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July 25, 2007
Chile Graf , Ya Po!

Depending on who you ask, the argument can be made that graffiti has spread all around the world like (according to some) a contagious disease or like the wild, organic art movement that it is. You can also say that it has always existed; the Italians in Pompei scratched dirty words and pictures on the brothel walls before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, and early men in the caves of France left records of the hunt. One thing that can't be denied is that graffiti's impact on the design and style of modern culture has been enormous. Street art has also been a vehicle of political dissent in countries where freedom of expression and the press are restricted.

The photographs that accompany this article were taken in Chile in July of 2005 and they represent a cross-section of different styles of graffiti; some political, some just dazzling for their color and form, others goofy and primitive. Other pictures are just cool things you'd see if you were walking down the street in Chile. I discovered them all while hanging out in the capitol, Santiago, in the coastal towns of Valparaiso and San Antonio, and in the South on the green island of Chiloe, which is in Chile's 10th region, not far from the otherworldly expanses of Patagonia.

The overall atmosphere in Chile right now is intriguing. It's a country were wild dogs still run through the streets and each day at noon a cannon is fired from the top of a hill in Santiago to mark the time and apparently remind the people of the presence of authority (a tradition from the colonial era). This thin, elongated nation state crouched between the towering Andes to the east and the endless blue of the Pacific to the west Is on the verge of electing the first female president in the country's history; and in the late 1960's, with Salvador Allende, they were the first country to democratically, and peacefully, install a socialist president. In 1973 Chile became one of many countries in South America to experience a military coup-de-tat, which subsequently devolved into a brutal and oppressive dictatorship under the fist of Augusto Pinochet. All of those political events hang heavily in the background today, inspiring new generations of politically-conscious students and workers, and dividing the upper and the lower classes along the lines of the nation's historical interpretation. Since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1988, the country has stepped forward to become the most economically powerful country in South America, with, for better or worse, an increasingly stronger American influence on its economy and culture. When you move through the streets of Santiago you can feel some of these forces and this tension, and some of this energy finds its way to the walls of the cities.

Many of the photos in this collection were taken during a nighttime excursion through the foggy streets of Valparaiso - or Valpo, as the locals call it - a port city built almost entirely on a long series of high hills that rise up from the waters, ringing the coast. Since July is Chile's winter, it was windy and foggy, and a perfectly ominous moment to ride up higher and higher on each hill and stumble across beautifully tense anti-privatization and anti-war pieces. On this one night I also found the "Nada 9-11" stencil and the anti-nazi piece; as it turns out there is a budding skinhead neo-nazi revival coursing through Chile that is proving to be increasingly problematic in many cities and has begun to dominate the news. It was then that I also checked out the "Justice?" statue.

Another amazing spot that I was lucky enough to visit was the Cerro Carcel, site of the Ex-Carcel, an old jail that was closed in the mid-90s and turned into a culture and art center (see the film B-Happy for a look at this spot before it was closed). This place is left exactly the way it was when open, except that now artists mark up the walls and put up installations in some of the cells where just a few years ago political prisoners and street thugs were housed together and tortured, as many as 10 in one small room.

Most of the more classic, wild style pieces came from around Santiago where the hip-hop influence seems stronger. These pieces were denser and more indecipherable. The coast graffiti seemed to have more characters in the pieces and used more vivid colors. With all of the photographs that I took, I tried to capture first, whatever was visually appealing and second, images that struck me for their message. In my opinion, the best graffiti does both at the same time, and I think there are a few among this bunch that accomplish that.


Chilean Street Art: Graffiti Gallery #1
Chilean Street Art: Graffiti Gallery #2
Chilean Street Art: Graffiti Gallery #3

--
James Hoey
A long-time contributing writer for LAS, Jim lives in North Carolina and drives an early 70s model mustard yellow Chevrolet Blazer.

See other articles by James Hoey.

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