A Voice for the People: Chile’s Murals Are a Gallery of the Streets

by Kavita Bedford
- Australia -

Those seeking insight into the Chilean mentality should explore the footpaths of Santiago and Valparaíso. The desires, fantasies and messages of the last forty years are boldly expressed on walls, metro stations and buildings. Here, the streets have a voice.

The memories and consequences of Pinochet’s rule live on in Chile, but in the world of art, repression and prohibition no longer reign. The past decade has seen a powerful resurgence in artistic communities as new galleries, shows and exhibitions are popping up on every re-invigorated street corner. Yet, in formal art spaces there is a distinct lack of comprehensive and challenging visual work. Museums are lagging in attendance and flagging amid a strong collaboration of ideas between the artists and their communities.

As a newcomer to Chile, I could only speculate where all the ideas had gone. Questioning curators and art students unearthed a range of possibilities: a lack of funding, not enough solid art courses in universities and an enduring culture of fear amongst artists from the times of the Pinochet dictatorship.

Yet on the streets, slogans, colors, words, and murals - some existing for decades, others re-painted or etched over - cover the facades of buildings. The same walls that played an important role in political awareness and subjugation during the Pinochet regime continue to speak today. In the coastal city of Valparaíso, where the first political murals began, the works are crowded and jostle for space - a mingling of bright colors, naked bodies scaling waterfalls, butterflies and lovers embracing. The walls convey dreams of hope, messages and stencils dating from the 1960s until the present day, creating a visual mapping of the last forty years.

In the streets of Valparaíso, graffiti provides individuals the voice their communities are lacking. The walls scream out to passersby: Subversion, hagan mas colegios y menos carceles (build more schools and less prisons), la educación debia seria publica (sic) (education should be public), Welcome snob, fuck tourista terrorist, and Graffiti is not a crime.

“The more avant-garde and modern works have always appeared first in Valparaíso,” says Gonzalo Romero, a 23-year-old graphic designer and graffiti artist. Gonzalo has been heavily involved in Santiago’s street art scene for ten years, while studying design at Universidad de las Americas. In the past decade he has noticed a change in the direction of graffiti. Once influenced by the American block lettered Wild Style, Santiago now looks to Europe for inspiration: a more expressive, technically based and freer form of expression.

Today, Romero finds the scene is more about aesthetics than it was in the past. “A lot of us just used to want to see our name up there, but now it is style-based. I would rather do five small, interesting pieces than tag 20 pieces.”

The development of street art has a strong political basis in Chile – as in many Latin American countries such as Mexico and Nicaragua. In Chile, the issues of class inequality and the repression of free speech have been dominant themes. Salvador Allende first utilized mural art in his presidential campaign against Eduardo Frei in 1963. Lacking the economic backing enjoyed by his opponent, Allende relied on low budget methods to combat Frei’s media dominance. The first political murals appeared in Avenida España, Valparaíso, and were the beginning of a popular movement. From 1970-1973, students committed to the new social process joined anonymous groups, art workers and villagers to transform the murals into a collective expression.

Following the 1973 military coup, the mural ceased to be an accepted political device. Instead, murals and stencils became clandestine, denouncing the new military government with stories of unemployment, hunger and torture. They never lasted long, quickly destroyed by the authorities.

Romero believes today’s graffiti and stencil artists aim to reflect on ongoing social issues rather than direct their message towards specific political figures. In fact, what is generally considered a form of anti-establishment art is now supported by the Chilean Bachelet government. The Bachelet government sees the need for public art, and in the face of a history of repression, the importance it has for Chile.

Crowded metro stations are the best place for viewing Santiago’s art. This year, famed Chilean muralist, Alejandro “Mono” Gonzalez was commissioned by the government to decorate the Santiago metro station space of Parque Bustamente in October. One of the founding members of the Brigada Ramona Parra, Mono was part of a leftist political group that gained notoriety for painting actively and in secret throughout the 17-year military dictatorship.

