Physical Graffiti – The connection between urban art and architecture in Argentina

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Urban art cannot and does not exist in a vacuum. The built fabric of cities and towns provides the canvas on which street artists exhibit their creations, inextricably linking it to its environment. The relationship between the work and the physicality of its condition brings it into a unique artistic realm, where it is visible in the public space as opposed to the walls of a gallery, and as such, is unequivocally affected by the architecture that acts as its backdrop.

Buenos Aires – the Paris of South America

Architecturally speaking, Argentina is something of an anomaly. The country’s urban identity reflects its history and, in many ways, is a physical manifestation of its development as an immigrant hub. After the arrival of Spanish and Italian immigrants at the end of the 19th century, Buenos Aires became a far-flung European outpost. Urban planners looked to Baron Hausmann’s reconstruction of Paris when constructing the newly anointed capital in 1880, earning it the name “Paris of the South”. During the construction boom between 1880 and 1910, much of the old Spanish colonial architecture was replaced with the popular Neo-Classical style, and the 20th century saw the city accumulate a number of stand alone buildings constructed in the Art Deco and Brutalist styles.

The Brutalist Biblioteca Nacional in Recoleta
The Brutalist Biblioteca Nacional in Recoleta

In recent years, the architecture of Argentine cities such as Buenos Aires and Cordoba has become somewhat schizophrenic. Poeta , an artist who searches for “tools” within the urban fabric to form his geometric compositions, says that the absence of a defined style in Buenos Aires reflects the lawlessness of the Argentine capital, creating an environment of architectural anarchy. Typical low-rise residential buildings sit alongside 20 storey apartment blocks all over the city, resulting in a spiky, undulating skyline. Pastel , himself an architect, notes that this “gives the painter a new spatial perspective” and that looking for new walls within these physical peaks and troughs becomes “an everyday sport” for a street artist.

This “sport” is largely facilitated by the legal grey-area that street art occupies in Argentina. Most artists would concede that the tolerance towards the technically illegal medium makes it one of the best places to paint in the world. But its reputable standing within the street art community is also due to the abundance of walls within the city itself, negating the need to venture further afield, as is the case in many European or North American cities. In Argentina, paintable walls are rendered “legal” solely by receiving permission from the owner, meaning walls are not solely confined to places of isolation or those dedicated specifically to graffiti.

Porteno neighbourhoods with a mix of commercial and residential uses such a Palermo, Colegiales and Villa Crespo are traditionally where graffiti and street art has been most pervasive, with commissions of murals by retailers and proprietors of restaurants, shops and houses commonplace. More recently the industrial area of Barracas in the south has emerged as the new mecca of street art, while Villa Urquiza has also become an artistic stronghold in the north. Perhaps the only areas in Buenos Aires where graffiti is not widely apparent are the upscale neighbourhoods of Recoleta and Puerto Madero, the former owing largely to the decorative and elaborate Parisian-style architecture that dominates, and the latter due to prominence of the go-to dockland regeneration typology, the glazed skyscraper.

Skyscrapers, office buildings and apartments in Puerto Madero
Skyscrapers, office buildings and apartments in Puerto Madero

Undoubtedly, context has a unique influence on each of these murals. Elian , a minimalist painter from Cordoba, clarifies this, saying “A wall doesn’t occur in isolation. If that was the case, I would just paint on canvas. It’s not totally influenced by the architecture either, but it always is by the city”. Pastel concurs – “It needs to be understood that architecture and murals are two of the many elements that make up the city. An analysis and understanding of the context forms the relationship between the architecture and the mural”.

Both artists seek to create a dialogue by contextualising their respective works in situ to achieve a harmonious synthesis between the work and the wall. For Pastel, the inclusion of flora from the immediate vicinity of the wall grounds his compositions in their context and provide a link between it and the social themes he explores. Elian sees the architecture of his canvas as integral to his work and feels that a mural is incomplete if it is not taken into account. “Breaking The Structure” (Cordoba, May 2015) is an example of this thesis. The artist’s trademark geometric layers, subtly overlapped in an optical subversion, play with the facade of the building to “respect the geometrical language but breaking the principal lines” in an overt expression of of his intention. The relationship between the wall and the work is built on establishing an visual lexicon that references the mural, the background and the wider context of both.

Elian "Breaking the Structure"
Elian “Breaking the Structure”

The wall itself has a huge impact on the work, and the search for good walls is constant. The blank wall of a bus depot in Chacarita is better than the chiseled marble facade of an ornate house in Recoleta, the side of an abandoned building more desireable than underneath a bridge. The context, scale and texture of wall all have an effect on what will be painted. For Elian, it is history that attracts him to a wall. “I prefer a wall that has a story, that something happened in these walls or that you have some kind of wealth, such as moldings, windows, etc.”. Pastel says “Each wall has its charm, either in scale, its particular location, its architecture. It depends on what you want to paint”.

Pastel, "Flora pehuenche", Mendoza Argentina
Pastel, “Flora pehuenche”, Mendoza Argentina

The circumstances under which an artist paints can also dictate the resultant piece. A graffiti artist doing a bomb or a throw up is less likely to have permission, so the piece will probably be smaller and faster than, say, a wall done as part of a street art festival which would presumably have all the necessary licences, so the artists could dedicate more time to the work. The medianeras commissioned by the Buenos Aires City Government as part of Proyecto Duo in Palermo last November are a good example of what can be achieved when a body with resources curates a project. Medianeras are a characteristic feature of the architectural landscape of Buenos Aires, the ubiquity of them defining the visual language of the city. Access and permission to paint on these huge, expansive walls is almost impossible to procure, limiting the frequency with which they are painted. However, the backing of a municipal authority overcomes these procurement issues, bringing large scale murals to a barrio where small scale works are the norm.

Painted medianera by Spok and Lean Frizzera as part of Proyecto Duo, Palermo
Painted medianera by Spok and Lean Frizzera as part of Proyecto Duo, Palermo

For street artists, the influence of the environment by which they are surrounded, whether physical or social, or both, is undeniable. Pastel and Elian, speaking for themselves, assert that the architectural particularities of each situation they paint in have an effect on the work produced. The awareness of their environs and freedom to interact with it in a meaningful way results in Argentine artists not just passively engaging with their surroundings, but actively seeking out walls with certain characteristics that they can incorporate into their murals. The process is not just about finding an empty space to fill, but about consciously merging art and architecture to elevate the relationship between the two.

Sorcha O’Higgins