Buenos Aires: Impressions of a city that wears its art on its sleeve

By Graham Reid

The Argentine capital's public art is bewildering in its diversity, writes Graham Reid.

Many of the Buenos Aires murals are clever and colourful. Photo / Graham Reid
Many of the Buenos Aires murals are clever and colourful. Photo / Graham Reid

You can't help but notice that the skin of Buenos Aires is heavily tattooed: not just with graffiti, but by large and vivid murals, and spray-on stencil art. You can spend a lot of time looking at the walls of Buenos Aires.

Many murals are clever and colourful but the graffiti - mostly just tagging - is as absurd and incomprehensible as any. There are whole areas of the city which look like New York's Downtown in the early 90s when even the most substantial piles of immovable 19th century stone were tagged beyond recognition.

Large parts of Buenos Aires make South Auckland look like Singapore.

The graffiti may be a blight on many of the historic buildings - few are spared - but the small-scale stencil art which is also everywhere can be witty, pointed and political, or sometimes just bewildering in its diversity, humour and artistry.

You get the impression Buenos Aires wears its thoughts on its flesh: there are stencil art images of military oppression and police brutality which remind of the Dirty War of the 80s; feminist and gay activist slogans; bands announcing CD releases or gigs; Michael Jackson with the caption "I am Peter Pan"; monochrome images of Bob Marley, Kurt Cobain and a Star Wars stormtrooper which vie for wall space; eye-catching advertisements for websites; funny images of James Brown and people on motor scooters apropos of nothing.

Many have subtexts perhaps only available to locals or those who speak idiomatic Argentinean Spanish, but others are simply miniature masterpieces of design where a few bare lines created the image. Others are just amusing. What should you make of Tigger or the Blues Brothers stencilled on a wall?

Some, such as shadowy military figures or police pointing guns directly at you, can be chilling. These are messages, prompts to conscience and historical resonators directed more at locals than visitors.

There is so much wall art in Buenos Aires that movements have emerged, galleries are dedicated to it, photos of it have been collected in large-format books and some of the artists have become celebrities feted by the mainstream art world.

In the small Appetite gallery in the suburb of San Telmo you can see the distinctive cartoon-like work of Gualicho (aka Pablo Harymbat), whose colourful murals and "neo-graffiti" have appeared all over this city and in other Latin American countries, and latterly in galleries.

Many walls in Buenos Aires today demand to be photographed for their diversity, and I took dozens of images of the stencil art alone.

Among the most pointed was one in English on the main thoroughfare of Avenida de Mayo. It was of an angry figure posing in silhouette and read, "I'm not a tourist. I live here."

Yes, I got the message. But I took a photo of it anyway.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: LAN and Aerolineas Argentinas fly from Auckland to Buenos Aires.

Buenos Aires art: See bue.gov.ar or buenos-aires.world-guides.com.

Further information: See inargentinatourism.com.ar.

Graham Reid paid his own way to Argentina but received assistance in Buenos Aires from Mike Howie of howdybuenosaires.com.

- NZ Herald

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