Art or Vandalism?

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For me, one of the greatest luxuries of being on holidays is just sitting around and watching the real world pass by. It’s a rare pleasure, to have time on your hands, to have space in your head.

Here in London I sleepwalk. Too fixated on getting to my destination, my mind lost in work or errands or needless stresses. When I’m away, I’m aware. Everything’s different and everything’s interesting.

In Argentina (where I’ve just returned from honeymoon), there was no shortage of fascinating scenery, particularly in Buenos Aires where the streets are fast becoming a living tapestry of politics and art. The city is becoming one of the graffiti capitals of the world, flooded with every kind of expression from crappy name tagging to stunning large scale murals.

This is partly thanks to some funny planning laws in BA which mandate that buildings can only have entrances on two sides, leaving large uninterrupted walls just begging to be filled in. And it’s partly because of a strong anti-establishment vibe in a country which has had huge political unrest and economic instability.

But what’s interesting about the street art scene here, according to my insightful graffitimundo tour guide, is that unlike the US movement in the 80s and 90s, it’s never had that hard subversive edge and it isn’t driven by territorial gang warfare. The Argentinian scene was started by the rich middle class kids, who in Argentina’s wealthier times, travelled to places like Miami and New York and wanted to copy what they saw there.

As a result, many graffiti artists are professional graphic designers and fashion designers, people with a nine to five job that paint outside on their off-time. And street art is not just tolerated, but increasingly encouraged by the community and the government. In London, we see stencils and spray paint dominating, because graffiti artists here have to work at lightening speed before someone calls the police. In BA, artists can use paint and rollers and even scaffolding, creating intricate designs over a few afternoons. They can collaborate in groups, meshing different artistic styles together.

While traditional graffiti is often full of private in-group messages, only understood by a niche community that get the codes, in BA, many of the artists are trying to reach a wider mainstream audience. Whether through positive and beautiful images of hope, or through thought-provoking themes like that of Jaz, a prolific artist who creates striking images of battling beasts in football shorts, always two identical sides of the same coin, a commentary on the violent football hooliganism within the country.

In truth it’s a mixed bag – and this is where I think it draws a parallel with advertising. There’s the good, the bad and the downright ugly. Some would debate whether there’s enough artistic merit overall to justify the vandalism, the public intrusion. And it’s so totally ephemeral. As artists continually churn out new work, they paint over the pieces that were there before. It’s a rare piece which is respected enough to be left untouched by other artists or taggers. Painstakingly created, casually painted over and forgotten.

But like everything else, the good stuff stands out, makes an impact and lasts the longest.

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