Ser Humano/Ser Urbano: How Urban Art in Mexico Became a Carrier for So-Called Universal Values

In the first of her series of posts on transnational public art movements, Caitlin Bruce explores tensions around the relationship between urban identity and street art in Mexico.

We are pleased to announce that we are now hosting columns on Mediapolis. Each column is written by a Contributing Editor member of our board, appears three times a year, and engages a topic, methodology, or medium in which the author is expert. Our first continuing column, appearing in this issue, is “Global Public Art,” by Caitlin Bruce. In each column, Caitlin discusses an individual public art project and location, analyzing each in terms of both global context and local politics. Our next column, by Malini Guha, will appear in our December 2017 issue.

In July 2017, the Mexico City municipal government launched a new public art project, a two-month series of interventions on the Line 2 subway by internationally renowned contemporary artists with the goal of promoting “dialogue and universal values.” The first train to run was covered with prints from the late Keith Haring, an iconic figure for the New York street art movement.

The aesthetic choice of Haring’s iconic dancing figures is part of a larger branding project by Mexico City officials and the collective Proyecto Paradiso titled “Ser Humano/Ser Urbano” (“To be human/To be urban”). The goal of the project, Proyecto Paradiso argues, is

reflexionan sobre las distinciones que nos hacen seres humanos, como la capacidad de trascendencia, la identidad, la dignidad y el amor. Asimismo, presenta “piezas que utilizan el arte como una herramienta de compromiso social y que ponen de relieve conceptos que nos conforman como ciudadanos”

reflecting on the characteristics that make us human beings, such as the capacity for transcendence, identity, dignity, and love. At the same time, [the project] presents “pieces that use art as a tool for social commitment that puts into relief the concepts that shape us as citizens.”

(Emphasis in original, translation by author)

Inside train cars were prints of other work by contemporary artists Tracey Emin (UK), Nicolás Paris (Colombia), Robert Montgomery (UK), Philip DiCorcia (US), and also were the sites for performances by the Israel-originated collective Public Movement.

In the above statement the urban and the human are metonymically linked through the assertion of “universal values.” Such values, presumably, are represented for and evoked in spectators in public spaces through the medium of public art. This is not a new assertion. Linking the urban to the human is part of a long history of associating the city with civitas: city and/as civilization.1Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization (New York: WW Norton and Company, 1996). The deployment of public art as a civilizing and humanizing tool, too, enjoys a long heritage in Western lore. For instance, most academically trained artists in the early twentieth century were impacted by Charles Blanc’s Grammar des Arts du Dessin, which situated sculpture as a medium for disseminating “universal ideals” and “public education.”2Michele H. Bogart, Public Sculpture and the Civic Ideal in New York City, 1890–1930 (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), 229. In France, Germany, and Mexico in the turn of the twentieth century, art was used as a means of linking citizen to state as a kind of civilizing force. Finally, international contemporary artists (the majority of whom are American or British) are situated in “Ser Human/Ser Urbano” as the ideal bearers of such messages of universal citizenship, repeated a colonial and Western model for art production. Therefore, the kind of urban and values that are offered are tepid repetitions of Western ideology (Live, Laugh, Love inspirational posters and cushions might be an apt corollary here) without any attention to the specificity of the urban context of Mexico City and the rich life of its metro system.

Image: @ManceraMiguelMX

Indeed, slapping a Keith Haring on the Line 2 train performs exactly the opposite of what Haring’s initial gestures in public space sought to produce: celebrations and representations of the energy and lived forces of bodies in urban space, vernacular and unsanctioned interventions in early works that queered public space and drew upon and were in conversation with graffiti, hip hop, and the complex life-worlds of a heterogeneous city.3Scott Herring, “Keith Haring and queer xerography,” Public Culture 19, no. 2 (2007): 329-348; Ricardo Montez, “’Trade’ Marks: LA2, Keith Haring, and a Queer Economy of Collaboration,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 12, no. 3 (2006): 425-440. Now, reiterated as a smooth casing for a project that patronizingly offers to tell Mexicans how to appreciate their urbanity it seems about as radical as a message on a Starbucks holiday themed cup. Moreover, the city’s naïve reflection: “Now the subways can be seen as works of art, moving galleries!” evinces a clear disavowal or an ignorance of the history of train writing (graffiti) where city governments vilified and persecuted youth precisely because they sought to turn trains into works of art.4Joe Austin, Taking the train: How graffiti art became an urban crisis in New York City (Columbia University Press, 2001). Moreover, New York’s “War on Graffiti” was taken up and imported by a number of city governments in Latin America, with Mexico City’s government eagerly adopting Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s Zero Tolerance policies.5Kate Swanson, “Zero Tolerance in Latin America: Punitive Paradox in Urban Policy Mobilities,” Urban Geography 34, no. 7 (2013): 972–88. The “Ser Humano/Ser Urbano” project missed a major opportunity to trace more organic processes of aesthetic production and transnational friendships that are a key part of Mexico’s graffiti and arte urbano scene.

