Monday, October 16, 2017

“Shifting Definitions of Art: Municipal Support, Graffiti Production, Institutional Constraints”


Over the last six weeks I have continued my field work with the Muraleon team in León, am also been building my knowledge base about youth culture and the emergence and function of youth as a social category for political and intellectual inquiry, and through observation and conversations learning more about the social and political dynamics of León.

September 16 is Independence Day, and it is announced by a grito, a public shout by elected officials to renew enthusiasm and commitment to la Republica. It is also celebrated by partying, chile en nogada, and a parade. The parade in León took place on Calle Madero, the historic walkway for the city, and a symbolic space for Leonese identity, beginning with the Arco de Calzada and ending with the Plaza Principal. The participants included police, firefighters, and military (including the K-9 division proudly outfitted with vests and stretchy leg warmers) who assumed action poses (some holding ropes that were suspended from truck beds, legs posted against the back of the truck, appearing as if they were about to base jump into conflicted territory), and whose presence was announced by all sirens on every vehicle ramped up to maximum volume. Other participants included religious associations, riding on floats or walking with mantas (cloth signs) with images of their patron saint. Yet other participants included caballeros, men in full cowboy regalia on horses with braided manes and checkered patterns stamped or shaped onto their hindquarter, caballeras in detailed dresses with extensive piping, and children on little ponies. Civic groups designed floats with scenes from the conquest, and the revolution. 

The next day, September 17, across Mexico feminist groups held marches protesting ongoing femicide. With shouts like “Ni una más! Nos la queremos vivos! Las calles están nuestras!” and heart breaking testimony from the father of a young woman in León who was recently murdered, where he took aim at both institutional complacency and impunity, and then a consciousness raising exercise where in the very same Plaza Principal we stood, a smaller inward circle facing a larger external circle, and discussed recent moments where we had felt afraid walking in public space; what we do to keep ourselves safe; and what we do to keep our compañeras safe, with hugs at the end, a different performance of the nation took place, one that highlighted its intensely gendered inequality. It was not a massive group, maybe 40 or 50 people, but, my colleague Lupe informed me, it was an excellent turnout for León where there is “not such a culture of street protest and activism,” a truth that was evident in the surprised and curious, and sometimes critical, looks of passers-by. I bring up these two moments to remind us that public space is a place of contention and ongoing production and reproduction of the myth of sovereignty, as well as acts of gendered violence and exclusion (my other colleague at Ibero, Dr. David Martinez led a study about piropas, cat calling, as verbal acts of violence).

Ni Una Mas protest. 9.17.17
Legal graffiti art is not exempt from the work of producing, reproducing, and challenging the state. Whereas in 2010 the legal graffiti program in León was deeply involved in celebrating Mexican Independence through a series of bicentennial murals, some still extant on the underpass where Lopez Mateos passes the IMSS hospital in the city’s western side, the current program does not really engage with nationalist iconography. Instead, the major projects planned for 2017: the 5 de Mayo mural, a set of murals commemorating Mexican authors on the “Duraznal” apartment complex, Malecolor (a project creating the largest legal graffiti space in the world), and the Panteón San Nicolas pre-hispanic culture and urban legend mural, use elements of popular culture and popular identity to create a set of resonant images for the city, color therapy used to beautify public spaces.

Panteon San Nicolas was the signature program of the first and second iterations of legal graffiti sponsorship in the city. In both iterations (2010 and 2013) the tall and massive walls surrounding the city’s largest cemetery were covered with portraits of La Catrina, an iconic figure for death, a beautiful woman with a skull face. However, members of Muraleon explained that this image as been “used up” or used “too much,” it is an image that does not necessarily come from León. Rather, it is an image that foreigners are invested in and use to imagine Mexico. In this project, writers are using images from pre-Hispanic culture related to death, urban legends, and images from a famous film from the golden age of Mexican cinema, Macario (1960), to renovate the image of the Panteón, and the City.

