Posts Tagged 'South America'

Estudy of Estyle: Chilean Street Art and Figuring Out What the Hell It Is I Have to Say

There’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about, but struggling to find the words to explain: the connection between travel and street art. I’ve had fumbling conversations in which I attempt to articulate it, flapping my lips like hands gasping at butterflies, trying to gather vague supports for an unformed thesis. An idea has been forming in me, very far inside my brain, amid the murmuring currents of subconsciousness—like a toddler without the vocabulary to express herself, feeling emotions she doesn’t understand, but only knows are true.

And then a friend posts a video on Facebook that starts to explain everything I’ve been thinking and struggling to say. Thank God.

Chile Estyle has released the first documentary in what I’m hoping will be an ongoing exploration of the evolution of the burgeoning and blossoming Chilean spin on the global phenomenon of street art. And in its coverage of the specifically Chilean take on the art form, Chile Estyle touches on what I’d felt street art is doing all over the world: revealing (like a striptease) just a little more of the soul of a place.

I’ve been hearing a lot about Chilean street art, most recently in a photo essay by Oakland artist Obi Kaufmann (discussed in connection to his recent mural here). We stood around The Oakbook’s small gallery space, and I listened to Obi talk about the distinctions of Chilean street art: materials lending a unique aesthetic (due to the relative absence of aerosol spray paint in the country), and the culture of muralism leading to the acceptance, even support, of the community (you’re more likely to see street art on the sides of businesses and schools than abandoned warehouses). I can’t say I saw a lot of street art when I was in Santiago, nearly five years ago. Something has changed.

Judging from the picture presented by Chile Estyle, the explosion of street art in Chile has a lot to do with the country regaining confidence and reestablishing its identity. Artists in the video talk about seeing work from New York, Europe, Brazil, and taking pride in the fact that Chile can contribute works just as valuable and important. But, of course, it comes with their own distinct style, a product of their own history and culture.

This one's for you, Mom

The video discusses “Chilean graffiti identity,” informed by the country’s tradition of political muralism. Uber populist and at its core revolutionary, graffiti and street art are seen as an extension of the self-expression that acted in rebuttal to (right-wing) major media outlets—“walls are taken much like a newspaper.” The tradition has lent a culture and community far more tolerant of street art than in most places of the world; it’s seen as “a gift for the people,” rather than vandalism. And, as Chilean street art has begun to garner international attention (like in a recent exhibition at LA’s Carmichael Gallery), it’s become a source of national pride.

How different this is from the culture of street art around the world. And more than just isolated vestiges of self-expression, one can take Chilean street art as a product of the country’s past and perhaps one of best reflections of its contemporary culture.

This is what I’ve been suspecting street art could do. In moments of blinding conviction, I’ve felt that street art, in its democratic and uncommercialized glory, can capture placeness just as well as food or architecture or music or any number of things people look to when they travel. In a continual cross-pollination of artists and influences, cities wear a bit more of their souls on their walls, as though the murals and stencils and wheatpastes were images from its dreams. It’s the way a city like Tel Aviv becomes a mecca for political street art, the way the aesthetic now known as Mission School bloomed in the alleyways of the 90’s SF Mission, whispering its stories in neon—and the way the tradition of political muralism paved the way and painted the walls for a purely Chilean approach to the art form.

And I still don’t have the words for it, the right or complete words to explain it all—because of course, virtually the same things could be said about all art forms, in how they inform and are informed by place. But something in me sparks when it comes to graffiti, in the same place of my brain that travel ignites. I guess the only thing to do is keep digging, poking, on the internet and down alleyways, until I stumble upon the thing it is I’m trying to say—painted on the walls in plain sight.

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Temporal Permanence: Ruins, Street Art and the Narrative Beneath

The speechless candlelight made the images more powerful. The way the sage billowed, the music groaned, the little light flickered—it made the images seem less like a mural and more like the hallucinogenic remnants of a dream, bloody and hand-smeared on the walls of a very dark cave, or on the inside of your skull—which may be the same thing. Dancing on the under side of your eyelids, before swollen and searching pupils, this was the stuff of mushrooms and all-nighters, of contemporary graffiti and ancient cities, of Latin American travels and my Friday night in Oakland.

The showing of Obi Kaufmann‘s mural The Feathered Serpent at The Oakbook was less like an art show than a ceremonious seance. Painted in the fever and fury of a single day and night (and mushroom trip), the mural was inspired by the artist’s recent travels through Latin America. The distinctive flavor of Santiago’s street art scene and the whispering ruins of Oaxaca’s ancient city Monte Alban swirled around in the artist’s subconscious until a dream pushed images out, from one side of the brain to the other, through his fingers and onto the wall of the gallery.

I am not an art critic, journalist, collector or student, so I won’t try to review or surmise. Instead, I’ll let the artist speak for himself. Here’s his photo essay of Santiago street art on Artopic, and his written essay about the genesis and symbolism of the piece on The Oakbook’s website.

After checking out the essays, I got pretty stoked to see the mural. The work being travel-inspired got my antennas twitching. I’d been to both Santiago and Monte Alban, I love crumbly old ruins, and I really love street art (as you’ve seen before)—often for the aesthetics but more because, as a traveler, I find it reveals so much about the beating heart of a place. I was curious to see how it all connected.

Indeed, what I found most compelling about the work (aside from the spooky images and skeletal figures) was the way it blended seemingly disparate influences. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of similarity between the streets of Santiago and the ruins of the Zapotec city Monte Alban: vibrant color versus crumbled stone; modern versus ancient; temporality versus remains—a continent, culture and two millennia apart, what commonality did these two places hold? For the artist, it was some kind of communalism, each place informing part of a narrative that was at once universal and personal, regionally distinct and part of a bigger story. Obi saw the world, human history, in the cavernous, torch-lit intersection of two places that don’t seem to intersect. And if that’s not some damn good traveling, than I don’t know what is.

The artist

Travel often brings up puzzling paradoxes (thus the tired line, “land of contrasts”). How does one hold, in the same hand, the transience of graffiti and the permanence of hard stone foundations? Or, to extend the metaphor, how does a traveler simultaneously love the spontaneity of the open road and the rootedness of home? I think the answer, if there is one, must lie somewhere down beneath all that, in the narrative thread that ties this big world together—in the collective unconscious, if you wanna get real heady. Or at least, you know, in the images and scrawlings and paint smears that have now been painted over—a wall blazing white and sealed-lipped about the stories it holds.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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