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In Mexico City, urban walls are an artists’ battleground

Amplified by social media and commercial sponsorship, street art has become hip — but graffiti artists are fighting back

By John Fox

One day a few years ago, a life-sized painting of the couch from The Simpsons appeared on a street-level wall in Mexico City. “We just thought it’d be fun to do,” says Alex Revilla, one of the artists responsible, who signs his work as “Juicy Colors.” It was an instant hit. That same day, passersby started posing “on” the couch and posting photos on Instagram.

But that night, a graffiti artist “bombed” the mural, carefully placing his tag astride the couch. Revilla recalls huddling with his collaborators to come up with a fitting response. “We knew if we just left it at that, the taggers would have won, and we’d lose respect.” Rather than paint over the bombs, they incorporated them, surrounding the invasive tags with familiar images of Simpsons characters. “Todo queda en familia,” summarized Revilla in an Instagram post. “All in the family.”

Such games of cat-and-mouse play out every day on the streets of Mexico City, North America’s most populous city, as world-renowned muralists and illegal graffiti taggers compete over the same sprawling urban canvas. As street art here becomes more mainstream, commercialized, and — some argue — gentrified, illegal taggers respond by defacing elaborate murals, asserting their claim to self-expression. Artists sometimes restore beloved work, but most accept tagging as a kind of public commentary, amplified by social media, the inevitable price of bringing art to the streets.

The tangled roots of street art and graffiti run deep in Mexico, tracing back to two wildly different movements — one native, the other imported. In the 1920s, the decade after the Mexican Revolution, muralists including Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros liberated art from elite galleries and brought it into the public domain. They painted massive murals in government buildings and public spaces, intended to unify the Mexican people around a national identity rooted in socialist ideals. Today, Mexican street art continues both the form and the politics of that homegrown muralist movement. More often than not, street murals contain subtle or explicit socialist messages, commenting on national issues like economic inequality, political corruption, and the ongoing struggles of Mexico’s indigenous peoples.

Street art uses a wide variety of techniques: paint, stenciling, stickering, and wheat-pasting. Graffiti artists simply use spray paint. That’s how they get respect.

Contemporary graffiti was born in the subways and streets of 1960s Philadelphia and 1970s New York City, where it was decried as vandalism, a symbol of the cities’ struggles with crime and urban decay. From there it spread to other U.S. cities, then to Tijuana and eventually the Mexican capital in the 1980s. In those early days, local gangs used graffiti to mark their territory, says Alejandro Otero Ortíz, a filmmaker producing a documentary about Mexican street art. “In my house I learned that all graffiti was bad, something gang members and criminals did,” he recalls. In the 1990s, Mexico City police took a page from then-New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “broken windows” playbook and formed an anti-graffiti unit. (The broken windows policing method, now largely discredited, targeted petty crimes like graffiti and public drinking as a way of enforcing order and preventing more serious crimes.)

Since then, social attitudes and policing practices have shifted. City residents often see legal street art as a way to beautify their gritty neighborhoods and foster a sense of community. “The police anti-graffiti unit changed its name to just ‘graffiti unit,’” says Ortíz. Instead of just cracking down on illegal graffiti, local authorities now work with community organizations and encourage youth to trade their spray cans for more sanctioned and accepted forms of artistic expression.

To get an up-close perspective on these dynamics, in 2019 I joined a walking tour of the city’s Roma neighborhood with Street Art Chilango, an organization founded by Revilla and Jenaro de Rozenzweig in 2013 to promote Mexican street artists’ work. My fellow tourists were a mix of Americans and Canadians along with a woman from Bahrain. Our guide was Chris Lüders, a hip 37-year-old German with a ponytail and aviator glasses.

We met up at a busy corner newsstand that serves as a kind of rotating outdoor gallery. “Dulce is kind enough to let us use it,” Lüders said, pointing out the owner-turned-art-patron, who flashed a smile from behind a stack of newspapers. The current work displayed on the newsstand’s street-side wall shows a young child wearing a shirt decorated with watermelons, a common symbol for the tri-color Mexican flag. She’s cradling planet Earth in her arms. The piece, by Mexican artist Maick Aguilar, is labeled with a hashtag, #cuidemoselplaneta — “take care of the planet.”

Lüders ran down the differences between street art and graffiti, as if to alleviate our worries about being complicit in any wrongdoing. “Street art is almost always legal,” he said. Artists get permission from building owners and local authorities. Graffiti, by contrast, is illegal.” Street art, he goes on, is image-based, has a message, and invites interaction. Graffiti is letter-based and conveys only the tagger’s name. Street art uses a wide variety of techniques: paint, stenciling, stickering, and wheat-pasting (which uses a flour-based glue to cover a surface with printed images). Graffiti artists simply use spray paint. Lüders says they get respect from their technique and their speed — when they can tag a prominent or hard-to-reach space before the police catch them.

Down the block, around a corner, a building-wide technicolor horse prances over fields of agave and cactus. The work of New Zealand artist Aaron Glasson, it was commissioned five years ago as part of a gallery-sponsored art walk.