That street art can be positioned by Mexico City’s government in 2017 as an obvious vehicle of expressing urban identity and universal values, but without reference to the Mexico City artists who actually create interventions in urban space on an ongoing basis, is the product of a longer history of shifting and tense relations between municipal entities, writers (graffiti practitioners), and publics. In the remainder of this essay I trace key elements of this shifting relationship in our present moment within a larger context in the Mexican republic. In a second piece in February I will discuss writers’ ambivalence over the desirability and shape of the “international” status Mexico’s graffiti and street art scene and spaces are receiving. This material comes out of a larger book project in process that traces the development of legal graffiti programs in central Mexico as a means of charting shifting anxieties about the urban, youth, and ongoing contestations over the production of urban space. Ongoing tensions and dialogues about urban art and frameworks for permission and publicity tell us much about larger processes of fights for urban space and its meaning; the globalization and localization of creative and global cities discourses; and the use of visual and other media in urban contexts to shape citizen subjectivities and dispositions.

Before I begin, a few key definitions. Writers or style writers is the term used by those who write their names in public spaces or tag. Writer is used instead of graffiti-er by some to refuse the term graffiti, which was initially applied as a pejorative,6Interview with Desi Wome 2011. though some have reclaimed the term. Graffiti is often understood in Mexico to be aerosol based, and largely letter based interventions in public spaces. Usually graffiti is illegal, without permission. But it is increasingly understood to also include legal interventions. Street art is largely image based interventions in public space using a range of media (acrylic paint, chalk, stencils, wheat pasting, aerosol murals). Arte urbano is the term often used in Mexico for street art or a model of graffiti that is legal and geared towards using aesthetics that are understandable for a larger public. Arte urbano is also the term most used by government sponsors. Graffiti artistico is often used by the artists themselves to describe legal graffiti. It is clear that there is a great deal of ambiguity in these terms, but these loose definitions should provide some footholds.


Constructing and Enlarging Urban Art Infrastructures and Transforming Social Networks

Graffiti emerged in Philadelphia in the 1960s and New York in the 1970s. The New York case is one of the most influential globally, largely because of the scale of the practice, the intensity of government response, and the extent of media dissemination on the phenomenon. A combination of social marginalization, municipal abandonment, and the decay of urban spaces from white flight, industry offshoring, and a federal government essentially cutting off urban funding reduced spaces like the Bronx to “war zones.” Youth who lived in such environments began to take up pens, rocks, and spray cans to write their names in public places, making their voices heard in an act of stating “I am here.” In New York, a combination of newspaper coverage and media products propelled the movement to national, and then global fame. A 1971 New York Times article about Taki-183, a delivery-boy who covered the entire city with his name created more interested in the practice, and later, the 1983 film Style Wars, which was circulated in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America, found a global audience and a new group of youth to take part in style writing.7See Austin, Taking the Train. Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant’s coauthored 1984 book, Subway Art, rapidly became a global handbook for the movement, as well.

In the 1990s graffiti came to Mexico, transported via a combination of migrant experiences and media circulation. In Mexico, graffiti first developed in border cities like Tijuana in the 1990s then moved south to Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey. Graffiti took root during the end of 1980s and 1990s “Crisis” period, when foreign investment massively dropped and the country was plunged into a depression.8Bruce Campbell, Mexican Murals in Times of Crisis (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2003). Poverty, crime, and violence were exacerbated by the surrounding dislocation from revolutions and instability in Argentina, Guatemala, Peru, Brazil, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.9Jeffrey L. Bortz and Salvador Mendiola, “El Impacto Social De La Crisis Económica De México,” Revista Mexicana de Sociología 53, no. 1 (1991): 43. Graffiti came to Ciudad Neza, a state to the immediate east of Mexico City, during The Crisis. Neza is a storied “nursery” for Mexican graffiti where a number of international art exchanges took place and a Mexican graffiti scene developed.10Pablo Hernández Sánchez, La Historia Del Graffiti En México (Mexico City: Instituto Mexicana de Juventud, 2008), 145.