Quena in process. 9.26.17.
Panteon San Nicolas. In process. 9.26. 17.
Moreover, writers who work with the Muraleon program occupy a different cultural position than what they assumed in 2010-2012/2013-2015. In an interview with Ante, who writes Muostro legally, he explained that when he first worked with the Youth Institute in 2010 he was mainly just receiving support from the institute in order to elaborate murals. Now, in his capacity as a member of the Muraleon team, he sees himself more as a promotor, a promoter or organizer who has the privilege (and responsible) to design opportunities for other writers to participate in creating new images in and for the city.[1] Yet, he acknowledged, there are limits to what one can do. Telling a story about giving graffiti workshops in colonias populares in the Del Bajio region, he said that at the end of the workshops youth would say “Don’t go!” which was heartbreaking, or, when youth experienced misfortune (one experienced his family car being stolen, which impeded his mother from taking him to needed doctor’s appointments), there was not much that they could do as teaching artists. Kif, when discussing her participation in designing a legal graffiti/youth space with the Instituto Municipal de Planeación de León (IMPLAN), explained that though writers actively participated in designing a park, Parque Extremo, ultimately they were not given free access to the space, one had freedom, “only up until a certain point.”[2] Ruben Jasso, former IMPLAN architect replied, “Why can’t they recognize that a citizen can be their own authority?”

Another limit is in the extent to which IMJUV can patronize the aesthetic development of graffiti. “IMJUV is concerned with youth and preventing delinquency,” Zhot explained in an interview, “they are not an arts organization.” The limits of institutional structures are also important to keep in mind when imagining how to design public arts programs.

This question of limits is important, because it relates to larger questions about the situation of youth and social inequality in Mexico and an increasingly neoliberal (and attenuated) state. Rosanna Reguillo argues that during the postwar period “youth” became intelligible as a social category much more broadly (1940s-50s) and that this visibility also coincided in a rise in the language of “human rights” in the wake of fascist regimes. So, she reflects, paradigms for punishment of youth also changed, and the state was situated as a “benefactor” and when they are punished it is not castigation but “correction” and “care.” As promotores, writers are situated as arms (or fingers) of a benificent and caring state, part of a larger apparatus of maximizing the productivity of these social actors and channeling their affects and practices into more productive terrains, and persuading writers to acercarse (to get close to) the government.

One of the ways that the Muraleon team is working to overcome the limits of art world perceptions of graffiti as “folk” and not “art” is by hosting a charity auction in late November/early December. Brote explained in an interview that such an event, pitched towards the CEO’s and executives who follow his and his crew’s work, will help convince León’s elite that graffi should, indeed, be considered as part of the plastic arts. Another way Brote sought to elevate his cultural capital as an artist is by participating in the Meeting of Styles festival,  a global festival that I have studied in-depth over the last seven years. At this international festival artists can display their work to a multi-national public, and the fact of their participation holds a particular level of cachet, a possible analogue to the global contemporary artist who has the studio in London and one in Mexico City.

Another limit is with respect to gender. Though there are two women employed in the fourteen-person Muraleon team, they so far have not been situated as project leaders, even though one of them has been active in the graffiti scene for a very long time. In terms of the content of many of the murals the female body or the female face is a recurring trope. Yet, these figures are frequently passive objects for the male gaze.