Cristian Elissegaray, a youth project worker in Maipu, has been in charge of several mural projects involving youth from disaffected areas. He received some of the first government grants awarded for art on the streets. He does not identify himself as a street artist in his own right, but rather as a facilitator for the kids and young adults that are growing up in the outskirts of Santiago who are searching for a voice. Interested more in the way that street art can bring people together, he wants to bridge the social gaps and create a productive activity for younger people.

And for Chile’s youth, politics is not their first preoccupation. “One out of ten pieces actually holds an important message, the rest are there to be considered art,” says Romero. The streets have a voice for old and new wave generation muralists to speak out, and now through government and community programs, the two often work together. The youth look to older figures like Elissegaray and Mono for guidance, support and an understanding of their medium, but not to emulate them.

The younger generation of street artists, ranging from teenagers to those in their late twenties, are all aware of the political roots present in their work but they have their own issues and problems to combat. The past is not an issue they dwell on. This generation has parents, family and neighbors who were living during the dictatorship, but like any new generation, the now is what concerns them.

Romero says for today's generation, issues of poverty and the prevalent inequality in Santiago is what they need to direct their work towards. The support that is now being given to young muralists by the government provides them with the cost of materials and a location to use. It is opportunities like these that Elissegaray and Romero both believe help combat poverty as they give rise to creation, community involvement and a sense of purpose on the streets. “The messages are about a collective consciousness of an area, whether it is the city or country, rather than about being political,” explains Romero.

Elissegaray's 2007-08 government project was themed Chilean Independence and involved 25 people from the Maipu area. Although the theme was not one he would normally choose, he says it was a great opportunity to exhibit some of the skills on the streets and be united as a community. The project, which is displayed in Avenida Limpoy, Maipu, began in October 2007 and offered classes for all involved until the completion of the work in April the following year.

“It is now possible to do projects like this and have support,” says Romero. “It helps that graffiti works are now so commercialized; they have become institutionalized. The artists are employed by phone companies and Nike to do designs and the scene is a connected and marketable source with the internet and specialized shops.”

Elissegaray explored the idea of seguridad ciudad (safe city) in another project this year. Romero says that throughout the process he and the other participants were treated in an unprecedented way. “We were given champagne, proper lunches and even drank with the mayor – this never would have happened a few years ago.”

Though the messages of the streets have long been prominent in Chile’s cities, this is the first time that the wider society, complete with government approval, is ushering and formalizing street art into their agenda.

“I think street art is so popular here because the pueblo (people) are using public space, particularly the walls, as a voice. They want a voice,” explains Katherine Beck, a muralist in her final year as an art student at University Chile.

Along the gritty walls of Rio Mapucho, in the heart of Santiago’s Providencia, lies a giant image of a sunbathing woman. As choked traffic clogs up nearby and daily commuters shuffle to work, she lies resplendent, soaking up the imagined rays as a reminder for the people to dream.

Chile now needs her beauty and many voices to pour freely onto the streets, rather than deteriorate in stifled, closed galleries. Today’s movement is about taking the people’s ideas and making them public. As Romero says, “A good graffiti is the gallery of the streets.”

About the Author
Kavita Bedford is a freelance writer from Australia who has traveled Latin America for the past year exploring the region’s politics and art. She spent the past few months in Chile working for the Santiago Times and the cultural magazine Revolver. She studied politics and theatre, and has completed a degree in journalism at Charles Sturt University in Australia. Long interested in Australia's treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, Kavita helped facilitate the Islamic Relations Forum while at university to promote a public discourse on representations of Muslims in the Australian media and cross-cultural debate. She has published articles in The Canberra Times and Realtime, Australia’s guide to international contemporary arts.

3 comments on “A Voice for the People: Chile’s Murals Are a Gallery of the Streets
  1. tash says:

    Great article. Informative, colorful and in depth. This is thoroughly researched and really gave me an idea of what Chile would be like…now if only I had a flight booked in the near future.

  2. dilekpercin says:

    Fantastic…I like your opinion. Two weeks ago I was in Santiago-Valparaiso and Vina Del Mar for a international cultural project between Golcuk Municipality in Turkey and Ministry of Culture in Chile. I was thinking same way with you about colorful cities. I liked their colorful spirit…

  3. MHahn says:

    Fascinating article!

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