Buenos Aires – Buildings with tattoos

Buenos Aires – Buildings with tattoos

For a rapid transition from the ‘real South America’ of Bolivia to the bustle of one of the continent’s great cities, what better than Street Art? So, off the plane, some shut-eye, a bit of freshening up and I was off to join a tour.

Buenos Aires is famed for its street art, helped no doubt by the relaxed attitude of the authorities – basically if you get the permission of the owner of the wall you’re good to go with latex, spray paint or any other application. And some of the best-known street artists have adorned many a wall in the city with their work.

I took a tour with the company with the very sensible name: BA Street Art. They’ve been running tours for a few years and, along with Graffitimundo (who maybe specialize in ‘graffiti’ rather than ‘art’?), they have the mural world pretty much covered. Joining 8 others, 2 French, 2 Americans and 4 Swiss, we met at BA’s answer to a greasy spoon on Av. Federico Lacroze. The Café Lacroze is a large, soulless café with filling food of the barely nutritional variety and a chap waiting tables who looked like he could go the distance with Mike Tyson and come out on top. Not your ideal for running into on a dark night but a charming, engaging bruiser who keeps an efficient front of house and definitely takes no nonsense from the customers.

It’s a perfect meeting point despite its elusive glamour as it’s right beside Colegiales station on one of the train lines that bring people into the city from the extensive suburbs. Old stations mainly, spanking new trains in a fetching turquoise-blue. A couple of stops and you’re at Villa Urquiza where street art aficionados might want to start in front of the massive skateboard piece, depicting youth, innocence and more, by Martin Ron. It is eye-poppingly big this one, calling quite legitimately for that most overused word, awesome; a triptych of fantastically executed spray paint across three tall buildings. Wow – follow that!

Our guide, Ollie, an articulate, well-informed American (of the Northern variety – you have to be careful to specify that here), with French in his blood and Spanish in his looks, describes for us the technique, the tools and materials and interprets what’s taken to be the meaning of each of the street art pieces we see over the two-and-a-half hour tour. The tour is in English but the couple from France really appreciated getting a summary en français at each stop. Crisp delivery, facts and references all in place; all good but I felt there was something missing.

On reflection, I would have liked a bit more passion. I found myself with unanswered questions that maybe needed a street artist or a commissioner of street art to answer: Why do it? The money is not that great but I guess if you like the genre, then just getting hold of a decent ‘canvas’ is quite an achievement. But I wanted to know more about them, what gets them going, what fires their creative juices? I was looking for something more edgy, more rebellious. I expected to be more outraged.

And I got to wondering if street art is becoming a bit mainstream and that maybe an unholy alliance has been struck between artist and ‘authority’, or between art and commerce which takes the edge off the edginess. Because surely there are political messages to be found hidden in plain sight on some of the walls somewhere in the city? Given its recent yesterdays of repression and dictatorship and its today of economic chaos and political corruption, surely there are artists who speak? Shame. I also got to thinking that maybe this is just the way the avant-garde morphs into the establishment. Think Tracey Emin. I wanted to be more scandalized, to find the ‘unmade bed’ of the street art world. Alas, we didn’t, perhaps because it’s not there and never was, or perhaps because the tour focuses on the well-recognised street artists at the expense of the more earthy or iconoclastic. Next time I go I shall explore more…..

We saw a range of images – self-portraits in the guise of cartoon characters, birds and animals of all sorts including a rhinoceros that looks 3D (and ridiculous, if I may say!). My favourite pieces by far were the two we saw by Primo who tackles that thing that’s so obvious for anyone from Europe, and especially London, arriving in Buenos Aires, the absence of diversity of the black variety. So Primo has two stunners on show on the tour: one of the blues musician, Joe Daley and the other of a beautiful black girl. Perhaps the most politically charged of the art we saw, they also showed a breadth of emotion, from the intensity of the trumpeter blowing furiously into his instrument to the wistful gaze of a young girl deep in thought. Like Ollie said, ‘the eyes have it’. These were the pieces that astonish you, the ones that really make you marvel at the skill and artistry of the building tattooists of BA.

If you go, don’t miss a street art tour – or just keep your eyes open for some great stuff in the most unexpected places.