Malecolor preparation. September, 2017.
Finally, in September an events called Malecolór was supposed to take place. This is an event designed to celebrate and inaugurate the opening of the largest permission graffiti space in the world: the full length of León’s Malecón del Rio, a concrete riverbed that cuts across the entire city, will be open to graffiti, day and night. Because of weather (rains) the even could not take place. Two participants in the HCUAP 2016-2017 pilot year, Stef Skills and Kane One, from Chicago, still came out to visit and the Muraleon team found a prominent wall under a bridge on Campestre that crosses the Malecón to paint. There, we spent the weekend under the bridge while the artists painted. It is a highly visible site, and Lalo Camarena estimated that about 10,000 cars pass a day. While there, we received a mix of catcalls, celebratory honks, and cars pulling over to take photos or to exchange contact information to request/commission mural projects. These everyday moments of contact are strong examples of the extent to which graffiti in León is increasingly accepted and even celebrated by the average resident. Stef and Kane’s reactions to the city, and appreciation for its textured surfaces also indicates the promise that León holds as a graffiti epicenter. Stef executed a somewhat site specific piece, her name in the style of hand engraved leather with jocular flowers surrounding it, Kane an abstract and atmospheric multicolored piece. Mersi, Zhot, Brote, JHard and Wes painted the middle section of the wall with a mix of lettered pieces, elaborate and abstract designs, a futuristic hip hop robot, and a face, complimenting the eyes staring at us from the opposite underpass. The opposite side of the highway, another bridge, had been painted by the team a few months ago and was a medley of different styles including a rudimentary hand created by the breakdance instructor, Neo.

Finally, in September I met with Dr. Guillermo Adrián Tapia García, a professor in the social sciences department at Ibero, and the research team for the Instituto Municipal de Juventud. Dr. Tapia Garcia spoke eloquently about the emergence of "youth" as a social category, and a subject for academic analysis, an emergence that is fairly coterminous with the urban "boom" in the Del Bajio region. "Youth" are not a transhistoric or a trans regional category: economic, social, geographic, and political contexts inform when and how youth emerge. Moreover, there is a vexed relationship between youth and concepts of "citizenship" and public space because many early youth collectives were in fact Catholic groups working against a secular understanding of the state. The places where graffiti became a social problem in León, he explained, are precisely the spaces of contention in the wake of modernization policies or deeply routed European/Indigenous urban divides.  López Mateos was constructed about 40 years ago, and was created through violently destroying and rupturing numerous neighborhoods. The Malecón is a 'natural' border between what were Spanish and Indigenous settlements in León. Madero has long been the iconic walkway for the city, connecting the arch to the central plaza. That graffiti should begin in appear on these spaces en masse is offers significant evidence of a certain expression of voice by the displaced, the angry, or the talkative. Meeting with Roberto Ortiz, a photographer working on a history of rap in León, he discussed the centrality of the barrio as a social and imaginary site for the creation of rap culture and the mercado tecnico as something that only some rapper aspire to enter into, largely a decision dictated by class (those of working class backgrounds are more committed to rap staying outside of profit regimes, he commented), a kind of tendency that may also resonate with graffiti worlds. He, too, talked about the way that the contemporary image of León, and the historic center's pedestrian walkways in particular, are relatively recent constructions, the product of initiatives designed to play up a new and particular image of the city (possible creative cities discourse localized in the Del Bajio context).  To track in coming months is the kind of urban image Muraleon brings into focus.



Zhot eyes. Campestre and Malecón. Photo September 2017. 

Starting the Campestre mural, 9.24.17.

Opposing mural, Campestre and Malecón. 9.24.17.

Kane One. In process. 9.24.17.

Zhot detail. 9.24.17.
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Kane One. 9.24.17.

Brote in process. 9.24.17


Brote detail. 9.24.17.

JHard in process. 9.24.17.

Mersi in process. 9.24.17.

Zhot in process. 9.24.17.

Mersi detail. 9.24.17.


Muraleon team and Stef Skills. 92.4.17.


Stef skills. 9.25.17.


Kane One mural, Muraleon team. 9.23.17.


Stef Skills, Neo, Jonathan. 9.25.17.






[1] Interview with Ante, September 2017.
[2] Kif discussion, September 16, 2017.

Thank you to the IMJUV research team, Roberto, Guillermo, Sirik, Quena, Uriel, Brote, Ante, Kif, Ruben and others for rich discussions this month. This project is made possible through the Beca García-Robles/Comexus and Fulbright Western Hemisphere.

