction and for his wall to be a conversation about Cristina – it is a familiar attitude, although so far there are no dissenters.
Cristina’s image is unavoidably linked with that of her husband and former president Nestor Kirchner, who played a large part in the economy’s improvement after its 2001 collapse. That collapse also provided the catalyst for the explosion of street art in Buenos Aires, as artists tried to brighten people’s days with enormous, smiling creatures straight from their imaginations.
Nestor died from a heart attack last October and earlier this year two street artists were each asked to produce ten stencils of the former president, which were distributed around the capital. The stencils, featuring Nestor’s face, were based on a highly popular 1950s Argentine comic, El Eternauta. “It was a grassroots campaign to show respect for the president,” says Robson. “Graffiti sometimes captures a spilling out of popular sentiment.”
A few doors down from the Cristina house stands a restaurant, Tegui. Its owner’s only marketing campaign before opening was to ask Nico Monti, a friend of the head chef, to stencil the outside of the windowless building.
Palermo is full of stories like this. There is no doubting graffiti is popular now, especially in Buenos Aires. There are tours; there are exhibitions; and one Peruvian artist, Jose Carlos Martinat Mendoza, even went around ‘vandalising vandalism’, lifting pieces off the walls with resin but without permission to put in his own exhibition. He sold one, originally by Jaz, for $20,000.
The fact remains that the graffiti is technically illegal. But before the election the interplay between different artists against the background of official campaign material provides a valuable open conversation that seems to involve everybody. Perhaps it not so different from the UK – as David Cameron knows all too well, it is amazing how easily a painted red nose can undermine the message of a campaign poster.