Where Some Call Graffiti Art, Not Vandalism

In Argentina, street artists say tolerance of graffiti equals unmatched freedom.

ByABC News
May 28, 2009, 11:39 AM

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina, May 29, 2009 — -- Writing on walls is not a modern phenomenon.

Our distant ancestors etched depictions of wildlife and hunting scenes on the insides of caves. Historians speculate that their aim was to placate the gods before the often perilous and sometimes futile task of gathering food.

There are known expressions of social and political unrest that date back to Greek and Roman civilizations. Some historians even believe that wall writing was used to advertise public services, inns, baths and even brothels -- a precursor to the modern billboard.

Today, in the graffiti-inundated Argentine capitol of Buenos Aires, as in most of the world's largest cities, the activities of graffiti writers, which some historians say has roots in cave art, is thriving.

A vibrant and expressive scene exists in Buenos Aires, where advocates argue there is a higher proportion of quality work than cheap graffiti tagging. In any event, it is almost impossible to avoid the visual melee that adorns practically every grey, derelict wall in the city.

A pair of enthusiasts from Britain have created a central hub to advocate for the variety and quality of this work, called Graffitimundo, an online resource connecting the art to its artists.

They also provide an alternative and informed tour around Buenos Aires and its urban art scene. Instead of a tour of the Recoleta Cemetery or watching a game of polo, tourists can get up close and personal with the very best street art, seeing the work (sometimes as it is being made) and meeting the artists responsible.

Co-founder Marina Charles attributes the level of quality and expression to a backlash against difficult economic times in the early 2000s.

"After 2001, there was a sense of creating a social experiment on the streets," Charles said. "Groups of artists all felt they could come out on to the streets and bring something positive to the environment they were living in."

In fact, the street art advocates claim a lack of police interest in graffiti and the public's tolerance of it has given local artists the time and psychological freedom to paint uninterrupted and unafraid of retribution.

That notion is disputed by many in Buenos Aires. The mayor, Mauricio Macri said during his campaign that anti-graffiti efforts should be part of any plan to help clean up the city, but since his election in 2007, no major initiatives have been undertaken.

There are no specific laws banning graffiti in the capitol, unless it is contains ethnic or racial slurs, ABC News producer Joe Goldman in Buenos Aires reported.

"One could paint a wall of a police station without having any problem in Buenos Aires," Goldman added.

Indeed, Marton Otonelo, a spokesman for the Argentine Director General's Office in Buenos Aires, told ABC News, "There are two types of street art: political and artistic. Both are good. They are part of the city. ... Street art doesn't bother us."

There are even now local businesses who employ the artists to adorn their shop fronts.

A rumor persists about a local politician, dogged by political graffiti, who employed the services of one of the more respected local artists to paint the front of his house. Such is the respect that artists have for each other's work, it has even acted as an effective deterrent against further vandalism.