Buenos Aires is home to two excellent museums of modern and contemporary art, the Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art (MAMBA) and the more inclusive Buenos Aires Museum of Latin American Art (MALBA). The city also functions as one of the world’s largest outdoor art museums, rivaled by São Paulo and perhaps no other place. I’ve seen graffiti in big cities everywhere but don’t want to confuse them with spontaneous street art that sometimes rises to the level of museum quality.
I can’t say how long the tradition of making street art is in Buenos Aires, certainly not as old as Mexico. There muralists of the 1920s were authorized by the government to cover the walls of public buildings with expansive paintings that reinforced the momentum of the Mexican revolution. Some of the art I saw on Buenos Aires walls depicts the concerns of social movements but much of it does not. The diversity of themes and motives behind the Buenos Aires phenomenon is what makes it especially engaging. When I visited the city a few months ago, I found four or five broad categories of street art. Political paintings and stencils are certainly part of the mix. Another theme is the tango in all its glory.
Tango is to Buenos Aires as skiing is to the Swiss Alps. We can’t think of the place without conjuring up those particular activities. I saw tango paintings in several forms. First were the paintings of tango dancers and musicians.
For aficionados, the depiction of particular moves or personalities is meaningful. Often the portrayals of tango personalities are found in the neighborhoods where they lived. Abasto in the north of Buenos Aires is the neighborhood of Carlos Gardel, Argentina’s foremost tango singer.
La Boca is another neighborhood where authentic tango clubs once abounded. Today it’s the center of tango kitsch. Its colored houses in the street called Caminito form the backdrop for sultry street performers and souvenir shops overflowing with schlocky tango memorabilia. Enticing potential customers into the shops and eateries are huge replicas of tango dancers whose plastic and papier-mâché bodies evince welcoming gestures. Another neighborhood for tango paintings is Baracas, where huge murals are painted on old factory buildings and warehouses.
Tango is only one subject of these murals. Many express personal visions, some clearly understood and others obscure. The murals transcend graffiti even though they’re sometimes treated as such, especially by the enterprising leaders of Buenos Aires graffiti tours. Painting techniques vary widely from serious figurative depictions to cartoon and animé creatures.
Paradoxically, a similar range of styles can also be seen in the city’s art museums. The quality of street art need not take a back seat to the paintings in the museums. In fact, the street art is sometimes more interesting because its content is accessible in a way that the content of some avant-garde art is not.
Another neighborhood known for its diverse street art is San Telmo, close to the downtown. San Telmo is a neighborhood rife with antique shops, museums, traditional cafes, and restaurants of every type. It is also home to the weekly flea market in the Plaza Dorrego. Given San Telmo’s artsy atmosphere, many of the murals are of high quality. One I saw welcomes visitors to the neighborhood with ornate lettering that simulates the lettering style of the fileteros or professional sign painters who are still hired to design the lettering for signs that advertise shops, cafes, and restaurants.
San Telmo is also rife with shops whose street facades are imaginatively painted or which sport engaging signs and newspaper stands whose backs become additional surfaces to be appropriated by street artists. If some of these artists are better known than others, I found no evidence of it. The styles and themes of the paintings vary considerably and I was unable to discern any particular hallmarks as one expects when looking at street art by Banksy or Shepard Faiery. In fact, the streets seemed to be owned by local artists. There was no evidence of Fairey’s Obey campaign or Banksy’s political style.
Political murals, a third type of Buenos Aires street art, follow more closely the polemical rhetoric of a Diego Riviera or a David Alfaro Siqueiros than the ironic iconography of Banksy. The location of these isn’t only in the neighborhoods but also in the city center, where their strong imagery confronts large numbers of people.
One mural I saw in La Boca supports the Ley de Medios [Media Law), which was instituted to regulate the media in a more liberal way than the prior law that was established to support the dictatorship, while another in the center commemorated an anniversary of the Trelew Massacre, where government troops killed political prisoners from Peronist and leftist organizations.
Another type of political street art involves depictions of important political figures. Foremost among them is Eva Peron whose Peronista movement stems from her time in power in the late 1940s until 1952, the year she died. Her portrait is less evident on wall murals than on banners that are unfurled each year for the demonstration of the Movimiento Evita on October 17. The portrait is permanently enshrined as a linear steel sculpture high atop the Social Development and Health Ministry, where it towers above the majestic Avenida 9 de Julio.
Other political iconography is more accessible and consequently susceptible to spontaneous transformation. I saw a stencil image of Nestor Kirchner, the late past president of Argentina, with Eva Peron. In its original form, the stencil is associated with the Segundo Centenario (Second Centenary), which commemorated the 200th year after the declaration of Argentina’s first government. The text under the image reads ‘Loyal,” suggesting continuity between Kirchner and the Peronist movement.
Over the course of several days, I found several variants of the stencil, each with someone replacing Eva Peron next to Kirchner. One variant depicted Kirchner with Arturo Jauretche, a founder of FORJA, an organization founded in the 1930s that pursued a radical nationalist political line.
After Juan Peron was elected, Jauretche supported the Peron regime. Under the image, the term Sabios, which might be translated as “Wise Ones,” invites a critical reading. A second variant of the stencil showed Kirchner with Che Guevara, an Argentine who joined Fidel Castro as a leader of the Cuban revolution in 1959 and then sought to foment another revolution in Bolivia before he was executed by the Bolivian military. The association with Kirchner is ironic, particularly since Guevara occupied a position far to the left of Kirchner, though he played no role in Argentine politics. Nonetheless, many in Argentina claim him as a native son, which is evident not only in the street art such as a mural in San Telmo but also in the souvenir shops where tee shirts with his picture are prominently displayed.
As I have shown in this brief essay, the public art in Buenos Aires can be appreciated as spectacle but with some research on the viewer’s part, it can reveal much about the history and contemporary life of the city. I’d like to thank to my colleague Veronica Devalle in Buenos Aires for her help with research for this article. (Images and words © Victor Margolin 2014.)
Read more about Margolin’s forthcoming book at The Daily Heller.