I can't stop staring. One woman is topless, all pouting lips and raven hair. The other wears fishnets, killer heels and not much else. I'm blushing, and it's not from the Buenos Aires heat.
"Try to concentrate," says my art tutor, Alfredo Genovese, paying scant attention to the heaving bosoms hanging on his walls.
As a filete artist, Genovese is just as interested in the flowers, ribbons and scrolls adorning his artwork, as the females he sometimes depicts in them.
Originating in Buenos Aires at the beginning of the 20th century, fileteado porteno was born on the workshop floor of the early cart factories, when Italian immigrants began painting small ornaments on the vehicles. Today, this local art form, which is akin to art nouveau, is as symbolic of the city as tango, and can be seen on everything from storefronts and billboards to vintage cafes and cars.
I'm here for a Buenos Aires experience not listed in the guidebooks - a lesson with fileteador Genovese. I want to learn more about this art form, which had fascinated me on previous visits to this cosmopolitan city, but also for the voyeuristic pleasure of peeking inside an artist's private domain.
Genovese's studio is on a quiet street in the barrio of Caballito, housed in a two-storey building that was home to Genovese's great grandfather, who arrived from Italy as a decorative painter.
The front of the property is classic sandstone, a small number 1465 the only clue to the treasures inside. And what a trove it is, like a pinata has exploded, throwing ribbons and petals everywhere. Paint tubs jostle for space with art books while orange swans and pink dragons glide across walls.
There are tango dancers and erotic actresses, decorative wagons and guitars, music boxes and CD covers. Nothing escapes Genovese's paint box, and pastel is not a word he is familiar with.
I find him at his workbench, paintbrush between his teeth, delicately applying highlights to a red flower painted on a bright-blue music box. With a tattoo on his right bicep, tight black T-shirt and camouflage cargo shorts he looks as though he would be equally at home climbing mountains as teaching art.
Graduating as an art teacher from the Prilidiano Pueyrredon Fine Arts School in 1988, Genovese spent a number of years travelling, studying everything from trompe l'oeil in Italy to truck art in India, before setting up his studio in 1993.
After a brief introduction, we gather around a timber dining table where we begin to trace a basic pattern onto waxed paper, light streaming over our shoulders through arched windows as tango music begins to play. As we transfer the chalk pattern to a painted board, using a process known as pouncing, Genovese shares some history. "For many years, all the trucks and buses in the city were decorated with filete," he says. "Then, in 1975, a law was passed that banned filete on city buses."
The mid-'70s were terrible for Argentina, ushering in what became known as the Dirty War (1976-83) where an estimated 30,000 people "disappeared" at the hands of the military junta. With the economy on the skids, fileteado went into a slow decline or underground, only to re-emerge years later as a recognised art form and the iconographic symbol of the city.
"Today, filete and tango are the two most popular artistic representations of the Buenos Aires identity," Genovese says.
The city has been shaped by its good times and bad, producing a metropolis of three million portenos (as residents call themselves) who share a lust for life, lived large on the streets through dance and art.
Phrases are sometimes incorporated into fileteado, about romance, such as "El Amor Viene Despues" (Love Comes After) or, as befitting such a passionate city, politics and erotica.
Genovese starts the lesson with a talk about the main elements to fileteado. "Plant motifs, particularly acanthus leaves, form the structural basis to most designs," he explains. "These are then complemented with stylised animals such as birds and dragons." And sometimes, beautiful women, if his studio is anything to go by.
His studio also shows examples of commercial projects he has completed for Coca-Cola, Nike and Evian. While Genovese has great respect for the traditional style, having published three books on the topic as well as lecturing at the University of Buenos Aires, he also likes to push boundaries. He has developed an interest in body painting, his edgy work appearing on tango dancers, models and musicians.
After transferring the design, we apply the paint using the filete, or long-bristled lettering brush. Genovese shows us how to dilute it, typically vermilion red, fintoro green or traful blue, and how to use the back of a spatula as a palette.
"A fileteador must be good at two techniques," he says. "Drawing and brush skills."
Unfortunately, I seem to lack both, but the real lesson here is that sometimes art is the best way to get to the authentic heart of a city.
The writer was a guest of LAN and the Alvear Art Hotel.
GETTING THERE Fly to Santiago and then to Buenos Aires (2 hours, 50 minutes). See lan.com.
STAYING THERE Alvear Art Hotel has studio rooms starting from $298. The luxury hotel is well positioned near San Martin Square and has a revolving collection of Argentinean art. See alvearart.com.
PAINTING THERE An eight-hour group workshop with Alfredo Genovese at his Fileteado Porteno studio costs US$100 ($117), including materials. Genovese also offers intensive, fourth-month courses. See fileteado.com.ar.
MORE INFORMATION argentina.travel/en.
FIVE PLACES TO ENJOY LOCAL ART IN BUENOS AIRES
GRAFFITIMUNDO Offers guided graffiti and street art tours as well as stencil workshops; see graffitimundo.com.
MALBA Exhibits Latin American art from the onset of the 20th century to the present; see malba.org.ar.
PALAIS DE GLACE Offers a variety of cultural, artistic and historical exhibitions in a building that was once an ice-skating rink; see palaisdeglace.gob.ar.
MUSEUM XUL SOLAR The former home of eccentric Argentinian artist Xul Solar is now a museum showcasing his work; see xulsolar.org.ar.
QUINQUELA MARTIN MUSEUM Founded by La Boca's best-known artist, Benito Quinquela Martin, the museum displays his and other Argentinian artists on the upper floors of a primary school. Av. Pedro de Mendoza 1835, La Boca.
- FFX Aus