“The City is Changing”: Graffiti Art Resurfaces As Contentious Topic in City
By Jesús Aguado
With new regulations in place governing the nature of street art in San Miguel de Allende, a clash of opinions over graffiti in the city has erupted among advocates, lifelong residents, local government officials, foreigners, and visitors.
Graffitti “tagging,” i.e. quickly spray-painting on public spaces simple monochrome letters in a graffiti-art style; “bombing,” more stylized graffiti artistic lettering, generally multicolored; and graffiti art, figurative art often in the form of murals have together been a longstanding issue in San Miguel’s Historical Center, its surrounding neighborhoods, and even the rural communities. A new initiative to repaint walls in the city with traditional ochre colors has sparked renewed controversy over whether graffiti art is indeed art or simply vandalism. Some groups, like Muros en Blanco, have sought to legitimize the urban art form, getting the city to legalize and regulate it in places like colonia Guadalupe. Others, like San Miguel Siempre Hermosa, seek to erase graffiti, seeing it as reflecting an overall public safety issue. They maintain a website where residents can report graffiti; volunteers will then go within a day and paint over it.
Between the regulatory vacuum and regulations sanctions by the government, there appeared in 2013 various street art murals in the neighborhood of Guadalupe. Now there are new regulations regarding what is painted and this issue has created a clash of opinions among lifelong residents, foreigners, and visitors to the city.
San Miguel Siempre Hermoso—“adherents of the ‘broken window’ theory”
In 2003, San Miguel Siempre Hermoso, a group of expats, united to attack the issue, taking what they saw as quick, nonconfrontational action to remove graffiti. According to the group’s website, it believes tolerating graffiti emboldens criminals by giving the impression that no one is doing anything about illegal activity in a neighborhood.
Graffiti painted on the walls one day would be erased the next by the organization, its members decided. Sixteen years later, the group still exists and over time has formed a partnership with the Dirección de Desarrollo Económico (Office of Economic Development) and the Dirección de Relaciones Internacionales y NGOs (Office of International and NGO relations). From October 2018 to October 2019, the group erased 13,200 instances of graffiti throughout the city, thanks to the efforts of three people with two vehicles and 300 liters of paint.
Muros en Blanco—not vandalism but art
Expat Collen Sorenson arrived in 2012, observed the problems, and came up with a different solution: She thought, why not begin a urban and graffiti art district in the Guadalupe neighborhood, where graffiti appeared regularly? Thus the Muros en Blanco initiative was born in 2013, which recruited graffiti artists with the local government’s go-ahead and encouraged them to paint facades in the neighborhood, recognizing what had been seen as vandalism now as public art. Guadalupe has since become an internationally recognized art district in large part to this initiative.
Later, in 2015, Muros en Blanco joined forces with Graffiti World, an organization that sponsors graffiti artists from as far away as Berlin to create murals in Guadalupe. Together, they have sponsored the creation of 110 murals; some of which have disappeared because the neighbors or the government wanted something else in the location.
Coloring San Miguel
The Reglamento de Obras y Construcciones (Works and Construction Regulations) has established that facades in the Historical Center must be painted in ochre and terracotta—with whitewash. In neighborhoods outside Centro, the same colors are required, but the paint can be vinyl or matte.
When the Muros en Blanco initiative began in 2013, the only requirements graffiti art had to meet was to obtain the permission of neighbors and the approval of the local government. According to Desarrollo Urbano Director Abelardo Quero, painting murals on walls is not allowed on an individual basis but are allowed collectively. Quero realized the major amount of work needed to regulate these.
Some months ago, the city’s Dirección de Desarrollo Social y Bienestar (Department of Social Development and Welfare) offered the residents of Guadalupe the chance to be part of the city program San Miguel a Color, which consists of restoring and repainting walls in the city in ochre colors. Repainting the walls could only happen with a documented 70 percent of neighbors around the wall to be painted agreeing to it, according to department officials. Neighbors provided the materials needed, while the city provided the labor and the paint. In all, 220 facades in Guadalupe were repainted, some of which had street-art murals.
The department’s director, García says that participation was all voluntary. The program is being applied in the neighborhoods along the periphery of the Historical Center and in other communities. By the program’s end, 4,200 sites will have been restored and/or repainted.