Monday, September 4, 2017

León Guanajuato, August, Month 1: Multiple Cities

This marks a little over a month since I have arrived in León. Though I have visited five other times, living here for an extended period is much different. You get a sense of the daily rhythms of neighborhoods, of the larger cultural calendar of the city, the impact of the seasons and more durational conversations or worries be they related to environment, security, or politics. My aperture on these cycles is particular, of course. As a tall foreigner, with light skin and very curly reddish blonde hair, I stick out and I have particular kinds of mobility and privilege. I live in a central area, so my understanding of the temporality and spatiality of the everyday is one that is heavily inflected by tourism and historic preservation imperatives. There are far more bars than ferreterias in my immediate surrounds. My cultural landscape is often monumental, with the Arco de Calzada framing my entry into ordinary errands.
And yet, it would be inaccurate to state that this more heavily touristic region is without texture. The Arch and the Paseo de Niños Heroes serves as a bike and running path, a site for dog walks, a shady bench for lovers to meet, a distribution point for evangalists, a commercial site for rotating markets, an educational site for entrepreneurship and job fairs, a stage for break dancing competitions, a resting place for mariachis during their lunch break outside of the Museo del Toro. The plaza of Templo Expiatorio, too, might seem to promote with its baby blue and pink icing exterior that resembles but does not repeat Notre Dame a certain Disneyfied landscape, one that is divorced from the grit and grind of everyday working life. But this space, too, serves as a reunion point for indigenous textile and fruit vendors, sellers of postres in little mobile refrigerators, smoked nuts in vast baskets, and alms beggars who line the entryways to the massive temple. Families stream in and out of the church in Sunday elegance: towering stilettos and shimmering suits, but so too do dancers clad in white and flowing fringed indigenous costumes who dance in the plaza adjacent to the church, embodying the cultural syncretism that defines but does not fix Mexican public culture. The larger plaza is the stage for various festivals: Blues, Electronic, Wednesday public dances where a band plays and couples ranging from their twenties to their seventies move and embrace in the shadow of the church. More itinerant reunions occur on the stones of the plaza where punks and rastafarians gather to gossip and share news. They extend out along the central street, Calle Madero, selling braided bracelets and copper jewelry. The bars open between 5pm and 6pm and the street becomes another scene for ostentatious display, younger patrons streaming in and out of bars, some out until 4am.
León is a city of leather, technology, education, and business. By 1940 footwear was consolidated as the primary industry of the city (33). Héctor Gómez-Vargas argues in Cartografias Urbanas y el Equipmiento Cultural en León that León is not one but “many cities,” an urban space with multiple identities and worlds contained within it [1]. In the early 20th century the majority of Mexico’s population was primarily rural. The 1950s saw changing cultural norms, as well as changes in the urban landscape including “new avenues, enlarged zones, consolidation of new social spaces for consumption through new spheres and urban environments” like community centers and “franchises (franquicias) coming from the outside, like clones and redesigned social practices of different sectors of the population” (18).
The 1950s also marked a shift in the visibility and role of youth. Gómez-Vargas told me that the figure of the “rebel without a cause” became prominent during the 1950s and the government’s response was largely to create sports and work programs to try to mediate youthful energy and activity. Guillermo Adrián Tapia García further explained that this figure of the “juvenile rebelled” who is “without work, without resources, hanging out on the corner” is an ongoing concern in public discourse. The Youth Institute was founded to mediate youth violence, both symbolic and physical. Though there was a period of extreme repression of youth during Zero Tolerance “the government is not monolithic” Tapia García reflected, and there can simultaneously be “mediation, giving youth channels for expression), contraction, and control (police violence)” so there are multiple idioms for the government, that of canalización and violencia.
The 1970s-1980s saw a massive rural to urban migration, which Gómez-Vargas argues is one of the most significant moments in Mexico’s history. The 1970s, then, was when the “question of urbanism is posed…in León” and city institutions like the Urban Development Department (Dirección de Desarollo Urbano) was founded, and an Urban Design Plan was published in 1978 (17). Local universities added architecture majors and began researching urban questions. This period of massive urbanization likely also implicated the physical geography of the city, creating new spaces for youth culture (car dealerships that became informal skate parks, hotels and banks that provided smooth surfaces for tags) but also the affective cartography of the city with intense anxiety about the urban “boom” and shifting cultural mores.
Graffiti, my primary object of study, is part of the weave of this complex texture of León’s “many cities,” and by extension, many youth worlds. Though I’ve already heard testimony to that effect from writers like Daños, Nikkis, Kif, Wes and punk activist Toby, where they have explained that writers also are influenced by “ska, rock, punk, rasta” cultures, it is different to witness such intermingling. 
My second week in León I was lucky enough to attend three out of the seven days of a week-long JuventúFest, a Youth Festival organized by the city’s Insitituto Municipal de Juventud, the Municipal Youth Institute from August 7 to 13th. JuventúFest was the second iteration, though much more extensive than the prior year, and it was meant to showcase the complexity and diversity of youth culture in León, celebrating it; and also offer youth a variety of resources and lines of support courtesy of the Institute or its partners. The festival was organized into themed days: Research; Entrepreneurship; Ecology/Sustainability; Identity; Youth Explosion; Expression; Tradition. The events were a combination of expositions and performances; workshops; discussions; and inaugurations. On each day a representative from the host site and the Youth Institute would open the events, explaining the importance of the day (August 7 was International Youth Day, and August is International Youth Month), and the site (sites varied from University of Guanajuato, León, to Carcamos Park, to the Plaza of Expiatorio and Parque Niños Heroes by the Arco de Calzada, to a small rural town called Valle de Pedro Moreno). 
Plaza de Templo Expiatorio. August 12, 2017.
Jardin Niños Heroes. Dance Competitor warming up. August 12, 2017.

