Friday, December 29, 2017

Malecolor: Visual Linkages Between Different Generations of Writers, the Possibility of Permission?

Dante. November 2017.

Chuen 2017.
Dafne and Yuda. 2017.
Zanko (right) 2017.

Brote 2017.
  The Malecón del Rio, a riverbed that cuts through the center of León, is the primary transportation artery for the city aside from Bulevar López Mateos, Torres Landa, and Mariano Escobedo. Since the beginning of writing culture in León it has been a central location for graffiti work, and during the highly visible battles over public space during the Cero Tolerancía period it was a key terrain for struggle, serving as an example of the “damage” of graffiti but also forming the prize for which youth fought, exercising their “right to the city” by inscribing messages like “Cero tolerancía no pasará” (Toby 2015; Biers 2015). From 2005 to the present different administrations of the Youth Institute have tried to make it a legal space. Dafne recounted that in 2006 there was an event where they tried to paint a long snake stretching the expanse of the section of the Malecón that links the Puente del Amor to La Martiníca. “But we didn’t have the organization or the colors unified, and we were painting on the diagonal walls,” she reflected (Fieldnotes November 2017). After years of negotiation for permission from the city water authority, SAPAL, IMJUV secured permission to open up the Malecón for legal graffiti by beginning with a highly visible event, hoped to become annual, called Malecolor.

Lalo explained to me that Malecolor, unlike the Panteon project, is more of the “street” (callejero) something to unite the writing community across styles and generations, and to invite people into the “arte urbano” scene who might feel aggrieved or excluded or uncertain. At the same time the project also would serve as a kind of proof of capacity to broader publics, perhaps a kind of respectability politics for graffiti.

The preparation process for the event was extensive and exhausting. The Muraleon team had to prime about a half a kilometer stretch of the tunnel, a process which began while León was still experiencing the effects of an unusually rainy summer. Wearing rubber wading pants or balancing over the side of the wall while cars whizzed by on their left or right, the writers were deeply embedded in the noise and the dirt of what is also a massive drainage pipe for the city. It was because of the rains that the event, initially scheduled for mid-September, was moved to mid-November. Because of high levels of pollution parts of the wall near drain pipes were quickly stained black, and the priming had to be done yet again, a fade from light to dark blue. 
Zhot mixing paint to prime malecón. September 2017,
Uriel priming walls.

Uriel priming walls.
Crook priming walls. September 2017.

What’s more, simply getting into the riverbed requires some level of agility. One has to cross the highway, walk along the side while cars whiz past, time your sprint across so that you don’t get hit by the cars, and then scramble down and up a gradated concrete slope (the back pocket of my jeans was the main victim of this itinerary). Finally, there was little protection from the sun, which also would intensify the effect of exhaust fumes. By the third week of preparation as the Muraleon team finished their pieces there was a current of excitement running down the Malecón as different writers shouted “Lista!” “Ready!” for the upcoming event.

Background elements. November 2017.

Spot assignments. November 2017.

Staining. November 2017.
Onza and Zhot paintin Panam logo. November 2017.
Quena's octopus. November 2017.

Ardhe. Lobster and Cuic Carnitas ad. November 2017.

Truko work in progress. November 2017.

Crook's submarine. November 2017.

Kart's burner. November 2017.

"Lista." November 16, 2017.

Crook's sea turtle. November 2017.

In keeping with earlier projects, the team decided on a unifying theme, Marinero or Sea Life. The Muraleon writers had drawn mock ups in the IMJUV offices: submarines, mermaids, sharks, octopus, and fish carcasses decorated the walls of their shared office and later the walls of the Malecón. Like the Panteon project, they not only used unifying colors but created a set of background images that stretched the expanse of the wall including fish, sea turtles, jelly fish, kelp, and coral reefs, and medium blue ridges throughout to create a sense of being on the ocean floor. Then the team created their own individual pieces, as well as some pieces that accompanied the logos of commercial sponsors for the event. Because IMJUV works with fixed funding new projects require external sponsorship. Whether that justifies putting an advertisement (KIA, Mazda, Panam, Mercedes, Corel) alongside a writer’s name is another question. Quena painted an octopus, Dafne a burner with little cartoon sea creatures, Chuen an antique diving helmet and fish, Crook a massive sea turtle and submarine, Ardhe a pixelated lobster (with an abandoned island in the background, “I want peole to feel like they are in another world,” he said of the piece), Dante a fish skeleton, Ante a burner, Kart a burner with an octopus poking its tentacles through holes in the letters, JHard a mechanical fish, Enter a monstruous fish, Zanko some electric eels. Finally, they created little vertical marks and crosses to delineate space assignments. The sponsor Panam also videorecorded painting to do a time lapse video later on. All of this had to be done before the event began.

