When I arrived in Oaxaca almost four months ago, my eyes were drawn to the walls of the buildings around the city, as much of outdoor wall space is covered in graffiti. The graffiti of Oaxaca seems to range greatly in creativity, color, emotion, and general purpose. The Concise Encyclopedia of Merriam-Webster.com gives this description of graffiti:
“Technically the term applies to designs scratched through a layer of paint or plaster, but its meaning has been extended to other markings. Graffiti is widely considered a form of antisocial behavior performed in order to gain attention or simply for thrills. But it also can be understood as an expressive art form.”
From what I have observed, this statement is true. Graffiti that I have seen in this city is varied and fascinating, and it can be broken up into three main categories:
You have your ordinary, odd bubble-letters of words or names that no one can really read, otherwise known as tagging. Tagging has no special place in my heart, and if it were to show up on the side of my theoretical house one morning, I would be more than a little annoyed. But tagging is very present here and should be recognized as one of the principal and ample uses of spray paint in the city.
The second general type of graffiti is political. Usually in the form of simple letters scrawled in a single color of spray paint, it can be seen scattered throughout the city, particularly after a manifestación, a protest or march in the streets of the city.
With single words, dates, politically-charged phrases or taglines, and the ever-popular anarchist A, the people who want to get their voice heard say it through paint. This type of graffiti seems to be the most endemic, peppering school walls, the outsides of government buildings, billboards, sidewalks, private garage doors, sometimes even old stone walls.
It is widespread, though temporary and fluctuating, since the city paints over the vulgarities—or opinions, depending on your point of view—of the masses every several months or so. I noticed that in locations more visible, in the touristy part of town, or before a larger festival or holiday, whitewashing and re-painting were done with more vigilance.
Paint would be slapped over the political spray paint, sometimes in a ridiculously different color that the wall (ex: red covering graffiti on a white wall), and that would stay for days or several weeks. Eventually, the wall would be cleaned up with a fresh, uniform coat of paint when it was in a highly-visible place such as on the corner of a major street. The feeling is that this political vandalism is accepted as a part of life in the city, as something to use for protestors, anarchists, and those who wish to be heard, and something to be dealt with for the officials and employees of the city.
The third type of graffiti is by far the most artistic. It is wall-sized murals, a face painted here, a pair of folded hands pasted above the street sign there. The street art, as I’ll call this type, ranges from the large and elaborate, using various mediums (stencil, spray paint, paint, adhesive paper, etc.), to the random and simple. The latter is something that catches my eye just as I turn the corner past it and it makes me smile for an instant. The grand examples of street art make me Hey! to my friends as we walk and make us stare for several respectful moments.
The street art of Oaxaca is impressive, thoughtful, and gorgeous. It is what spurred me to write this blog post and what won me over to the side that believes that graffiti can be beautiful and expressive and healthy for a city.
Whether you’re a visitor in the city of Oaxaca or a born-and-raised, the graffiti art here is worth looking for, stopping for, and appreciating the creativity that went into a nearly recognition-less piece of art.
Story and Photos by Emma Reinhart.
Emma joined En Via as an intern in Dec 2013, while she was studying in Oaxaca. She is currently shivering though a Washington winter and dreaming of her eventual return to the graffitied calles of Oaxaca.