As Mexico City becomes known as a hotbed for street art, more works of visiting or invited international artists are gracing its walls. That further provokes local graffiti artists. The prancing horse painting was barely dry before it got bombed. The neighbors loved it so much that they came together to restore it — until it was bombed again. Now, splotches of graffiti partly deface it. “It’s the graffiti artists’ way of saying, ‘These are our streets too,’” said Lüders with a resigned shrug.

Street artists get permission from building owners and local authorities. Photo by John Fox

The tension between sanctioned street art and illegal graffiti is inherent in the art form, says Cedric “Vise1” Douglas, a Boston-area street artist and former artist-in-residence at Northeastern University. “Graffiti came out of early hip-hop, when people broke into buildings and tapped into city power lines to throw illegal house parties,” Douglas says. “It came from living in a city where no one knows your name, using creativity to have a voice when you’re marginalized.”

But Douglas — whose “Vise1” moniker stands for “Visually Intercepting Society’s Emotions, One Image at a Time” — stresses that even underground and anti-establishment movements like graffiti come with their own unwritten rules and codes of conduct. “If you go over a tag with bubble letters, or ‘throw-ups’ as they’re called, you’re allowed to do that. Dead letters, which are more complex letters, can go over throw-ups. But if, say, you get a commission for a street mural and go over someone’s throw-ups, that’s not cool.”

As Douglas sees it, street art always has the potential to be contested, because it always involves painting over someone’s art. “If you think about it, a building is someone’s art. A mailbox was designed by someone, is someone’s creation.”

Amy Halliday, a curatorial consultant for Northeastern University’s Boston and London campuses, says the tensions between legal street art and tagging are also playing out in Bristol, England, where she lives. Bristol’s graffiti scene started early, in conversation with Philadelphia’s and New York’s. Now, in Bristol’s Stokes Croft area, “the whole neighborhood is really associated with murals,” Halliday says. “Local organizations create commissions and get permission to do street art.” The neighborhood hosts Upfest, Europe’s largest street art festival, every May.

Meanwhile, the Bristol City Council has increased tag removal and enforcement of anti-graffiti laws. It’s also tried to divert tagging to designated places. “The city actually established a corridor of legal graffiti walls,” says Halliday, “spaces that were set apart for people to practice, experiment, to try things out, to mess around.”

In Mexico City, now that street art has become mainstream and hip, Lüders explained, some worry the movement risks selling out its anti-establishment roots and ideals. He pointed out a wall on the side of a tall building that’s been stenciled with an abstract pattern resembling a QR code. “That was done by two artists who now mostly work on the interiors of rich people’s homes,” he lamented. Across the street, a massive painting by Mexican artist Revost depicts serpents wrapped around a towering tree. It’s one of three paintings that Absolut Vodka commissioned for their “Absolut Street Trees” project. The paintings are meant to promote environmental awareness and clean air, in a city with some of the worst air pollution in the world. They employ a special paint, called Airlite, that helps to neutralize contaminants in the air through a process similar to photosynthesis.

Disney commissioned Revilla and de Rosenzweig and their art collective, SACH Crew, to paint scenes from the Lion King franchise in Mexico City as guerrilla marketing for the film. Now images of the characters Simba and Rafiki grace the entrance to a busy garage. The artist collective did similar work to promote recent Star Wars films. Does Revilla worry that commercial work defies the principles and politics of the street art movement? “Not at all,” he says. “The first time that we did work for Disney, everyone loved it. I think the people appreciate good art and they don’t care if it’s corporate advertising or original ideas.”

Douglas is more skeptical of street-art-as-advertising. “Yes, it’s good that artists can make a living,” he says, “but at the same time, it can lessen the value and meaning of the work. Personally, if I do take on a commercial project, I try to put my spin on it. I’ll figure out how to inject a social message in it, something that can make the world a better place — even if it’s just subliminal.”

Our tour ended in a parking lot, where we gazed up at a mural that Lüders describes as his favorite piece of street art. An epic painting by Ericailcane, a well-known Italian street artist and illustrator, the mural covers the sides of two five-story buildings. On one building, a jacket-wearing fox appears to be bound by rope, like a prisoner. On the other, a bunny in a sweater gnaws on strands of the same rope, which cleverly runs between the buildings, joining the animals’ fate. Lüders smiled and rubbed his hands together eagerly. “No one knows what this is about. The artist never said. So what do you think?”

“One’s a predator and the other’s the prey, but they each depend on the other,” offered one person.

“The fox has all the power, like corporations,” offered another. “And the bunny is the common person being tricked into unleashing that power.”

We stood in the parking lot for some time, six people from four countries craning our necks, discussing and reflecting, even though — or because — there’s no right answer, just a conversation.

This article was updated in July 2022.

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John Fox is a writer based in Boston. Top photo by Fox of a painting by Ericailcane, a well-known Italian street artist and illustrator.


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