Though in spaces like Neza graffiti is largely accepted, it is still officially illegal (remember, Mexico City imported many of Giuliani’s Zero Tolerance policies in 2002).11Sánchez, La Historia Del Graffiti, 70. In the late 1990s permission contexts for graffiti in Mexico began to be developed by writers and city authorities. Major policial parties began to sponsor murals as early as 1997, and in the late 1990s graffiti competitions (concursos) were developed by city authorities in Stadio Azteca. In Iztapalapa an annual hip hop, graffiti, and skate competition began in 1998 called Expo Chavos Banda began to be a nationally anticipated event among youth, created by an organization called Deportivo Chavos Banda-CODECO-OJR which provides workshops for youth in a range of cultural activities including graffiti, dance, music, English, etc. in the absence of sustained government youth programming. Prior to 2014 there were some small exhibitions of graffiti in Mexico City’s museums, galleries, and central spaces including one a show with ten artists called “¿Krimen Urbano?” as part of the Festival del Centro Histórico at the Antiguo Edificio de Bomberos; in 2007 and 2008 at Museo León Trotsky; one in 2012 of the work of street artist Dr. Lakra in the Museo de la Ciudad de México; and the All City Canvas festival in 2012.

In October 2014, Musel del Chopo, a contemporary art space affiliated with the Universidad Autonoma de México (UNAM) hosted a show called ABCD Graffiti. This show was a celebration of the history and aesthetic of letter based writing. During the same month, Meeting of Styles Mexico, part of a global series of festivals, took place in a Monterrey train tunnel, on a two-thousand-kilometer square wall in Guadalajara, and in Mexico City’s historic district. In 2015 in Zócalo Central, Mexico City’s central plaza, the Fideicomiso, a public-private organization that is concerned with cultural sponsorship hosted a plenary session at the global cultures festival (Feria de las Culturas Amigas) on May 21, 2015, about the future of permission graffiti in Mexico, “Del Muralismo al Arte Callejero” (From Muralism to Street Art). Moreover, in 2015, a tourism organization called Street Art Chilango, which offers tours and “graffiti” lessons for a fee began to receive mentions in international news outlets like the BBC.

Beyond Mexico City there has been a wave of city-sponsored legal graffiti. In Tlajomulco de Zuñiga, Jalisco, in 2017 the Municipal Youth Institute has sponsored a gallery show and festival as well as workshops for youth. In Chiapas, too, there are some state supported graffiti events. In León, Guanajuato, there has been city supported graffiti programs since 2006. Vlair and Caporal from Torreón in Mexico’s northern region noted that in their city there has long been programs for legal graffiti, a trend they explained in a free workshop as part of the Festival Internacional Cervantino in Guanajuato City.12Interviews with Vlair and Caporal, 10/19/2017, Guanajuato, Guanajuato. For those writers who reside in smaller cities attending graffiti festivals like the Meeting of Styles are crucial arenas for meeting like-minded people, building friendships, and learning more about how to make their art.13Interviews with Shady (Chiapas), Jace (Aguascalientes/Playa del Carmen), Flit (Yucatan), Flaco (Cancun), Riot (Berlin), Secreto (Guadalajara), Franc Mun (Mexico City), Alternos (Mexico City), Deas (Verazcruz), October 21-22, 2017, Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

The national growth of graffiti in Mexico also has much to do with changing materials available. As in the U.S., a boutique industry has developed around graffiti-specific spray paint, caps (nozzles), pens, clothing, magazines, masks, and so forth. The specificity of tools allows for more technically advanced work, enabling artists to create millimeters-thin lines, control paint flow pressure by selecting low or high-pressure brands, and work with an ever-increasing range of colors. Mexican brands (360 Paint in Central Mexico, Socel in Northern Mexico) become sponsors of events further disseminating and elevating the visibility of their name.

In sum, though unevenly, the graffiti scene, particularly the artistic graffiti world in Mexico, has grown tremendously in the last twenty years, and a largely informal framework for artistic collaboration and production along with social bonds is increasingly complemented by a growing ready-at-hand set of tools, events, and spaces to paint.
Such a shift from the underground to the public, and the growth of technological, spatial, and economic infrastructure for graffiti worlds is something to celebrate for many participants, as it means that the art can also provide a means of making a living. Yet, the changing landscape of graffiti culture in Mexico has also created new challenges.

Many events, Secreto from Guadalajara and Alternos from Mexico City explained, are controlled by either government or corporate interests, and they do not organize with the benefit of artists in mind. Artists are often poorly renumerated, if at all, and are frequently given either the bare minimum or wholly insufficient materials, spaces, and support. As a result, a group of writers from around the country created a crew called Mixer to create artist-organized and artist-focused events.14Interviews with Secreto and Alternos, 10/21/2017, Playa del Carmen, Mexico. They are one of the primary supporters of the Meeting of Style Mexico festivals.

