Since my first trip to Mexico City, I’ve been struck by graffiti in DF — the amount, the quality, the style.
From everyday tags to stencil ads, grand pieces to snarky jests, locally steeped and globally conversant, the ubiquity and diversity of graffiti in DF is quite stunning, as a few flicks from last week attest–
Of course, the stencils above, especially the Upper Playground logo at the end, show how graffiti as hip-hop practice shades into what increasingly travels under the banner of “street art” / “arte callejero” as it dovetails with explicitly or hybrid commercial ventures (including DJ Ali’s promotions as well). Along these lines, it was interesting to notice that UP also puts up wheat pastey posters around town (or at least around “las zonas super nice” como La Roma, where I spotted this). Given these emerging practices, future studies of graffiti in Mexico will no doubt need to reevaluate the degree to which these techniques are inherently “transgressive” or exist outside of the market.
The convergence between graffiti, street art, art worlds, and commercial ventures — an increasingly contemporary phenomenon in cosmopolitan cities worldwide — offered a frame for the 2nd session I arranged at Postopolis! DF. I invited the people who run Upper Playground DF / Fifty24MX Gallery, Liliana Carpenteyro and Arturo Mizrahi, as well as two of the artists with whom they’ve worked, Saner and Wendell McShine, to come and talk about what they do and how it fits into the larger institutional matrix for art in DF (which is, of course, HUGE — Mexico City is brimming with galleries and museums). I liked the idea of hearing from both Saner and Shine, since they represent the gallery’s professed desire to exhibit both local and international artists, more or less equally — or “50/50” in Lili’s words.
By bringing this hybrid venture momentarily into the center of our discussions, and including artists/practitioners as well as curators, I hoped we might dig into some pressing questions about how DF functions as an incubator for innovative art and how transnational commerce (increasingly?) fits into the picture. (Watch the panel here.)
In her presentation, Lili emphasized the ways that UP/Fifty24 supports local artists while boosting their profile by bringing in talent from abroad. She also foregrounded the degree to which their projects took place in public, outside of the gallery/store space, such as the painting of a bus by Seher, Sam Flores, et al. en la plaza Luís Cabrera.
I would have liked to hear a little more about how Upper Playground DF, and its location in La Condesa, specifically served to reach a certain (and perhaps new?) clientele / audience. For as with DJ Ali’s parties in Polanco, UP/Fifty24 seeks to invite young people into art (including hip-hop’s artistic forms) through the draw of hip urbanity (or as the parent UP website puts it, by “representing progressive urban lifestyles”). Upper Playground DF — and Upper Playground more generally — is clearly betting that the “naco es chido” renewed appreciation for Mexicocity (if you will) will continue to stimulate contemporary art and commerce in the City.
Such an approach, not coincidentally, also manages to appeal to big international brands, and hence helps to fund such efforts. Obviously, introducing such a commercial angle is not uncontroversial. Some ideologies of authenticity in the art world and in certain schools of hip-hop strongly privilege economic autonomy and disdain corporate involvement or commercial success. (Notably, while discussing his own work and trajectory, Wendell McShine offered an interesting perspective on the question, pointing out that he had started in the more mundane and commercial world of animation but has sought to “crossfade” his work in that realm “into the art world.”)
Lili’s response to a question about this quandary was straightforward. As reported by Tomo (and edited/translated by me):
Question to Lili: What would the scene be without corporate support?
Lili: Well, it is seeking support from all sides. The money may come from the State or from trademarks. A billboard on Masaryk [the chic commercial strip in La Condesa] can cost up to 90,000 pesos a month. It is better supporting artists.