Chuen in process. November 2017.

Kart sketch. November 2017.

Gaber outline. November 2017.

Crook submarine in process. November 2017.

Jhard in process. November 2017.

Quena in process. November 2017.

Ante in process. November 2017.

Preparation. November 2017.

Ante. November 2017.

Preparation progress. November 2017.

Enter. November 2017.

It was a tense process. The Muraleon team was charged with “selling out” by some of the writers, part of the primed wall had been bombed over in early November, and there were threats circulating that illegal writers would destroy the project as soon as it was done. As a result the team tried to work fast to establish outlines to deter such action. Lalo gave the group a pep talk, reminding them that they are “custodians of the project, not me. Not the institute.”  He also insisted that they remember “This is not an expo, it is a mural.” (November 7 2017 Fieldnotes) What is at stake in the distinction between the two? First, again, is a kind of distinction between diversion and high art. Muralism in Mexico has long been an important medium for circulating nationalist ideology and communicating questions about collective identity. In this parsing a mural has more gravitas than an expo. Second, it points to a deliberate move to shift the vocabulary describing graffiti from graffiti to “arte urbano” which privileges the aesthetic over the territorial. Third, the distinction marks a tension or a challenge for this project. While in its initial conceptualization Malecolor was conceived as being “for the chavos” or the “kids” or “the gang” in a capacious sense, one can see how due the dictates of external sponsorship and recognition, and the exigency of aesthetic control, the boundaries of that public is sometimes being cinched tighter. This tension was apparent in the occasional silences, and awkwardness that would fall over the group. It is also apparent in the aesthetic shifts some explored, for instance Kart doing a letter-based piece that is “more graffiti,” and repeated claims that this is a “graffiti space.” Were they occupying the space for graffiti culture, or was it a betrayal that desecrated this sacred graffiti space?

Local writers were invited to start their pieces early, and as a result I met Gaber who paints a kind of Katrina/Monster hybrid that to me looks very much like a Where the Wild Things Are monster, as well as Danz, Menos, and others.

During the preparation, which is of a more relaxed temporality than the event itself, writers would reflect on the importance and the history of the space. Ardhe, among the Muraleon team is one of those who has been writing longest reflected, after showing me a sketch of a lobster on his phone, that the site is “a really important spot…lots of writers want to paint here because when it [graffiti] began, it was here…” (November 8 fieldnotes).

Being in the Malecon is somewhat like being underwater. Because when you walk in the Malecon the walls to both sides surround you, and the sound of whooshing of cars creates an auditory bubble where, for me at least, created similar kinds of ear drum pressure that I feel when under water.

There were about 100 local writers, and 40 writers from other cities in Mexico. Dafne was in charge of coordinating visitor travel (bus tickets, hostel rooms, transit within the city). Interestingly, many of the visiting guests were part of Mixer Crew, the group that is responsible for Meeting of Styles Mexico and a new series of programming in Guadalajara/Jalisco with Galeria Monumental. Members of the 360 paint team were also represented. Secreto Rebollo, Gerso, and Reak were three high profile writers from Mixer and 360. Merle and a writer from Tijuana who had been at MOS Tlajomulco de Zuñiga were also there.

The event ran from 10am to 6pm on Friday 11/17 and Saturday 11/18, and 11 to 4pm on Sunday 11/19.  Each participant was given a t-shirt with “Malecolor” and their name on it, as well as a baseball hat, and a bag full of paint with the Paruno logo and Malecolor on it, as well as a nametag on the back of the malecolor logo. Thus, visual unification did not only include a shared color palette and theme but also creating a type of uniform for the writers.
Supply bags and tshirts. November 17, 2017.