Breakdance competition. August 12, 2017.
Thus, the festival moved between different geographic nodes in and outside of León. I may write a separate post about the festival alone, because it was complicated and rich, ethnographically, but what was most impactful for me was to learn about rhetoric of diversity of youth cultures (a claim repeated many times by Director of the Municipal Youth Institute, Ricardo Morado), and the visibility of such diversity through the different events (ecology, hip hop, African dance, salsa, rock, technology and start up culture, graffiti, indigenous history and culture, important differences between male and female gangs of youth, comics, tattoos, etc). Such interdependency between different strands of youth culture was most apparent on the last day when we took three buses up the mountain to Nuevo Valle de Pedro Moreno. This rural town had been a location for previous Youth Institute activity. A youth institute employee, Anna, explained that it is a site of baja recursos, limited resources, and they offered a variety of workshops that filled in gaps in school curriculum, things like comparative studies and literature. The Youth Institute also made some urban art interventions, painting “Animals, birds, things from the region,” graffiti writer Zhanko explained. On the bus we were a combination of writers (Zhanko and Kart), historians, and musicians and friends. And these individuals worked collaboratively to create a festival, inviting space in the central plaze of Nuevo Valle, whether it be via paintings done previously, or live music played in the moment.
Nuevo Valle de Pedro Moreno. August 13, 2017.

Nuevo Valle de Pedro Moreno. August 13, 2017.

Nuevo Valle de Pedro Moreno. August 13, 2017.

