Let's talk Latin America

The many faces of street art in Buenos Aires

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Megan Macnaughton, Spanish and History of Art student at Bristol Uni, talks us through public space and street art in Argentina’s capital city.

Coming from Banksy’s hometown where the assimilation of street art with vandalism is common, my exploration of Buenos Aires’ scene came as quite an enjoyable surprise. In the Argentine capital, the idea that urban art is rooted in a desire to infringe on the system or hegemonic order is a misconception: the porteños—as inhabitants of Buenos Aires like to call themselves—perceive it as a form of democratic expression, made by the individual, for the collective.

The very relaxed laws concerning intervention in public space are the main reason for this general and fairly paradisal acceptance of street art. Some Argentine writers have referred to Argentina as a « tax haven for graffiti ». No permit is required to paint, and the common way to go about selecting a specific wall is by knocking on the landowner’s door and having a friendly chat. Their notion of public space is different to our rigid European understanding, in that the street is owned by everyone, and therefore should remain in the hands of the people—not the government.

In Buenos Aires, intervening in public space is thus not a crime. Murals form part of Argentina’s contemporary cultural heritage, and their acceptance by both the State and the general public—who identify with them—has enabled urban art to play an important role in contributing to social change. By using street art as a way of promoting equality and freedom of expression, the open-minded porteño attitude is visually projected on walls city-wide .

Interpreting these artists’ motives as being anti-system would not only be inaccurate but insensitive because, on the contrary, they are taking advantage of a system that tolerates their means of expression. Working in the aftermath of a devastating dictatorship, during which an estimated 30,000 citizens disappeared and cultural initiatives were silenced by censorship, they do not paint against anything: they paint because they want to show that they can. Maybe it’s time for us to get inspired and work in favour of democratising our public spaces.