The Message on The Wall

© Michael Matlach

It does not take long after arriving in the capital city of Argentina, Buenos Aires, to feel the passion and creativity that permeates just about every part of daily life. This sprawling modern city with a European feel seems to embrace just about every form of expression with vigor. Architecture, design, food, Tango, music and the visual arts find a knowledgeable and appreciative audience in Buenos Aires. In this respect, it is not surprising to find a growing acceptance for what is often considered a serious problem in other major cities of the world. Graffiti, also know as street art or tagging (a mark left by gangs to define turf) plague most urban environments and is treated by authorities and society at large as a crime.

My first real exposure to graffiti that clearly had a purpose beyond vandalism was the Berlin Wall prior to German unification in 1990.  Creative, defiant, and powerful images of every kind were placed on the West Berlin side of the wall with the support of the local population and government. I would walk for miles along this concrete canvas often under the spyglass surveillance of East German guards in watch towers.

© Michael Matlach Graffiti, unlike its more constrained cousins, gallery paintings, is primal, raw, large and more concerned with communication than being an object to be consumed. Perhaps this is why despite its power galleries and museums worldwide have been slow to acknowledge the talent working today in major cities around the globe.

Even though contemporary graffiti and street art can defy easy categorization, many street artists are taking it upon themselves to market their designs and art through the production of posters, T-shirts, prints and some even welcome commissions that include interior space. In Buenos Aires one such collective that combines a bar, nightclub and galleries with a generous dose of graffiti is “Hollywood in Cambodia". Located in the Palermo district among trendy shops and restaurants, it serves as a home, hangout, meeting place and hideout giving the street art crowd roots to grow. “Hollywood in Cambodia" is also a featured stop in Graffitimundo's popular tours showcasing the city’s best street art.

© Michael Matlach

Increasingly throughout Buenos Aires and especially in neighborhoods like Palermo, San Telmo, and La Boca, graffiti art is gaining acceptance. While technically still considered a property crime, many residents and even business owners are tapping into the power of this often raw visual form. It is not uncommon to hear stories of police pausing to admire a work in progress or have trendy business owners commission a unique façade treatment. No doubt city planners with more homogeonous expectations must be pulling their hair out. One highly regarded restaurant, Tegui, invited several artists working in graffiti to collaborate on its façade and the result is an edgy, chic wall of words and images that clearly has helped it to stand apart from the crowd of fine eateries.

One catalyst for this creative explosion appears to be the traumatic economic collapse in Argentina in 2000 and 2001. Less violent than rioting and looting, graffiti artists were seen as giving voice to an angry population during this turbulent time. What remains today is a wide range of styles and techniques created by a talented group of nonconformists that continues to grow in acceptance.

© Michael MatlachAt the very heart of this art form is the basic need to express the human experience and it is a direct link to the rock and cave paintings of past civilizations. Ultimately there can be meaning for our lives in the messages on the walls. It only requires that we invest with curiosity, wonder, and an open mind in this art regardless of where it is found to enrich our lives.

More images can be found at the Graffitimundo Flickr site - check it out!