Like graffiti itself, the presentation about Upper Playground DF raised some contentious questions about how to make art public and “free.” An interesting addendum is that Lili’s partner at Upper Playground DF, Arturo, told me later that selling spraypaint is the big money-maker for the store, suggesting that graffiti in DF remains as much about on-the-ground practice as anything:
For some observers, Mexico City presents “a limitless canvass of concrete awaiting artistic reform” and today’s graffiti artists join a long line of critical practitioners of “el gesto primitivo,” including 16th-century dissidents who taunted Cortes with carbon etchings on the white walls of his palace in Coyoacán; for others, it is simplemente illegal, a sign of urban blight and disrespect. The latter camp view graffiti artists as the ubiquitous visual equivalent of squeegee men at stoplights — public molestations that should be cleared from the streets (as Giuliani Partners recommended to DF back in 2003 — though, clearly, DF’s anti-graffiti unit is making little progress). But as reviled as it is in some quarters, graffiti has also occasionally — and prominently — received official sanction from the city, such as for the work of Neza Arte Nel (fotolog | youtube) or the repainting of the boundary walls around el Estadio Azteca.
It’s no coincidence that Tomás Brum’s magazines are centered on graffiti, as opposed to MCing, DJing, b-boying, etc. Or that TT Caps carries a nice coffee-table book on the history of graffiti in Mexico —
During his presentation at Postopolis, Brum asserted that “El brazo más fuerte, visible y que más me gusta del hip hop en México es el grafitti.” (“Graffiti is the strongest and most visible branch of hip-hop in Mexico, and the one I like most.”)
As a student of hip-hop’s global diffusion, this is not exactly a revelation to me. It’s remarkable how often graffiti (or breakdance) is the form of hip-hop that first seems to take hold in places outside the US (which suggests that visual / non-linguistic forms are more easily embraced and localized). Films like Wild Style and Style Wars have clearly left their mark in Mexico and continue to inspire, even, oddly, when they inspire people to tag their titles around town using rather little style at all —
Interestingly, many of the histories of graffiti in Mexico I’ve come across point to Tijuana as the first frontier for the form in Mexico, as Tijuana quite literally serves as the northern frontier, the border to the US. This is an interesting point, as it implies that graffiti was transmitted more strongly (and quickly) person-to-person rather than via the flow of media. If that’s the case, the paths of hip-hop in Mexico differ in some interesting ways from the more common global hip-hop trajectory whereby films such as Wild Style or Breakin’ provide the first artifacts (and de facto instruction manuals) in places outside the US. Of course, such a narrative — as opposed to one that situates graffiti in the broader local contexts of Mexico’s great muralistas and the Tenochtitlanian taunters of Cortes — allows the practice to be viewed, and dismissed, as a fully foreign import.
Given this discursive backdrop, it was not surprising that most of the questions for Saner revolved around whether or not he was a vandal or a criminal. Before meeting Saner on Thursday, I was pleased to actually spot a few of his tags around town. Despite his success in galleries, he clearly remains active on the street:
To the question of how he labels himself and what he does, Saner responded: “Solamente hago lo que me gusta, no me etiqueto. Ni tampoco quiero etiquetar.” (“I just do what I do. I don’t label myself, nor do I want to label.”)
Some considered this (reasonable and commonplace) answer a copout, an evasion, or worse, some disingenuous deception. In the halls at El Eco, I encountered some strong, if whispered, opposition to Saner’s embrace of the mantle of the underground artist. I was told that his commercial success (including a sold-out series of pricey vinyl toys for Kid Robot, exhibitions at Pictures on Walls in London, and invitations to paint in Europe) belies any real commitment to being underground (regardless of the gestures toward ephemerality and unobtainability represented by burning his work at the Border Gallery).
Obviously these are complicated questions, but grappling explicitly with them — and thinking about the economic and institutional ecosystem for young artists (especially those steeped in street art) in DF — was precisely my point in organizing this session. The same questions could easily be posed to another talented local artist, Seher, a sometime collaborator with Saner, and another favorite of Upper Playground DF, who has also enjoyed some commercial success tattooing vinyl toys and partnering with companies like Volvo.