Nuevo Valle de Pedro Moreno. August 13, 2017.
As a result of going to the Youth Institute festival I was able to meet not only the graffiti writers employed by the institute, a mix of older and newer generations of writers, but also the break dancers, criminologists, rappers, and organizers who all work side by side. Most of the writers working at the Institute are different than those who were there from 2009 to 2015 (save for Chuen and Kart). The current administration is supporting a kind of resurgence of urban art, of a (nearly) comparable intensity as that of the first major period of sponsorship from 2009-2012 [2/3]. Since I have arrived two major urban art projects have been completed and inaugurated. The first, a massive mural on Boulevard López Mateos where it intersects 5 de Mayo Street. This mural offers an image of different cultures of the world, that “we are all human and diverse” Onza remarked, and the universal process of aging, showing from left to right a child to an old man. The second project is a set of four massive murals on large apartment buildings where the Malecón del Rio meets Valtierra avenue on Conjunto Habitacional “El Duraznal”. These murals are portraits of famous Mexican writers, including Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo, and Rosario Castellanos. The faces of the writers are grey and they are surrounded by color. “This is an example of color therapy,” (cromoterápia) Onza explained to me in a personal interview [4], a comment also repeated by another writer in an article about the mural in El Sol [5].
This month the institute is working on opening up the Malecón del Rio as a legal space [6]. It is over 1000 meters long and plays a comparable role to the LA river as a historic site for writers. This project, among others, raises questions about the shift that has happened from the writer being situated as a “juvenile rebelde" a “rebel youth” to an employee working for, or alongside, the state. If the state is not monolithic, is it appropriate to see the work of these artists as creating more nodes and spaces for creation, “stealing” in the framework of de Certeau from institutions of power to make their lives, and the lives of their compatriots, more livable, a sort of collective ethos? Or is it better read as a kind of cooption, tethering the writer to another popular narrative by the youth institute and for youth, that of the entrepreneur, the savvy neoliberal subject who makes their own destiny? In the former framework, inequality is taken as a baseline condition. In the latter it is made invisible from discourses similar to Rawls’ “original position.”  Or perhaps creating more legal spaces and parameters for graffiti allows practitioners to sustain a relationship to their recollection and memory of youth, since, for many, youth is something that is inextricable from graffiti because they discover the art form when they are young, and use it as a way to survive and even thrive during the trials and tribulations during this challenging period in life. The Malecón as a youthful topos. Sometimes empty and dry, sometime surging with water after one of the heavy rains, it is a space that is already animated by inscriptions, legal and illegal, that give testament to the plurality of worlds that inhabit the shared space of León.

Mil gracias a: Comexus/Becas Fulbright García Robles; Universidad Iberoamericana León y el programa de Doctorado en Ciencias Sociales, Complejidad e Interdisciplinariedad; León Joven y el Instituto Municipal de Juventud; Mersi; Dafne; Onza; Era the Dog.

[1] Héctor Gómez Vargas, Cartografias Urbanas y el Equipmiento Cultural en Leon, León, GTO: Precesbac, Universidad Iberoamericana León, 2001, p. 16.
[2]  Caitlin Bruce. “Modalities of Publicity: Leon's City of Murals Project” in Inopinatum. The unexpected impertinence of Urban Creativity, edited by Luca Borriello, Christian Ruggiero, Salerno, Italy: ArtiGraficheBoccia, 2013.
[3] Interview with Dafne, August 2017.
[4] Interview with Onza, August, 2017.
[5] Alfonso Díaz, “Dan color a edificios de departamentos,” El Sol de León, July 13, 2017,  https://www.elsoldeleon.com.mx/local/dan-color-a-edificios-de-departamentos
[6] Interview with Mersi, August, 2017

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Nuevo Valle de Pedro Moreno. August 13, 2017.

Nuevo Valle de Pedro Moreno. August 13, 2017.

Nuevo Valle de Pedro Moreno. Los Gatos Flacos performing. August 13, 2017.

Nuevo Valle de Pedro Moreno. August 13, 2017.

Nuevo Valle de Pedro Moreno. August 13, 2017.

Nuevo Valle de Pedro Moreno. August 13, 2017.

Nuevo Valle de Pedro Moreno. August 13, 2017.

Nuevo Valle de Pedro Moreno. August 13, 2017.

Nuevo Valle de Pedro Moreno. August 13, 2017.

Nuevo Valle de Pedro Moreno. August 13, 2017.



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