Another challenge is the changing social dynamics of graffiti worlds, an issue that arises globally. Because the rise in social networks many artists disseminate and publicize their work through social media platforms. Instagram is primary, with Facebook being another key mechanism. The increasingly dense field of aerosol images available to anyone who wishes to scroll through Instagram pages offers a fecund space for inspiration, but it also means that there is an erosion of regional specificity in styles (this might be potentially analogous to the impact that television has on regional accents) and artists can find each other not through physical reunion and serendipity, but through social networks. The result is in some ways an easier avenue to enter graffiti culture, but also, for some, the erosion of the intimacy of the culture.

J. Daniel Elam writes of the growing availability for mainstream spaces for queer culture that there is a loss in more intimate spaces; the bathhouse, the club, increasing ease but decreasing intensity and potentially, vibrancy. He notes: “If queer invisibility is lethal, queer visibility is a matter of merely existing.” Though the context of graffiti is different in many ways, in the context of graffiti’s stigmatization and demonization in the 1980s in New York and 1990s and early 2000s in Mexico the risks of illegality were often to life and body, and the benefits of legality are certainly significant in terms of physical safety and one’s ability to move in the world. And yet, in the context of the underground, or even the not-yet-legible, writers had to invent tools, forms of communication, forge spaces to gather out of abandoned car dealerships or carve out spaces in busy Plaza Centrals or internet chat forums.

In other words, for street art to serve as a kind of symbol of “universal values” and the “being human/being urban,” as the Mexico City campaign situates the Haring print, street art has to have achieved a level of generality wide enough to allow it to be someone anyone can live in. But as such, the specificity of the name, the “I am here,” becomes hollow, or even impossible.


Arte Urbano as Extension of Creative/Global Cities Discourse

To return to the “Ser Humano/Ser Urbano” series, it was possible for the municipal government of Mexico City to inaugurate the project with an iconic print from street art history precisely because graffiti/street art is becoming more mainstreamed, has developed its own primary and secondary markets, and is increasingly international in scope and also serves as a marker of the international/global. But the hollowness of the “Ser Humano/Ser Urbano”’s gesture towards “universal human values” underscores some of the dangers of arte urbano becoming part of the arsenal of civic policies for internationalization, culture, and urban boosterism.

It is no accident that the artists in “Ser Humano/Ser Urbano” are primarily Western/Anglophone individuals, because the model of humanism and urbanism that is being promoted is largely a neoliberal Western model. Development in Mexico City is largely driven by corporate interests, with an eye towards generating the most investment possible, without distinguishing who benefits from such growth. This model of development prioritizes economic growth in general without an attention to unequal growth, so that the primary beneficiaries are the wealthy, not those who face increased rents and decreased pay.15INEGI’s most recent statistics on social inequality and extreme poverty in Mexico are sobering: CONEVAL (Consejo Nacional de Evalucaión de la Política de Desarrollo Social), “Medición de la pobreza en México y en las Entidades Federativas 2016, August 30, 2017, At the same time as the Haring print sailed through metro stations other spaces for illegal graffiti and informal cultures and economies are being eroded through public-private development initiatives.16See Caitlin Frances Bruce, Painting Publics: Transnational Legal Graffiti Scenes as Spaces for Encounter  (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, Forthcoming). On the history of the state using public art to erode grassroots cultural spaces see Campbell, Mexican Murals in Times of Crisis, and Mary K. Coffey, How a revolutionary art became official culture: Murals, museums, and the Mexican state (Duke University Press, 2012). One phenomenon that is an example of this kind of modernist neoliberal urbanism is the ongoing battles against tianguis, informal tent markets that are a key part of daily life and commerce in Mexico.

I have discussed how the history and present of arte urbano in Mexico has enabled certain discursive moves to be made by the state to make claims about universality using the aesthetic of street art, a paternalistic model of public art as civilizing force. This move profits off of graffiti’s transnational and intimate histories while siphoning off their force and potentiality using respectability narratives. Moreover, it sediments a narrative that prioritizes a very particular kind of urban public art: that of generic images that are produced by high profile international artists, glossing over rather than engaging with the specificities of site. It is also a classed model of public art: territorial graffiti, often more common in colonias populares, working-class or working-poor neighborhoods, is denigrated. In February I will discuss the different ways urban artists in Mexico negotiate this tension between the transnational and the local through aesthetic means. My argument is not that all legal graffiti art is hollow or dangerous, but rather that this specific instantiation of a city-sponsored so-called urban art project takes advantage of a particular and complex legal trajectory. In my larger project, I trace how artists exercise rhetorical agency and inventiveness to navigate the slippery terrain of state sponsorship, and point to larger potentials for youth voice to reckon with the increasing convergence between the state and corporate interests.


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