One thing I feel the need to say, however, regardless of this vexing (but inescapable?) imbrication with commerce, is that the work these guys do is, to my eyes, just utterly fantastic, captivating, provocative, and rich. I know there’s not really any way to bracket issues of enmeshment in commerce, but somehow a consideration of aesthetics, of form and content and zeitgeist, too often gets sidelined when we attend to such “contextual” factors as $$$. It would be better — and a more truly holistic aesthetic approach — to somehow bring the two into dialogue with each other. I’m afraid we didn’t have the time in our session — 15 minutes is but a blink — but another reason I wanted Saner and Shine in on the conversation, is that I was hoping we could speak to issues of form and style and why it is that graffiti-related art seems to resonate so strongly in the arenas of high art as well as in the hybrid world of art & commerce that seeks to market “urban progressive lifestyles” even as it makes crucial space for young, contemporary artists.
My final guest at Postopolis, Said Dokins, brought some trenchant thoughts to bear on all of this. Said has been praised in global street art circles for his work, but he is no Banksy-come-lately. Said has long been deeply engaged with the local graffiti scene, among other efforts producing a book about female graffiti artists in DF, and he also places his work in the storied tradition of anarcho-critical muralists in Mexico City, some of whom are his mentors and teachers.
He is also rather thoughtful — and self-consciously so — about the work that he does, and the work that it does (culturally and politically). For his presentation at Postopolis, Said delivered a strong statement about his art and how it expresses ideas about urban space, dystopia, power, subversion, and, among other specificities, how the omnipresent symbol of the skull in Mexico might represent the tragedy of history. (I quite like the idea of Benjamin’s angel of history wearing a máscara de calavera.)
Allow me to quote a passage that seems particularly relevant to the central questions of this post:
Desde que hago graffiti mi relación con lo no autorizado, con el acto ilegal ha marcado muchas formas en las que opero, trato siempre de salirme con la mía, de hacer lo no esperado, de estar en el límite de lo legal. En el caso del avionazo, no había una intención de acción directa contra del sistema hegemónico y el poder en un acto de choque, si no más bien aprovechar para que desde el sistema, es decir de los mecanismos de validación establecidos, ya que el proyecto en sí mismo fue apoyado, actuar como agente que de alguna manera señala problemáticas políticas y sociales, a través de la burla, infiltrando el desorden.
Since I do graffiti, my relationship with the non-authorized, with the illegal act, has marked many ways in which I operate. I always try to get my way, to do the unexpected, to be on the edge of legality. In the case of the plane crash, there was no intention of direct action against the hegemonic system and power through an act of shock, but rather to benefit from the system, from established mechanisms of validation, since the project itself was supported — to act as an agent that somehow fingers problematic political and social issues, through mockery, infiltrating the disorder.
Given Said’s indisputably radical, if practical, attitude about his art, it’s worth noting that the first comment on Saner’s post about his Kid Robot success is from Said himself:
ESO ES CHINGAO!!!! A HUEVO BANDE EN CORTO!!1 YEAH!!!
And while it’s tempting enough to stop there, I can’t resist adding yet another pregnant pic to the pile:
This is painted on the wall outside the HQ of the Partido Popular Socialista (PPS) on Avenue Obregón, portraying the work of portraying the workers! It’s quite an image, especially the way it leaves one to imagine what on earth might fill the thought bubble beside the graffitero’s head.
Clearly, despite several valiant attempts to do so, the story of graffiti in Mexico City and Mexico more broadly is still being written (whether in books, at blogs, or on walls). The form and practice has undoubtedly been Mexicanized even as it continues to be influenced by waves of worldwide wild style and street art, and it is inspiring to see how Mexican artists continue to navigate local structures of support and opposition as well as opportunities abroad for the sustenance of their work and their lives.
Whether the trend toward a kind of commercial hybridization exemplified by Upper Playground DF makes a greater impact on graffiti in DF than, say, post-Guiliani anti-graffiti squads, sin duda, remains to be seen. (Or is that unseen?)