Walls mirror life

Walls mirror life

Vandals! If we hadn't known better, we would have labelled them vandals. However, we had been in Buenos Aires long enough (two days, actually) to realise that they were not misguided youth defacing the walls of the capital of Argentina but artists, street artists. The two men, with cans of spray paint in their hands, were applying the finishing touches to a mural in which sparks flew from a roller skate.

"Perfectly legitimate." Our guide assured us that the two were not breaking any laws. According to her, the only permission an artist needs is from the owner of a building to use it as a canvas. In fact, many shops, speciality stores and restaurants commission street artists to paint thematic murals across their entrances: a skull with fiery-red ruby as eyes at a pub, a blooming garden at a speciality restaurant, camera equipment at a cine store...

Out in the world

Public spaces, like the walls around a bus terminal in a less-genteel district of the city, were open invitations for artists to express themselves. Here, we found a mixed bag of images: cartoon characters, the Simpson family, caricatures, giraffes on cycles, snarling apes... Often the lines between art and graffiti blurred. There were political messages and we took the guide's word for it. She said that a few did make relevant statements. We did not need any prompting to realise that a few captured the angry mood of restive industrial labour.

In fact, street art around the world traces its origins to graffiti and political and labour protests. Many cities, Philadelphia in the US in particular, figured that if people were going to deface their walls and buildings, then it would be better to encourage them to do so in a way that is artistic.

Buenos Aires, too, embraces the idea of channelling the talent of its unsung artists into creating works of beauty.

It also claims to have the longest street- art mural in the world. Even with a wide- angle lens attached to our cameras, we were unable to capture the sprawling masterpiece in a single frame. It plucked cameos from the everyday life of the people - pet dog included - to tell the story of the city. Elsewhere around the city, tango, the sensual dance that originated in Buenos Aires, was a popular and recurring theme. We found one of the most striking murals was under a flyover: a dancer, arms splayed and frozen in the arms of her partner. On the wall at the far end of the overpass, a famous tango singer pumped on his beloved accordion.

In the rather touristy district of Boca, just off the city's beloved Boca football stadium, which was the launching pad of many Argentinian icons of the game including Maradona, street art took on a whole new meaning.

Spillover

In its early days, Boca was peopled by dock hands who would coat their homes with whatever paint that was left over after painting the ships, thereby creating a multi-hued township. The original settlers have moved on but the new ones who moved in to fill the void - restaurants, bars, souvenir stalls, stores - have continued the tradition of painting the district in brilliant shades. Even as we walked through the rainbow-coloured township, we noticed that street art here took the form of relief work rather than paintings. We did, however, notice one compelling mural of firefighters combating a blazing inferno that had taken on the persona of a flaming human.

Strains of music filled the air and a couple started to tango in a small town square. On the wall behind them was a relief of another couple frozen in a clinch of the sensuous dance of Buenos Aires. Yes, life in the city is reflected in its street art.

 

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