If we loved the street art in Santiago and Buenos Aires then our little minds were blown to smithereens in Valparaíso. It was like falling down the rabbit hole: colours flashed, otherworldly beings loomed, and the twisting, turning stairs and alleys echoed the expansion and contraction of our minds. Valparaíso is a haven for street artists and tags, throw-ups and murals are literally everywhere. Artworks cover entire buildings and fill the smallest gaps, even overlapping when space gets really tight. Subject matter varies from political to whimsical and styles from brutal to delicate. As viewers, we were amused in one moment, uncomfortable in the next; pure delight kept us rounding one more corner (just one more) to see what treasures we would find.
Above: Large mural by Chilean artist, Inti.
Casting about for an historical account of street art in Chile (see here and here for a good start), I learned that it emerged as a form of protest under the regime of Augusto Pinochet. Although political murals had appeared earlier (Salvador Allende used street art for promotion during his 1963 presidential campaign), under the Pinochet dictatorship murals were used to criticise and question the authoritarian government. Furtively painted under the cover of night, street art was a safe way to speak out about the unemployment, poverty and torture experienced by the community, even if these subversive acts were painted over by day. One website recounts the activism of the group, Collective de Acciones de Arte (CADA), which used small airplanes to drop 400,000 fliers over Santiago one day in 1981. The flyers urged people to appreciate the role of art in “expanding the usual levels of life” and as explained by Michele Wiesen:
The text was not an advertisement for consumers but an invocation that appealed to reflection on life and art, and the identity of the individual and the group… Appealing to the union of art and life in this repressive reality was an openly rebellious act, from a poetic and formal metaphor: airplanes can drop fire not only of pain but also disguised in words in order to open up new spaces of meaning… Art broke into everyday life, raised its voice, and subverted language structures to activate the collective’s memory.
As the dictatorship collapsed during the late 1980’s, artists became bolder and by the 1990’s Valparaíso was emerging as a hub for street art – but not without controversy. Some members of the public viewed street art as vandalism, but as styles and skills grew, artists relied less on tags and throw-ups and began to explore modern and avant-garde styles, using painterly techniques and developing larger, more complex murals. The street art scene was buoyed further by a government ruling that supported graffiti provided that the artist had obtained the owner’s permission (this is the same concept that has stimulated the growth of street art in Buenos Aires more recently). Today it is impossible to imagine Valparaíso without its art, which is legitimised and embraced as an expression of the city’s unique culture.
Above: large mural on Cerre Alegre, painted by Anis from Abusa Crew. Abusa Crew is a group of street artists, whose work is inspired by women and informed by efforts to liberate women throughout South America. Anis also painted the mural in the first photo for this post.
Between the two of us, Colin and I took hundreds of photos and whittling them down was difficult. I’m only able to share this selection (a handful of the best) by promising myself to share the rest on my Instagram page over the next few months. In addition to selecting and editing, I’ve spent hours searching Google images in an attempt to identify the artist for each piece. The majority of pieces remain unattributed (please leave a comment if you can identify any of the artists), but most prominent artists were easy to find. Chilean artist Charquipunk paints with a distinctive style using lines and colour to suggest movement (see the three images below). He is also fond of painting birds, so it wasn’t long before we could pick out his work:
Street art in Valparaíso isn’t always high quality and for every stunning mural there are a hundred hastily spray-painted tags. Some pieces that were once great have been long neglected; walls revealing a mish-mash of peeling pasteups, layers of images, fading paint, rust, grime and decay. It’s messy at times, but it’s all part of the scene – every street artist makes their debut with a tag and the exposure of artworks to sun and rain means that they can never be static images. Like the community itself, street art lives and breathes in a precarious cycle of creation and degradation, appreciated for a time but eventually replaced or removed to make way for something else.
Above: tags and stickers in the foreground; mural by Teo Doro Vidaingravita in the background.
In addition to a healthy and growing population of local artists, people come to Valparaíso from all over the world to paint murals and add a piece of their own history to the city. The mural below is by the surrealist Argentinean artist, Martin Ron, whose work we also saw in Buenos Aires. A tagger has added a rough moustache on the upper lip of the face.
The piece below is called “Rock, Paper, Scissors”. It’s by the German artist, Otto Schade, who cites Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Banksy among his key influences:
French artist, Mr. Papillon, is responsible for this gorgeous mural of a vibrant young girl radiating warmth and happiness:
I like the idea that we could go to Valparaíso in ten years time and find a completely different display of murals. There will always be some sadness for the demise of particularly beautiful art, but it’s this transitory quality that is part of its appeal. It’s not for a gallery, it’s not to be preserved, it’s not to be bought and sold. Street art is about a collective conscious, about hopes and dreams and what’s important now.
To close, this post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Un Kolor Distinto, a team of two artists who are an institution in Valparaíso. Sammy Espinoza (Jekse) and Cynthia Aguilera (Cines) have painted together for years. Their pieces are usually enormous, colourful, surrealist and always feature two characters (Cines paints the female characters and Jekse the male). Their works were some of our favourites and here I am with one on our second-to-last day in wonderful Valparaíso: