A Brief History of Santiago’s Street Art Scene
On a corner near my house in the República neighborhood of Santiago, there is a continually shifting display. On a solid brick wall, built to protect whatever’s inside (and I have no idea what’s inside), there is space for anywhere from one to six murals, depending on how big they are. I passed by the other day and there was a throw-up, an embellished tag with two colors, and brillos or sparkle highlights in the bends of the Ss. Earlier that week there was a wildstyle, a piece that features the artist’s name, but has pointed, fantastical lettering, not designed to be legible to the average passerby, unless that passerby happens to be part of the thriving culture of street art and graffiti in Santiago.
And this corner is one of many. In the areas of downtown and adjacent Santiago, there are walls that attract artists, from the neighborhood, from other parts of
Santiago, other parts of Chile, or even farther afield. They come to paint for fun, for exposure, for culture, and sometimes for money.
People who live in Santiago know which spots are likely to be painted, and we keep our eyes out for the continually changing palette of rainbow colors and iconography. If you spend enough time in the city, and keep your eyes to the wall, you might start to think you know something about some of the artists and crews, and the neighborhoods they tend to work in, whether that’s Barrio Brasil, Barrio Yungay, the Santa Isabel corridor, Franklin, Bellavista, along the Mapocho River or at the open air museum in San Miguel. But to really learn more about what’s going on in graffiti and street art in Santiago, you need to talk to an expert.
We caught up with Al Ramirez to talk about how street art in Chile got started, and a few interesting ways in which street art in Santiago differs from that in other cities in Chile, and the world.
For starters, Al explains, the history of Chilean street art was straight-up political. At a time when political unrest was rising, in the days before the military coup in 1973, the two opposing parties had different takes on how to get their word across. Pablo Neruda, who was interested in becoming the president of the Unidad Popular, a left-wing political alliance that supported Allende’s presidency supported the use of images over words. “If the other side puts up their signs with letters, I don’t want my side to do the same, so go out and draw the people we represent, campesinos, people working,” Al said.
That imagery is considered by many to be the first instances of Chilean street art, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The paintings showed socialist themes, including wheat shafts, workers and protests. But what distinguished it then, and continues to distinguish this style now, are the heavy black outlines or filetes that defined the murals. That style was popularized by organized groups of “brigadeers,”as they called themselves, and one of them, the Brigada Ramona Parra still continues to paint. Al points out their style on the façade of a local bar in Bellavista.
But during the dictatorship, specifically this kind of painting, though street art in general Al says, was made illegal. Many of the people who painted in this style went into hiding or exile during this time, and their diaspora and later return later led to the next chapters of the development of Chilean street art.
With the return of democracy in 1989, exiled artists and their children (some of whom were also artists), who had been living in New York, or Berlin, or other cities with thriving street art scenes returned to Chile, bringing with them knowledge, experience, and a desire to recreate the vibrant underground cultures they had been a part of while in exile.
And so street art had a second birth in Chile. At first, it mimicked the styles of the places the artists had been, but over time, it grew into its own art form. And you can see that street art in Santiago is at most anti-establishment, but just generally not very political. Which makes perfect sense if you think about who does and doesn’t like graffiti and street art, and that grafiteros run the risk of having their supplies confiscated, as well as being arrested, if they’re painting somewhere unauthorized.
That said, current Chilean street art takes a little bit from everywhere. From Berlin, from New York, from Barcelona, and from Brazil. This last influence is easiest to see in the introduction of pichação, a stylized kind of simple writing evocative of fonts used by heavy metal bands in the 80s. I first noticed it while in São Paulo about eight years ago, and I have seen it start cropping up in Santiago only in recent years.
The career of a street artist usually starts with tagging, the act of painting one’s name. Purposely-misspelled words, Ks and inverted letters are popular in Santiago, and names are usually short, from maybe 4 to 6 letters. This is for practical reasons, Al tells us, “no one wants to take the time and paint to tag the name Maximiliano,” he says, smiling.
After the simple tags come throw-ups, two-color, fat-lettered tags that are much larger and stylized, and importantly, have an outline. Not a thick black outline like the BRP murals, but a tidy dripless line that’s filled in with colors. Make a mistake? You might be able to cover it up with a brillo, a little asterisk in the corner. But know that people are observing your work. Graffiti is there to be seen, and the harshest critics are the grafiteros themselves.
Al points out spots where someone’s throw-up has the telltale drip marks, which can come from moving too slowly, holding the paint can too close, or using the wrong nozzle. If you’ve ever used spray paint, you’re probably thinking back to the nozzle. Don’t they come standard on the paint cans? Yes and no.
There are many different kinds of nozzles, or caps, as they’re called in the graffiti world. They lay down a different line of paint, some paint solid on the outer edges, but leave the inside more transparent, others do the opposite, leaving an opaque line of paint in the middle, and the outer spots fading to whatever color was behind them. Here necessity and lack of resources have given rise to ingenuity, Al says. There are a few-Santiago cap hacks that leave outsiders surprised, like one that uses a cleaning spray nozzle and tube for different results.
“We’ve had Germans come here and say, what is that?” Al says, and he’s proud of what Chilean artists can do with limited resources. Painting anywhere is not cheap, and most grafiteros and street artists are young, and don’t have a lot of disposable income. Painting a wall over the course of two days can cost 100,000 Chilean pesos, or about a hundred and fifty dollars. That’s an expensive pastime.
This economic crunch also gives rise to the collaborative effort of painting productions, the large murals that Al has taken me to see in Bellavista. Many of them are collaborations, occasionally by couples who paint together, sometimes larger crews. It’s practical to collaborate, because paint is expensive, and maybe you have some colors, and your friend has some others, or maybe someone has paint rollers, or a drum of latex paint. It’s also good to work in groups, as protection against anyone who might not want you painting there.
But collaboration serves another purpose. This is not just art, it’s the observable product of a subculture. “We don’t just paint,” Al says, himself a street artist. “We set up the grill and have a barbecue, talk and if we’re there eight hours, we might paint for one,” he says, laughing.
In the case of Bellavista, which acts as Santiago’s showcase for murals, there’s a hidden bonus to taking a long time to paint a wall. Exposure. The longer you’re out there, the more likely it is that someone will see you painting, and they’ll ask you to come paint their storefront, Al says. Pay in Bellavista is low for murals, as it’s a highly contested space, with a lot of visibility. But at the same time, it’s incredibly important in the world of street artists to have your work on display there.
It all comes down to credibility. There’s an implicit set of rules in play, that govern, where you can paint what, and when. Al says, “If there’s a wall with nothing on it, I can put up a tag, then I put up a throw-up then I can do a wildstyle, then I can put up a production. I can cover it up, but only when it’s better.”
“Who decides what’s better?” I ask. “The curators of the street,” Al says, referring to a jury of his peers. “Just like museums have curators, the streets have them, too,” he says. And if you’re new, don’t think about tagging over a more established artist’s work.
Painting over or tagging on a mural is asking for retribution, mainly in the form of having all of your work tagged over or painted over. Or possibly worse, being labeled a “toy,” graffiti speak for a rube or hack. Al estimates there are probably 600 to 1000 people actively painting in Santiago these days.
Unlike in many other areas of Santiago a lot of the street art in Bellavista is commissioned by the wall’s owners. It’s evident to Al when this is the case. “If I painted in a realistic style, why would I paint people dancing where people dance?” he says, pointing to the façade of a nearby dance club. He implies no shame in painting for money, or with a flush budget, and points out a hyper realistic mural that’s clearly been painted with an air compressor, not spray paint. But few paintings are sponsored, or have that kind of money behind them.
For the main part, Bellavista remains a living, self-curated street art museum.
But at the same time, Al points out, it’s almost completely unlike a museum. For one thing two artists who do not get along will never paint side-by-side. Secondly, at any time and with no notice, the art you have come to see may no longer be there. For that reason, social media plays an important role in keeping a record of people’s work. Most street artists use Facebook and Instagram to archive and publicize their projects. Because just like the work on the corner near my house, these murals can change at any time. Such is the nature of street art in Santiago. It never stands still.
Street Art Chile, Rod Palmer (book)