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Mexico’s Murals Aren’t Just a Thing of the Past

by Lauren Cocking

posted on January 14, 2020

Photo Courtesy: Celeste Byers

“Color and imagery has a strong effect on our emotions,” US muralist Celeste Byers tells me via email. “If you put a positive image in a place, it can really be an uplifting thing.” You might not recognize her name, but you’ll likely recognize her work. Byers was the brains behind the Frida the Dog mural which charmed Mexico City — and the internet — back in 2017. Developed as “a symbol of hope,” her vivid artwork, with bold florals and rich religious imagery, pays homage to the boot-wearing, goggle-sporting rescue dog Frida, who helped save the life of dozens of people after the devastating 2017 earthquake.

(Photo Courtesy: Celeste Byers)

Street art, whether uplifting, provocative, or political, has long found a home in Mexico. A chunky skein in the very fabric of its culture, murals and graffiti are inextricably woven into the tapestry of both past and present. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the nation's capital city.

“Mexico City’s history is tied to art on buildings and in public places,” Cynthia Arvide, author of Muros Somos, tells me. “From pre-Hispanic temples ...to the explosion of graffiti in the 80s and 90s, there’s always been a movement [in Mexico City] which claims space for expression.”

One of the best-recognized movements is surely that of Mexican Muralism. Originally popularized in the 1920s, muralism was the cornerstone of Mexico’s post-Revolution, government-backed propaganda campaign, which helped to propel often-problematic notions of Mexican mestizo identity into the mainstream. While muralism has mostly moved away from politics in the last century, it remains a stalwart of the Mexican art world. Diego Rivera — Frida Kahlo’s husband — was perhaps the Mexican Muralism movement’s best-known proponent, alongside David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco, all of whose work can still be seen across the capital to this day.

Visitors at the National Palace photographing a mural by Diego Rivera. (Photo Courtesy: iStock/Joel Carillet)

Modern-day muralism is characterized by what Caitlin Bruce, author of forthcoming book Painting Publics: Transnational Graffiti Scenes as Spaces of Encounter, calls “international style street art works... image-based, kind of like fantastical creatures, portraits of people.” International artists, like Byers, flock to the capital to contribute their own bold, beautiful brushstrokes to the Mexico City street art scene, especially in fan-favorite street art neighborhoods like La Roma. That’s not to say Mexican muralists don’t have a seat at the table though. Look up in Mexico City and you’re bound to spot a Farid Rueda, Areúz or Sofía Castellanos piece eventually.

In a city where crowd-pleasing, massive murals dominate, it’s easy to see why graffiti — often wrongly written off by misguided bystanders as low-quality and illegal — is overlooked. Starting life outside Mexico City, the graffiti movement initially found popularity amongst disenfranchised communities in Ciudad Neza (a sprawling district in the State of Mexico), where, according to Bruce, “public art has long been a means of claiming a right to space”.

Graffiti is also perhaps the most impenetrable style for outsiders; while “legal graffiti scenes offer moments of invention [and] collaborative practice” for the proponents, to the uninitiated, “there’s a kind of abstract sensibility there...with lettering that is not always easy to read.” While graffiti can be appreciated, it might not be fully understood.

(Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Street Art Chilando)

Enter street art, a wildly-diverse urban style in its own right, albeit one whose name is often employed as an umbrella term. Where graffiti sometimes lacks the much-desired political message that people seem to demand from their urban artworks, street art often delivers on that front. Loosely categorized as being produced anonymously and on a smaller scale than murals, this stencil- and sticker-heavy approach is especially prevalent in Chiapas and Oaxaca. In Mexico City, on the other hand, it first flourished in Xochimilco, eventually snaking its way north towards the center of the capital. Street Art Chilango — who live up to Bruce’s assertion that “muralism and graffiti and street art are ways of supporting, promoting, cultivating a sense of identity and collectivity” — are currently the foremost name in all-around street art right now, not only running walking tours to the best pieces, but creating them too.

And, as if to come full circle from Mexican Muralism, “the government has begun to see this movement as an opportunity, investing in muralism projects on a grand scale,” Arvide tells me. I asked Bruce about the bubbling undercurrent of corporate (and government) sponsorship and she summed it up neatly: sponsorship is important “if your goal is just to showcase what’s the coolest, most stylistically impressive work...but if the goal is more about connecting to folks that are often marginalized from mainstream art worlds, then maybe that’s less important.”

(Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Street Art Chilango)

The notion that street art should and could be about more than just aesthetics was reiterated by Itze González, co-founder of Mexico City’s Central de Muros. She told me that while “urban art is...becoming a way to beautify public spaces,” it should also “lift empty spaces from abandon and bring them back to life,” serving as a “tool for social transformation that goes beyond protest and generates proposals, prompts dialogue, [and] sparks emotion.”

However, regardless of either intent or content, and in a sentiment reiterated by almost everyone I spoke with, “people like urban art because it’s accessible,” says Arvide.

Summing up Mexico City street art in a pithy paragraph is nearly impossible. Believe me, I’ve tried. However, I think it makes sense to loop back to Byers’ invocation of hope. Because whether you’re a graffiti writer looking for a sense of identity, a political activist searching for answers or just an outside observer, street art offers just that — a sense of hope in urban space where it’s often in short supply.

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