When the walls talk

GUY WILKINSON
Last updated 05:00 16/10/2013
Buenos Aires Landscape
Guy Wilkinson

KILLING WALLS: Street artist Dario Suarez, aka Malatesta.

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'I started painting on the street because I was furious," explains Argentine street artist Dario Suarez.

"I didn't want to kill somebody, so I started killing walls instead."

Suarez (aka Malatesta), was still in his formative years when Buenos Aires was left reeling in the aftermath of financial meltdown in 2001.

As frustrations reached boiling point and people took to rioting in the streets, he found solace in the form of a spray can and the blank walls of the city.

He wasn't alone.

Nowadays, you need only walk along any downtown avenue and you'll see it; a tentacle sporting robot here, a subversive mural there.

Street art is everywhere.

To learn more, I've teamed up with Graffitimundo, a local tour operator established in 2009 by a group of friends keen to increase awareness of the heritage and culture of Argentine urban art.

Our tour is led by Cecilia Quiles, a bohemian character with paint-spattered Doc Martens and an unmistakable passion for her hometown's countercultural leanings.

"Argentines love to share their thoughts on politics, sport, religion or even their parents," she says. "We're very outspoken, public space in this country is considered to be for everyone. People here have been repressed so many times, there's a desire to overcompensate, to ensure it will never happen again."

We head to the outskirts of a crumbling park in the Palermo Viejo neighbourhood, where two towering tenancy blocks are plastered with murals several stories high.

On one, a gaucho (a cowboy of the South American plains) sits atop a brilliant white horse waving a spray can in defiance. On the other, two hulking minotaurs square up for a fight, their horns locked, fists clenched.

The gaucho mural is the work of British artist Jim Vision, while the minotaurs were painted by pioneering Argentine street artist Jaz (Franco Fasoli).

He began his creative career as a letter-based graffiti writer in the mid-1990s. As his style evolved, he progressed to experimenting with unusual materials such as asphaltic paint and petrol, enabling him to craft vast murals increasingly ambitious in scale and intricacy.

Around the corner, we see more of his handiwork on the walls of a nearby bus depot. According to Quiles, Jaz repeatedly implored the local station manager for permission to paint here but was continually refused.

It wasn't until his mother - livid at the rebuke - stormed into the depot that the go-ahead was finally given.

Such persistence may seem almost comically belligerent, but Portenos (residents of Argentina) have a long-standing history of utilising walls for self-expression.

The origins date back to the 1930s when stencil was used on the streets to share political thoughts and messages, while throughout the 1950s, political organisations began posting candidates' names on walls.

In the 1990s, MTV and skater magazines filtered in via the US; with skate, punk and hip-hop culture profoundly influencing the middle classes.

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But not all street art was born out of anarchy or propaganda. In the 1990s, designers and creative types would band together to partake in manic "art sessions". Traditionally involving copious amounts of beer and a truckload of paint, the goal was simply to flood the streets with colour.

Though there were periodic clashes with more activist-minded "artists", the trend took off and has since stuck.

In nearby Villa Crespo, we drop in on the studio of Jaz and his contemporaries Ever (Nicolas Romero) and Pastel (real name withheld). Inside, scaffolding and stage equipment clutter a narrow warehouse.

Like many street artists, they work day jobs and share their space with friends who work on set construction for local theatre companies. Upstairs, a mezzanine floor is littered with spray-painted canvases, paintbrushes, bikes and shelves stuffed with art books.

Opposite the studio, a surrealist mural depicting the warped mindset of Chairman Mao fronts the wall between two apartments.

Supposedly, Ever was midway through creating the piece when it dawned on him that an Asian man ran the neighbouring convenience store. He was about to scrap the project when he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was the shop owner giving him the thumbs up.

At this point a fundamental cultural difference becomes apparent. Whereas in most major cities, such antics would likely prompt an enraged call to the police or local council, here any wrath seems to stem more from a sense of jealousy.

Nowadays, it's not unheard of for homeowners to commission artists to paint their walls, with payment varying from the cost of materials to an invite to a backyard barbecue.

The tour wraps up at Hollywood in Cambodia, a unique street art gallery run by artists at the back of Post Bar in the trendy Hollywood Palermo district.

Inside, every spare inch of wall space is plastered with graffiti. Out back, the gallery sells prints and a staircase leads to a spacious outdoor rooftop where every available brick has also been set on with a spray can.

Along with five other street artists, Malatesta set up the space to host exhibitions and stencil workshops. They work closely with Graffitimundo and are currently collaborating on a forthcoming documentary White Walls Say Nothing. "We see this as a normal thing, like we have the right to do it," says Malatesta.

"I don't paint to please people; I paint because it's my passion. I don't care what happens to the piece after that. If people enjoy my work, that's a nice side effect."

Street art will always have its detractors, but in Buenos Aires it seems, the walls will always be the people's press.

The writer was a guest of Graffitimundo.

GETTING THERE See Areolineas Argentinas and check out the latest South America deals here.

STAYING THERE Legado Metico is an 11-room boutique hotel in the heart of the Palermo district. Rooms start from USD$250 ($299). See legadomitico.com.

SEE+DO Graffitimundo offers several tours. Group tours lasting three hours start from USD$25 ($30), see graffitimundo.com.

MORE INFORMATION graffitimundo.com.

- FFX Aus

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