Home > Tattooing the City’s Skin: Urban Art and Graffiti Countercultures at Work

Tattooing the City’s Skin: Urban Art and Graffiti Countercultures at Work

Far from recapturing the nation’s significant historical events and the heroic accomplishments of the country's most prominent figures, contemporary Mexico City’s urban landscape offers a much different view to inhabitants and tourists.  Marred with eye-catching billboards of sleek, tall, and slender models proudly sporting mobile phones, SUVs, and running shoes, walls and frontispieces have succumbed to the pressures of marketing and advertising that diligently work hand-in-hand to offer a commercially constructed vision of mexicanidad. Consumerism has absorbed traditional forms and modes of signification originally intended to build a sense of community and national pride.  Within these dynamics, the urban space has become, as it has in most capital cities worldwide, the battleground for the struggle of visibility and representation. 

As Néstor García Canclini notes: “in the movement of the city, commercial interests are crossed with historical, aesthetic, and communicational ones. The semantic struggles to neutralize each other, to perturb the message of the others or change its meaning, and to subordinate the rest to its own logic are stagings of the conflict between social forces:  between the market, history, the state, advertising, and the popular struggle for survival” (222).  In this complex kaleidoscope of semiotic and communicative exchange, urban art and graffiti have emerged as new markers of identity, protest, and remembrance. 

Detached from state-sponsored and commercial restrictions and fueled by a desire for recognition and transgression, the work of graffiti and street artists challenges the normative discourse of state institutions by inscribing, both legally and illegally, their demands and grievances in the walls of the city’s streets.    Tagging, murals, and graffiti are a social phenomenon associated with young people living in the margins who are mainly striving to become acknowledged and embraced within a system that curtails its future generations any possibility of a promising future. According to Canclini, “It is a marginal, deinstitutionalized, and ephemeral way of assuming the new relations between the private and the public, between daily and political life” (252).

In most cases, the disillusion and disapproval of the government and state policies is the leading motivation that inspires young graffiti writers to vandalize private and the public spaces.  Second to this is the thrill and the challenge of inscribing their names atop bridges, tall buildings, and highways, even at the risk of their own lives.  

Inscribed in broader social categories, the graffiti movement is a postmodern hybrid expression that emerges from deeply rooted barrio and ghetto social and racial issues such as discrimination, oppression, and economic inequality, originating in the 1960s and spreading through low-income peripheral neighborhoods and cities along the border of Mexico and the United States.  Linked to the New York hip-hop, rap, and breakdance, the graffiti became a reference for identity as well as a system of communication and a medium to showcase abuses and grievances as well as expectations and dreams.

 Upon comparing the attitude of street artists to that of their post-revolutionary counterparts, it is worth noting that instead of seeking to gain fame and recognition for their masterpieces –as Rivera and Siqueiros– for the most part, they try to remain anonymous, but still eager to be admired and recognized by their peers. Unlike the renowned muralists who were pressed to produce a lasting visual legacy of the myth of a unified Mexican identity (as sought by Vasconcelos) to educate the masses, their work is ephemeral and unpretentious, conveying a myriad of messages that deconstructs the local in favor of global and/or collective issues and identities.  Their skills and talent vary; while some painters may have basic to advanced art instruction, mostly from the field of graphic design, others limit their expertise to the graffiti and tagging techniques picked up from fellow crew members.   Territoriality and socio-cultural identity are additional elements that provide cohesion to the different graffiti types and styles as well as the different gangs or groups.  As an example, Valenzuela Arce argues that while the Cholos and the taggers from Tijuana were a product of similar cross-cultural dynamics, the Cholo “is entrenched in the intimate routines of the barrio, but the tagger roams like a flanêur, signifying the city as a whole” (8).[1] 

Graffiti, tags or images of names, numbers, icons or symbols, painted around the barrio are indicators of the territory controlled by a certain “crew” or group they are designed to assert presence and ownership of a neighborhood.  By the same token, the order of the names that appear in the tag is an indicator of hierarchy, power and recognition as much as means to mark territorial lines, warn their adversaries, and honor their deceased.  As Valenzuela Arce posits, “Graffiti entails circuits of communication involved in the signification of the city and imply enthusiasm for transgression, a desire for and bold claim for recognition, identity codes, group references, and ideal of vanity, slices of fame scattered all over the walls, and folk art” (14).[2]

Mural painting goes hand-in-hand with tagging and graffiti, as it is another transgressive practice among young artists whom, in seeking to make an individual or a collective visual statement, appropriate the public space leaving an imprint that reflects their social, racial, and cultural identity.  Inspired by Mexico’s muralist long-standing tradition, Cholo murals, in particular, serve as neighborhood identity signifiers for community members, and as such, they must be protected from vandalism of other crews.  Their pictorial discourse, in addition to representing social issues and historical figures, may also include fantastic figures, futuristic images, graffiti calligraphy, urban scenes, and Mexican symbols and iconography like as the Mexican flag, Virgin of Guadalupe, Emiliano Zapata, Frida Kahlo, el Sub-Comandante Marcos, pre-Hispanic images, etc.

As noted, taggers and graffiti writers, unlike Cholos, are not confined by neighborhood boundaries as their crusade is to defy other groups, police, and property owners.  Theirs is a symbolic dispute for the urban space, and tags and graffitis are means through which the different graffiti crews settle rivalries and challenges.  According to artist Jorge Sánchez (Jofras), painting and clandestine writing for graffiti artists in Tijuana are highly significant as these are ways of deconstructing the powerful symbol of socio-territorial segregation among a border that divides binational communities and which is increasingly becoming hard to cross (Valenzuela Arce 28).  