In Guadalupe, opinions vary widely on the subject. Some think that the murals “are pretty,” that they don’t cause any harm. Others told Atención that they don’t care whether the murals are there or not. Still others say that they offered the walls of their homes to graffiti artists in order to beautify their neighborhood and don’t like the idea that foreigners make a business out of it with tours. Finally, some say that they support the existing murals but add that since they are located in public residential spaces, they ought to be regulated and that the themes depicted should be related to culture and tradition. These people favor murals of historical figures, ones that reflect human values, and, above all, reflect the identity of the neighborhood and of San Miguel.
Representatives of the neighborhood have met with Muros en Blanco, Graffiti World, and the government to define the regulations for the neighborhood regarding murals.
More freedom for artists
Jan Roth, who represents Graffiti World, says he is not bothered about murals being painted over.
“Since we deal with urban art, we are used to having it erased. It’s ephemeral art. It needs to change and reflect the people who make it and appreciate it.”
He agrees that the city and the neighborhood have changed over time, saying that it is wonderful that Muros en Blanco has stimulated the neighborhood to organize. He says the painting over of the murals in Guadalupe is a temporary issue.
“After one year, the walls can be painted again, because an investment has been made,” he said. “I believe that it was simply a lack of communication. There were facades that had been promised, and then not, because the municipality said that there could not be any more murals. Now we are coordinating with well-organized neighbors and the government to formalize this. Because this began as a personal initiative, an independent one. No money was ever requested from the government. Everything is privately financed.”
Graffiti World wants to adjust to what those living in Guadalupe want, he says.
We don’t want limitations. We want the greatest creative freedom possible within a framework of respect for people.”
Atención asked Roth about the fact that some want to restrict the content of the murals to subjects like historical figures.
“Those are commissioned works, and they have a price,” Roth said. If there are murals with themes that some do not find adequate, this is because neither Muros nor Grafiti have control over the subjects depicted, he said.
“We are not the owners of the street…There are some [out there] who have made that clear. They have ‘crashed the party.’ [Outsiders] have come here to paint. We want to formalize this so that everyone who is involved knows what the rules are and how to support them, what to paint and what not to. The municipality offers us their support if the neighbors allow us to paint. But we want the neighbors to help us make contact, to delineate the route, and to work collaboratively.”
Regarding the Sanmiguelenses involved with Grafiti World and Muros en Blanco, Roth stated that neighborhood residents were invited but they did not become involved other than Jesús Valenzuela, “and we will have to see where to place our resources.” The organization wants muralists to contact them at email@example.com
Street art beyond Guadalupe
Director of the city’s Dirección de Cultura y Tradiciones (Department of Culture and Traditions) Paulina Cadena said that she has identified 20 individuals who have demonstrated their ability to create murals. She would like to contract these individual to paint murals in other parts of San Miguel beyond Guadalupe. Residents in these neighborhoods would be asked to care for artworks, Cadena said.
“There are bridges and roads that can be developed [with murals]. It would be to create impact,” she said.
She wants more Sanmiguelenses involved in creating the works, not individuals brought in from outside, so that the art gives off a sense of belonging to residents and so it could be a source of temporary paid work for local artists. Her office already has decided to commission artwork for the Infonavit Malanquín neighborhood, she said, on the aerial pedestrian bridge that crosses the Libramiento, as well as on the subterranean pedestrian walkway that crosses in the same area but underneath the highway. Another space slated for a mural is the subterranean pedestrian walkway in front of the CBTis preparatoria high school. Students will be recruited to participate in creating it.
Regarding graffiti art in Guadalupe, Cadena said, “In a residential area like Guadalupe, there should be an area developed in which the residents agree to locate murals and then create one mural after another. If not, it’s only one neighborhood with various murals. We are in dialogue with people. We want to help and support the maintenance of murals with the locals to generate employment. We want to identify the areas for this, where the residents will not be affected.”
“Urban murals need to have a message and to make an impact,” she added. “We want them to… promote values.”
The street art mural tour of Guadalupe takes place every Monday, Thursday and Friday from 10am to 2pm. The meeting point is on calle Margarita Ledesma, in front of Via Organica and the cost is 300 pesos. The tours are led by Colleen Sorenson. Part of the funds collected are given to the program that finances the murals.