As I wander around Antofagasta on foot, I am usually trying to not fall into one of the massive holes in the sidewalks (yes, there are massive open utility “pits” randomly scattered along the sidewalks) or step in dog droppings (there are no requirements to clean up your dog’s excrement and if there were, it probably wouldn’t matter since the stray dogs leave plenty behind, too). So it’s surprising that I ever see anything in the city beyond the crumbly pavement or dirt underfoot. When I do, my eye often travels to the incredible graffiti.
No, I’m not being sarcastic. The graffiti here actually tends to be… well, pretty. Or at the very least, interesting. Interesting in the way a painting at the MOMA would be interesting and capture your attention for a good little while.
This type of artistic graffiti is referred to as street art. While North American cities are no stranger to urban graffiti-turned-”street art,” this form of expression is taken to a whole new level in Antofagasta. Artists create massive, beautiful, intriguing professional-looking murals out of a few cans of spray paint on a weekly basis. Often, the murals attempt to communicate some point of view. What that point of view is is not always clear.
When someone finally decides to paint over the unsolicited art, the artist will simply return to the spot or a new location with a new creative idea in mind and transform the otherwise plain walls into a canvas for all of the city’s pedestrians to see.
Now, I wouldn’t go as far as condoning this type of behaviour, because it does of course result in damaged property and require an expensive clean-up. On the other hand, a fortunate side effect of this phenomenon is that in a place where infrastructure is crumbling and not always properly maintained, it provides a diversion that can be quite visually pleasing and really becomes a unique part of a city’s individual personality.
This type of art – created by the anonymous everyday artist – is also perhaps the oldest known to mankind and the most omnipresent throughout history. After all, weren’t the spectacular drawings discovered in a prehistoric cave in France essentially the same form of expression?
The obsession with street art is definitely not unique to Antofagasta or Chile: I saw ample examples of street murals in São Paulo, Brasil and in in Buenos Aires a simple walk down a downtown sidewalk will present ample examples of this type of artistic expression. I recently discovered a fantastic English-language blog that sets out to chronicle street art in Buenos Aires, and I highly recommend it for a good introduction overview and some interesting examples of the art form. (Some of the murals that are recorded on this blog are officially condoned by the city — not all street art is subversive.)
Massive murals are not the only types of street art I encounter in Antofagasta or saw in Buenos Aires. Many street artists employ the aid of stencils. The stencils are beautiful representations of famous figures that demonstrate skillful use of negative space. I recently encountered a set of stenciled-on images on the sidewalks near the Parque Brasil in downtown Antofagasta.
In Buenos Aires, I saw countless stenciled-on portrayals of famous Argentinean figures such as soccer players, Che, the historic tango singer Carlos Gardel, Evita and the current president Christina Kirchner. I even saw graffiti of John Lennon (not Argentine, of course, but somehow very popular there still).
Street art is certainly an intriguing form of communication. It transforms the aesthetic of a city space and gives a voice to those whose points of view may otherwise be lost in the crowds of a busy urban center.