How would you like to live in a house that is, quite literally, a work of art? I think I might.
The second walking tour I took in Buenos Aires last month was a street art walk through several Buenos Aires neighbourhoods. I once again loved going off the beaten path into a few more residential neighbourhoods to discover the vibrant gems hidden on the walls of buildings, homes and public spaces.
Before I talk about this little adventure, I have to emphasize what a different experience I had in Buenos Aires my 3rd time around. My first two visits were whirlwind trips that really took me to a few very specific, some very touristy, “must see” spots around the city. During the third trip, it was fascinating to also be in the city during the quiet month of January – it really felt like the entire (usually hectic) city was sort of taking a siesta, taking things easy – and I relished in wandering off the beaten paths. Of course, I have still only seen a minuscule portion of the city. Like New York or Paris, you really would need months – no, years – to get a full grasp of this city.
If I had to design an ideal vacation in Argentina, I would have to make it last at least a month: one week in Buenos Aires to see all of the tourist highlights, one week in the rural pampas, one week in another, smaller (but still sizeable city like Cordoba or Mendoza, and then a final week (or two…) again in Buenos Aires to go off the beaten track. I’ll definitely keep that in mind for when I have a few spare dollars lying around…
Anyways, for my second walking tour, I first had to find a brightly-painted home in the middle of a residential neighbourhood that I’d never been to before. It was the rendez-vous for the group. I asked for directions several times (Starbucks are everywhere, and their employees and patrons were particularly pleasant to me that hot, humid afternoon as they directed me to the right place) but I still managed to get spectacularly lost in the dizzying heat and ended up hopping in a taxi for a short ride (around some construction – that was what had been tripping me up) to the right spot. I then spent four hours with the English-speaking, Argentine tour guide and a group of tourists from around the globe wandering around a the tree-lined sidewalks of neighbourhoods in the city’s barrio norte.
There are a few good street art walking tours to choose from in Buenos Aires, and I just randomly picked Graffitimundo (link here).
As we wandered from one spectacular mural to the next, our guide also took us through the history of street art, which was different than I expected. When many of us from North America, Europe or Australia think of street “art,” also known as graffiti or tagging, we usually imagine it as an illegal (or at best frowned-upon) activity peppered with shady characters and underground artists. But, go figure, in Argentina – a country that I have grown to generally associate with art, resourcefulness and activism – “graffiti” has been elevated to a higher art form. The magnificently coloured spray painted murals on buildings, homes, and in parks? I learned that all of the murals we saw on the tour were totally legal and in fact most prominent street artists are encouraged by many homeowners, business owners and others to grace their buildings and walls with the technicolor murals.
The art form first appeared in Buenos Aires in the 90s, when middle class youth were intrigued by the street art they saw in pictures and on tv shows of cities in the U.S. Artists from all over the world have since visited Buenos Aires to grace its walls with their work. We learned throughout the day that many artists have distinct styles and have evolved through the years. Some artists do commercial graphic design work and reserve their street art escapades as a side hobby, others are artists with studios, yet others are devoted street artists and only work on the sides of buildings, and even others are wannabe artists doodling around, hoping one day to make it big on the scene. We also got a glimpse into the fascinating culture and inner politics of the work and dynamics of painting on the street… there’s definitely much more to it than meets the eye.
If you are at all interested in art or graphic design, I think that a walking tour like this is a must-do in Buenos Aires. It’s a city that has truly fostered its own brand of this constantly evolving art form. I was glad I took a tour because guides took me onto side streets, alleys and tucked-away parks where I would have never known to look. Also, this art form is not always permanent, though many pieces in Buenos Aires have been there for years; nonetheless, street art comes and goes all of the time and my guides were up-to-date about each neighbourhood’s masterpiece du jour.
If you don’t have time to take a tour, the neighbourhood of Palermo Soho has a lot of buildings with murals in its alleys (now alleys filled with little art studios and souvenir shops) in the central shopping district near Honduras and El Salvador streets. Many trendy boutiques and studios have commissioned or encouraged artists to paint their exterior walls, and there is even a bar nearby that offers workshops on making stencils and street art.
It was an interesting day and I learned a lot. It made me want to take more walking tours of street art, however, because I felt like I was only getting exposed to just a little bit of that culture in just a few select neighbourhoods. Alas, like I said earlier, Buenos Aires is a big city and I only had a little time. It was a speedy look into a many-layered art culture, but one that was worth braving the heat for nonetheless.