POSTCARD: Latin American Graffiti

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina—The urban wallpaper of Latin America is political graffiti.

Graffiti covers the majority of plain walls, garage doors, sidewalks, and even a few grandiose public statues in both the cities and small towns I visited this summer across various countries of Latin America. The graffiti extends from the grittiest slums I visited, where homes consist of chicken wire covered with trash bags, to the highest income neighborhoods in Argentina, such as Recoleta in Buenos Aires. And apart from the occasional tagger who crafts indisputable works of art, holds a singular infatuation with his name, or loves words that in English begin with A, B, C, F, and S, most of Latin American graffiti exults politicized messages.

Messages from political groups of all stripes compose the dyes of this wallpaper. Mainstream campaigns, like the current president of Argentina, have some of the largest messages. “Long live the Kirchners!” declares one message by train tracks near Tigre, Argentina where each multi-colored letter stands taller than my body. One candidate is ready for the 2011 elections with amazing name recognition; “Pacha 2011” scream the template-drawn messages that are mosaicked across walls in La Plata, Argentina such that, without exaggeration, nearly one out of five street corners in the city center plug the campaign. Nonetheless, not a single local I asked knew for sure who Pacha is or even what office he (or she) is running for.

Beyond candidates, special interest groups like the vegans have taken their aim at public opinion. In capital letters, I found the message “Milk=Torture, Meat=Murder” in Spanish and capital letters, like all the other messages, on a wall besides The National University of La Plata. And I can only imagine what cutting hot breakfast would have been like at this university; earlier, I read messages on a nearby wall objecting to the purportedly low nutritive content in medical students’ dining hall meals as I watched student protesters holding similarly-worded signs blockade the adjacent road with stacked desks.

However, alongside the groups with more entertaining, creative messages, some graffiti seems to carry genuine sentiments of distress from people feeling neglected by their political leadership and the justice system. One of the most common of the more personal and passionate messages—and some of the largest and most elaborate graffiti displays that I saw across much of Argentina—stems from the families of los desaparecidos, the political victims of torture and murder by military dictatorships during the 1970s and 80s. On sidewalks surrounding a number of law schools in Buenos Aires, I found cries for justice and pleas that the nation not forget the extensive political cleansings of decades past.

Related to another mass-murder, in the central plaza in Bariloche, Argentina, hundreds of spray-painted white bonnets adorn the ground along with victims’ names printed alongside a number of the emblems. Along with the curt charge, “GENOCIDE,” the logos also peppered the plaza’s statue of General Julio Argentino Roca, who some associate with forced expulsions of indigenous populations in early 20th century Argentina.

It is hard to translate the proliferation of these public political expressions to deep insight on the political behaviors of regular Latin Americans. Despite the graffiti and reputations of mass protests in large public plazas, many of the Argentines I spoke with across various age groups expressed a general sense of disillusionment from the current political parties. Many hesitate to wade too deeply into political activism after military dictators three decades ago meticulously quashed dissent from local universities, often through murder. Nonetheless, remaining exposed for months or longer between coats of fresh paint, these messages have become part of the urban art.

Punit N. Shah ’12, a Crimson blog writer, is a social studies concentrator in Mather House.