On arriving in Buenos Aires, one of the first things you’ll notice is that there is graffiti everywhere. Sometimes it’s hastily scrawled letters, sometimes it’s carefully composed signature pieces, and sometimes it’s massive full-color murals.
We were curious about why this art form was so widespread in the city, and found Buenos Aires Street Art Tours, who had the answers to most of our questions. We met Matt Fox-Tucker, a friendly British fellow, at a café in the Colegiales neighborhood, where he gave us a brief introduction to the street art scene in the city.
The Porteño fascination with graffiti (as at this time it was more letters and tags) began in the early 1990s, when videos by the Beastie Boys showed spray-painted trains and New York hip-hop culture inspired young artists and musicians in the city. The style was already well-established in other parts of the world in, but perhaps due to the military dictatorship which prevailed in Argentina until 1983, or perhaps because aerosol paint cans were not available, the urban custom of painting on walls did not take off in Buenos Aires until the mid-1990s.
We took the train to Saavedra and Villa Urquiza, viewing lots of painted walls along the train tracks. Matt told us that during the military dictatorship lots of buildings in Villa Urquiza were knocked down in preparation for a new motorway which was never built. This provided a lot of fresh walls for people to paint.
From 2005 onwards many international street artists – including the Italian artist Blu, who made his stunning stop-motion animation Muto here – came to Buenos Aires. They came to take advantage not only of the blank walls, but the lax enforcement of the very few rules against these forms of street art. The city has attempted to differentiate between street art, graffiti, and vandalism, and even commissions public murals by street artists. Though painting on government property or private walls without permission is illegal, the general sense is that the police in Buenos Aires have much more important things to worry about.
There are many places around the city like walls in parks, abandoned areas and derelict buildings, however, that are generally considered to be fair game for anyone, and Matt even invited us to try our hand at spraying a stencil. The more elaborate works tend to be left intact by other artists, but there’s no guarantee that a work on a public wall will remain “clean.”
One thing that sets Buenos Aires apart and draws street artists from around the world, is that private property owners can give street artists permission to paint on private walls, even walls facing the street, without fear of penalty, which is not the case in many communities in the US and Europe. Thus artists with permission to paint have the luxury of taking their time and painting during daylight hours, so the quality of the street art in Buenos Aires tends to be quite good.
Some of the big names in B.A. street art are JAZ, ICE, BLU, PLAST, Nase, Cof, Animalito Land, Grito, Triangulo Dorado, Malegria – who is known for using tejidos, or native patterns, and EnE EnE – who paints machine-like pieces. The latter two were given permission to paint the facade of a private home in Saavedra and in the 7 months since it was painted, no one has tagged it.
Walk down any Buenos Aires street and you will find examples of street art, and because of the nature of the art form, the show changes regularly. Matt and his friend Guilherme Zauith have attempted to document some of the scene with their book Textura Dos: Buenos Aires Street Art, where you can find many more examples of the works around the city.
Disclaimer: Buenos Aires Street Art Tours gave us a free tour, which we enjoyed very much. You can take a tour yourself by booking on their website. We always disclose when we get something for free, but we also always promise to give you our honest opinion of it.
Update: Matt got in touch with me to correct a few points in my original article, which I have amended above, and to offer this bit of bonus material.
The phrase ‘street art’ seems to have been coined in the early 2000s as a more marketable and socially acceptable term differentiating itself between the illegal side (vandalism) of graffiti and a new recognized art form as used by artists such as Banksy. Though there are many grey areas between ‘graffiti’ and ‘street art’, in general ‘street art’ can incorporate lots of different formats of making an intervention in the street e.g. murals painted with paint brushes and paint rollers, stencils, wheat pastes, stickers, or installations/sculptures, yarn bombing (with wool) etc.)
In rather too simplistic terms, graffiti is often painted illegally and is usually painted with aerosol spray and incorporates letters, tags (name of artist or crew), ‘throwups’ (often done fairly quickly in two colours), ‘bombs’ (name painted very quickly on a train or metro). Other commonly used terms are ‘piece’ short for ‘masterpiece’ describing a great design in aerosol, and ‘toy’ (describing letters or a tag that are of very poor quality).