BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — If there’s a city where walls can talk, it’s Buenos Aires.
A pig in a gas mask peers down at passersby on one street. On another, two masked half-animal wrestlers are locked in combat.
On power stations and bus stops, abandoned buildings and private homes, the city is filled with art. Some works are satirical. Others offer cutting social or political critiques. Sometimes giant zoo animals lurk around the corner, just because.
Buenos Aires is home to one of the world’s most vibrant street-art scenes. Born out of the chaos of Argentina’s 2001-2002 economic collapse, street art here is bold, bright and distinctly Argentine.
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It reflects the massive DIY culture that emerged in the last decade, and flourished in part because of the city’s permissive attitudes toward public space.
“When the city gives you the freedom to paint anywhere, it creates a lot of experimentation, a lot of space for expression and a place where there are always new artists,” said Pum Pum, one of the city’s best-known female street-artists.
While graffiti artists in other countries paint under darkness and fear of arrest, artists here can set up on the sidewalk and work all day.
Without the need to paint and dash, they have honed their styles, blending colors and adding layers, textures and background. They collaborate with each other, painting on a scale that often isn’t possible elsewhere.
“You can go out in the middle of the day with your ladder and your paint cans and spend three hours, and nobody will say anything,” said an artist known as Stencil Land, who started working in the streets in 2003.
Now artists from all over the world — Canada, France and Italy, among other countries — come here to work in the streets. “It’s celebrated as a place where you can come and just paint,” said Jonny Robson of Graffitimundo, an organization that works to support street art in Buenos Aires.
“In other countries, painting is seen as something bad, like an assault on the city and on society,” said Nicolas Romero, who goes by Ever. “In countries like the US and Germany, there are anti-graffiti patrols, fines for painting.... In Buenos Aires, such patrols would never exist.”
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Writing on walls isn’t new in Argentina. Politicians have done it for decades. But painting on walls really took off during the economic crash. It was a depressing time in the country’s history — many Argentines lost nearly all their savings, and the country went through five presidents in two weeks.
“The streets felt increasingly bleak and full of politics,” Robson said. “It created a feeling of hostility and negativity.”
In response, frustrated artists started drawing childlike, innocent cartoonish characters on walls to restore color and positivity to public spaces. Many of the artists had backgrounds in illustration, graphic design and animation.
“These guys had the philosophy that they were going to paint the most naïve, positive colorful things they could,” Robson said. They wanted to make people smile, however briefly.
And given all the other problems that Argentina faced at the time, the police weren’t going to go after people who were simply painting on walls.
Spray paint was prohibitively expensive at the time, so artists began using big industrial vats of latex paint. The different medium lent itself to big block characters and also to scale, because artists could cover a whole side of a building using roller brushes.
A distinct style of street art developed, known as muñequismo, defined by its playful, cartoon aesthetic and its use of latex paint.
It’s become a bona-fide movement.
On the walls, different schools of art have converged. Stencil writers share space with graphic designers, and graffiti crews with muralists.
“We superimpose or transform the images or ideas from the previous drawer,” said Stencil Land. “You paint a drawing, and then someone else comes and changes the significance or the idea.”
In one of Stencil Land’s works, a child in a gas mask holds out an ice cream cone — a striking juxtaposition of innocence and the presence of danger.
He also created another with a child holding a paintbrush, whom he usually stencils above political writing. His point is that it’s juvenile for politicians with so much power to plaster their names all over town.
Another group, known as Vomito Attack, is unabashed about the political messages in their work. Anti-consumerism, anti-American, anti-government, they started working in 2001 in response to the Argentine economic collapse and the Sept. 11 attacks.
And it’s not just artists who use the streets for art. On the three-month anniversary of the death of former President Nestor Kirchner, a stencil of “El Nestornauta” appeared all over the city.
The image played off an image of the iconic Argentine comic character “El Eternauta.” The cartoon depicted an apocalyptic vision of Buenos Aires and openly criticized the military dictatorship. With Kirchner’s face imposed on the image of the comic character, the stencil offered a tribute to the dead president and his work on human rights.
“People who lived through that era [the dictatorship] remember what it was like not to be able to write on walls,” Robson said. In Argentina, “art was always a means of communication. Art as purely aesthetic always seemed redundant here.”
If you go: Graffitimundo offers walking tours that showcase local street art; Hollywood in Cambodia (Thames 1885) is the city’s only street-art bar and gallery, run by some of the artists.
Follow Stephanie on Twitter @stephaniegarlow