Words and photographs by Ehren Seeland
“Gas! Agua! Tamales!” It’s 9am on a Monday morning in Oaxaca, a UNESCO World Heritage City in Mexico with a population of roughly a quarter of a million people. Fuschia-tinted blooms sashay overhead as I glide past a rotating selection of street vendors who call out offerings over incomprehensible canned music. I turn right onto Calle de Melchor Ocampo, moving alongside rows of candy-colored buildings. Raising my camera, I document the first piece in a series of some of the most intriguing street art that this area has to offer.
Oaxaca is a city with deep artistic roots. The surrounding pueblos support generations of textile weavers, ceramic artists and woodworkers, while the city itself exists as a vibrant home to artists, musicians and designers – both local and from all over the world. Given this, there is an active gallery scene, however some of the most impactful artistic work can be found at street level.
Street art serves as the voice of the people. Murals are installed in an accessible and inclusive public forum, with active messaging that provides the ability to connect to all sectors of the community. While certain works are lighthearted in nature, the bulk of the street art in Oaxaca revolves around sociopolitical commentary and criticism, along with purposeful calls to action.
The urban collection of artistic works in the city includes an extensive roster of international artists, along with beautifully rendered pieces by Mexican artists like Dr Lakra and Saner, who has personal ties to the city.
“I was born in Mexico City,” Saner notes. “The relationship with Oaxaca is through my mother, as she was born in the Matías Romero region of the state and we would visit my grandparents throughout the years.”
Saner explains that while the city is heavily protected from unauthorized street art and graffiti, he was offered complete freedom while creating his murals in conjunction with the 2013 Hecho en Oaxaca exhibition. Considering his personal ties to the state of Oaxaca, he consciously chose to include specific symbols from the region in these works.
While some local street artists work solo, many have formed collectives that collaborate and receive funding such as ASARO (Asamblea de Artistas Revolucionarios de Oaxaca). In an effort to gain clarity around the realities of working in this capacity, I stop by Taller Rufino Tamayo to speak with Colectivo Huitlacoche. This group is composed of five local artists: AKOA89, Eumirving, GEAF, Rotten and Nerack. They have been working together for the last three years and find inspiration in everything from punk music, surrealism and pop art. In exchange for work and exhibition space at Taller Rufino Tamayo, the group employs their collective skills to provide workshops to printmaking students in the studio.
When asked what a visiting street artist should do if they are caught painting where they shouldn’t be in the city, the group jokingly suggests, “Run”. Due to a UNESCO World Heritage City designation in 1987, Oaxaca maintains strict guidelines around public art. Most of the large pieces around the city are commissioned for specific events or businesses.
After touring the impressive studio facilities and looking through some work by the collective, I am back into the streets stopping en route to capture smoking zombies, a dissected wolf, and a man singing to a giant crimson squid. I head north on Aldama towards Xochimilco, where my camera lens moves over the rich colors of a Stinkfish and APC Crew mural, along with two hooded skulls around the corner who hover over the words: “life begins where reality ends”.
“Mole! Rajas! Amarillo!” I am yanked from my reverie by a tamale vendor as he pedals up behind me, horn honking like a goose in protective mode. Camera in hand, I peel back the hot corn husk of a spicy amarillo tamale and make my way south – my newly captured images soon to be plotted onto an interactive Google map (click here for the detailed interactive map). If there is one thing better than a fresh tamale, it’s a well-documented walking tour of Oaxacan street art that offers a glimpse into the striking political and social realities of a city that, at first glance, appears to be built on illustrated poetry.