Graffiti and Public Marks

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The pervasiveness of graffiti as a form of resistance and communication in San Cristóbal de las Casas became immediately evident to me in the first days of walking from my apartment to Na Bolom.  Tags, sentences, stencils and wheat pasted paper adorn many of the walls that line the narrow streets of the city.  These marks tell a different story from the codified marks of architecture, design, municipal signs and advertisements.  They serve as a reminder of people and movements unseen and under-represented in the in the daily life of San Cristóbal.  As Jesusa Rodriguez spoke of how creative acts make space to breathe in a politically and socially suffocating environment, these graffiti artists are taking space by interjecting a visual representation of their existence into public space.

The illegal marks of tags, stencils and wheat pasting question notions of territory, ownership and private verses public space.  Who is allowed to make what marks where?  Who has economic, social and political power to legitimately intervene in public space?  The gas company has inscriptions carved into the sidewalk, a residence has a number painted on the side of their house, a tortillaria paints the image of corn on the side of their building.  When there is no legitimate space for the voices and actions of some to be heard and seen they begin to identify themselves through illegal marks on the walls, calling for revolution, equal rights, non-genetically modified corn, playfulness, political action, memory and hope.

 

The graffiti made by the art collective Graffitiarte (www.graffitiarte.org) intervenes in public space in a different way.  By organizing legal cultural events that obtain permission to create large-scale graffiti murals by local youth these projects take the traditionally illegal act of graffiti and legitimize it within the context of a community dialogue.  Members of Graffitiarte speak of graffiti as a way of life that includes the music, dance and style of Hip Hop culture.  By giving young people a legitimate space to create large-scale graffiti in their community it begins to legitimize graffiti culture as a whole.

Darek, the only women artist member of Graffitiart, speaks to the desire to make evident her existence as a woman in a culture that is dominated by men and machismo.  The act of being a part of this community is an act of resistance in and of itself.  She explained to us that her presence in a graffiti crew and insistence on painting images of women’s faces, in particular their direct gaze, places women in a position of strength in places they are not traditionally allowed to go.  As I look up at her mural I am confronted by strong eyes staring back at me.  This is particularly striking within the broader socio-political context of indigenous women’s movements in Chiapas.

These two forms of graffiti (the illegal mark on the street and the codified community mural) are both important forms of resistance to mainstream culture.  They not only appropriate physical space but also open new ways to read and move through the city by inviting viewers to consider new forms of personal and political agency and action.