Sign in. Fits and Merle. November 17, 2017.
Wes was also painting, and told me he plans to do gothic letters with an alien style octopus crlimbng around it. Painting between the bridge supports, he said, is like painting “the entrance to León.” Drunc and Cuate of BR crew join Crook and paint by his submarine, a naked mermaid and a diver in a red suit, respectively. After the Friday event was well on its way I asked Chuen what he thought so far. “It’s good because it allows people outside of the Muraleon team to see that graffiti can make more developed things, that it can be more complicated.” Someone observed that they wished the ads were “not next to the art, maybe in their own section down away from the wall.” Within the first few hours of the event there was a lot of anticipation, anxiety, and simultaneously a moment of amplified public voice but also limits to civic voice within the framework of institutional sponsorship. By the late afternoon Friday there were more people, and the atmosphere was more relaxed. I ran into Gaber, and noted that it was cool that the halo around his character’s head was an octopus leg. “I try to adapt my pieces to the space—that is what is cool about characters and harder to do with letters—making it be part of the site.” In an interview with Astre, a member of SKC crew, he emphasized the importance of the Malecon, and the need for the municipality to open up more spaces. As the sun turned golden and lowered the Mixer crew was jokingly wrestling and laughing near the overpasses, people are perched on ledges watching the painting and chatting, drinking beers—this is a scene that was common after Miercoles Tagger (a weekly meeting of writers during graffiti's early days in León), easy occupation of the space.

DF based crew in progress, November 17, 2017.

Mixer crew in progress. November 1, 2017.

Bote in progress. November 17, 2017.

Wes outlines. November 17, 2017.

Mixer crew-- sea horse. November 17, 2017.

Rise doing outlines. November 17, 2017.

Day 1. November 17, 2017.

Merle doing outlines. November 17, 2017.
Evening, day 1. November 17, 2017.

Saturday felt more formal, with all of the IMJUV logos and banners set out by the check in table and rumors that the mayor was coming. 
Logos out for day 2. November 18, 2017.
I chatted with Reak, part owner of 360 Paint who now lives in Queretaro. “This is a really great location,” he noted, “and I hope that it becomes a permission space. There are some spaces in DF, in Wynwood (an abandoned bodega near the highway), in Frankfurt near the trains, but a space like this—so long and continuous—this would absolutely decrease the amount of illegal graffiti because it is so vistoso/visible and would require just minimal regulation.” (November 18 Field notes)
Saturday morning view from under Puente del Amor. November 18, 2017.

Skum and Cuate in progress. November 18, 2017.

Siter in progress. November 18, 2017.

Kritik in progress, November 18, 2017.
Puerk reminded me that the era of police discrimination did not end with the end of Cero tolerancia, but continues against chavos guangos, who are dressed a certain way connoting poverty.
Mixer crew in progress day 2. November 18, 2017.
 I stood watching the guys paint for a while, and then realized there was a hubbub in the middle of the corridor around a tall man in denim—the mayor. It was a press conference where he was being led on a tour of the event. Most of the Muraleon team took turns explaining different pieces to him, pointing them out, or introducing him to visiting artists.
Mayoral tour, talking to Merle. November 18, 2017.
 As a good politician, he took turns shaking each person’s hand as he was followed by a large coterie of reporters, aids, and colleagues. Charly handed me a Muraleon baseball cap (everyone was wearing one), grinning. The IMJUV staff too, followed, their media folks in a clump with the reporters. As before, Zhot and Brote were the primary ambassadors to the mayor, and they would occasionally call other members of the team forward—Dafne or Crook—to explain their pieces. He even stopped by Wes’ mobile shop to hold and look at spray cans, and was offered the chance to use a bit of spray paint.
Mayor Santillana, Brote, Wes. November 18, 2017.

After he finished the tour the mayor stood in a circle with the Muraleon team and Lalo telling them congratulations. Zhot aksed if he could help facilitate the visiting artists getting entry into Globo Fest, a hot air balloon festival happening simultaneously. The mayor made a call, explaining to some contact that they should expect people in the Muraleon caps and badges. Neo explained a bit about the elements of hip hop and the history of hip hop “Afrika Bambaata and youth from poverty learning to express themselves,” perhaps laying the groundwork for justifying the Malecon as the next location for Barrio Jam. Standing in a cluster, intensely listening, hands on each other’s backs or shoulders, the team exuded a sense of optimism and energy in the wake of being seen, heard, and even listened to.

Then the mayor joined the cluster of the press to give a statement.

“This project is a symbol of the plurality and diversity of our city…of including people of all classes, no matter their background...and this project is important for artistas urbanas not only from our municipality, or state, but also from around our country…and this project gives an important and strong message: that we must give youth spaces to express themselves, to fortify their creativity, and their talents…and this also supports foments team work, and at the same time allows us to dignify (dignificar el entorno urbano) the urban environment … to promote this message of respect for the plurality of people…and also this theme of the ocean, of aquatic life…works with the understanding of how our Malecon works. When it is filled with a large amount of water if will appear as if the fish are floating…and the so the Instituto Municipal de Juvented has worked together with other dependencias to develop this manifestation of our youth, of plurality and diversity…we will continue looking for other spaces, facades of buildings and houses, of the Panteon…so that we can continue promoting talent, dignification, and respect (Talento, Dignificacion, y Respecto).”

Again, the Mayor uses the discourse of plurality, diversity, and inclusion but this time more articulated to youth voice (spaces to express themselves) and the recuperation of public space. Less tied to a language of youth energy, instead, he focuses on the Malecolor project being an example of youth relationality and collaboration, and model of interaction, and a norm of dignity/respectibility.

And here was have a crucial difference between the protests of 2002 where youth were taking or demanding space, and youth being recognized and given space. In Malecolor, the location from which demands are made has shifted from being external to the state, to being in a liminal space quasi inside and yet still not fully interior, because the writers do not know with certainty about the future of the project. Rather than stating that being given versus taking space are better or worse, what we can perceive is a range of approaches to models of civic participation that range from the disruptive to the collaborative. And more.

After the press event I ran into Neo and complimented him on his succinct hip hop history summary. He reflected that those who say “graffiti is illegal” are wrong because in the 1970s in New York they were doing murals, you can see it in the movies in Style wars and wild style. This is a crucial reminder that illegality is not essential to the definition of graffiti, it comes later but then becomes internalized.

By Sunday most of the pieces were close to done, and people were more eager to talk after sharing the same space for several hours. This time the Muraleon team was wearing Nascar-style shirts that had "Malecolor" and "Kia" and other ads on them. Many were fatigued after taking the visitors to the Globos festival both the night before and in the early morning (one has to leave at 4am to see the 6am inflating and launch of the balloons).

Most of the participants were there, offering a panorama of León’s different generations and styles. Old school writers like Ben, Espos, Doos, and Wes were there, as well as co-founder of Daily Letters Bote, and former hard core bombers Back and Dermy. This time, however, many had young children that they had brought to the walls, most between two and five, the future graffiti generations. There was an intense awareness of the importance and uniqueness of the event. Back commented that he thought the event was really good because it “brings all of these different generations together. Each generation has two or three behind them…you can see the evolution of graffiti in León here.” Every piece allows you to see different lines of influence and graffiti networks, and how people visit and cluster, the different generations of writers but also their children evidencing ongoing evolution, some tensions but also lots of intimacy, fan publics and auxiliary publics—with commercial signs but them becoming part of a larger fabric.

By 6:30 pm the Muraleon team is packing up and the light is fading. I despedirme and take photos of the fading light in the Malecon from the Puente del amor, and a photo of the side of the Malecon not painted—a contrast in different versions of the imagen urbano.

Malecon without graffiti. November 19, 2017.

Malecon with graffiti. November 19, 2017.

elvis style fish. november 19, 2017.

Danz in process. November 19, 2017.

Merle in progress. November 19, 2017.

Puerk completed. November 19, 2017.

Gaber. November 19, 2017.

Onza. November 19, 2017.

Dermy. November 19, 2017.

Mupet. November 19, 2017.

Ers. November 19, 2017.

Bhon. November 19, 2017.

Espos. November 19, 2017.

Ben. November 19, 2017.

Idem. November 19, 2017.

Astre. November 19, 2017.

Sirik. November 19, 2017.

Penril. November 19, 2017.

New generations. November 19, 2017.

Wood 8. November 19, 2017.

Bierck. November 19, 2017.

Doos. November 19, 2017.

Doos in process. November 19, 2017.

Gogue and assistant. November 19, 2017.

mercedes benz, truko, and brote. November 19, 2017.

Sabio. November 19, 2017.

Burner (name unknown) November 19, 2017.

360 Paint wall November 19, 2017.

Burner. November 19, 2017.

Yuda. November 19, 2017.

Back. November 18, 2017.

Rise. November 19, 2017.

Wes. November 19, 2017.

Kiers. November 19, 2017.

Mixer wall. November 19, 2017.

Thanks to Doos, Lolis, Puerk, Kritik, Ben, Astre, and Gogue for interviews and to the IMJUV for letting me document the process as well as the rest of the Malecolor participants. Research support is provided by Fulbright García-Robles/Comexus and the University of Pittsburgh/CRDF.