Talking about his first impressions as a graffiti artist, Vicente Israel Elizondo de la Cruz (Shente) recalls joining HEM (Hecho en México/Made in Mexico) because he did not want to belong to a barrio, but instead he wanted to paint freely all over the city. “Because graffiti is all about doing something ‘all city’, they call it, being a graffiti artist all over the city and not having anything to do with barrios; you are not just defending a street corner” (178). Ricardo Buil Ríos sustains that the works of young urban artists reflects the tension between cultural identity and modernity; clearly conveying the fact that in Mexico, identity is constantly being reinvented through the advancement of new technologies, globalization, and neoliberal policies.  Such dynamics “deform and distort local and national cultures, fostering tribalization and fundamentalism” (16). In Buil Ríos' opinion, another issue that must be taken into consideration is the lack of cohesion between formal education provided at school and the modern society since, while the school still remains the source of transmission and reproduction of a national culture that stresses a set of traditional values (patriotism, democracy, identity, etc.), external social factors promote inequality, consumerism, lack of democracy, etc.   

The result of these conflicting social and political discourses not only have sparkled the proliferation of new countercultures emergent from different strata of society, but also brought along alternative forms of opposition to challenge globalization and capitalism and critique current events.  Originating from local or communal entities (school, neighborhood, streets, etc.), many of the subaltern groups are gaining cultural and political agency through visual and narrative expression as well as by means of practices and activities related to their needs and their daily lives that foster a sense of community and belonging.

For these new agents of social transformation, the ideological fight takes place within the realm of representation and culture, realms in which subjectivity, authority, and power discourses are in dispute. Culture, from a sociological point of view, is constituted within the a network of social relations and it is a fundamental source of comfort and security, it encompasses a distinctive set of values, attributes, behaviors, and it shapes ways in which individuals interpret the world.  As postmodern theorists (Baudrillard, Bourdieu, Lyotard) have argued, the dispute for the production, circulation, and consumption of cultural capital -set of values, beliefs, and knowledge- is sustained by those who own it, and are struggling to preserve it, and those who want to acquire it by subversion and appropriation.   The city is the locus that frames all social relations and negotiations between the hegemonic groups and the subaltern, it is the ground in which converging forces conduct and settle their disputes, and perpetually generate new identities and communities.  

The face of the city is ever changing, as Buil Ríos states, “it is multifaceted, polymorphic and in constant and daily mutation. The city de facto is impossible to apprehend it as it moves faster than us. We live in a mirage” (133), and in this daily mutation, the walls, the murals, and the fences provide the much needed reflection and experience of those who are living in the margin of institutional policies, unacknowledged by the official discourse. The setting and framework that the city offers, allows for countless possibilities of expression, since each element present in the field, from the artists to the public, come together to give meaning to the artwork.   The street artist challenges spatial conventions by interrupting the public space and accomplishing an immediate effect within a community through the demarcation of territory, the rearticulation of identity, and the reversal and resistance to the acculturation process. For Shente, a well-established urban artist, the most relevant aspect of the urban art movement is its connection to the people and the city.  "You are painting and people can come up and ask you why you're paiting, why you're using that color; if they like it, if they don't like it; there's an immediate response that you don't get if you work in a studio. I feel this is why it's very strong, because it has the energy of youth, who are moving this whole graff business forward" (Valenzuela arce 186).

Like body art, neighborhood graffiti and urban art have mostly remained outside of the consumer market as the work itself cannot be either bought nor sold, the same as the body of an artist cannot be bought nor sold. In this capacity, these artists question the aesthetic principle of art as a sublime experience, alien to political and social issues, only accessible to the cultural elites.   Street artists erase the barriers between the public and the private and reaffirm a social identity through the personal story they inscribe, like tattoos, within the city’s walls. They do violence unto private property; violence in which many of them have inscribed and etched in their own bodies, as Claudia Kozak indicates, “doing graffiti implies a sort of experimenting in the urban space from the body outside of the norms established by the rest of the population” (70). 

The originality of street artists lies in their many forms of mobilization, their capacity to sustain a political agenda outside the realm of politics itself, and their ability to resignify the public space. Parks, corners, abandoned lots, and the city streets are some of the many sites used either as canvas for their artistic production. With each “pinta” (act of painting), urban artists claim their right to the city, and along with this act or appropriation, the public space recovers its significance within the community by becoming an open text in which each citizen –regardless of the social and the racial condition– may inscribe and reclaim his/her identity.  On the other hand, the graffiti counterculture is heavily influenced by American jargon, as many crews have English names or acronyms like Police Killers (PK), Special Violence (SV/EV), TJK (TIjuana Killers) or Crazy Criminals (CK).  For as Buil Ríos, this as a result of the process of globalization which dilutes the borders among marginal sectors of society worldwide, uniting them in their quest for visibility and recognition. 

Popular culture is deemed marginal inasmuch as it remains unacknowledged by the hegemonic cultural elites and the State. In recent decades, however, the appeal of urban and graffiti art has gained the recognition of private and public entities, which are now hiring these controversial artists for marketing purposes or promotional campaigns seeking to reach younger consumers or marginal sectors of the population.   Mexico City officials, for example, are granting permission to whomever might be interested in gaining exposure for their art to paint frontispieces and building walls on up-and-coming areas.   Such is the case of Regina Street, adjacent to the historical center, now displaying urban art raising domestic abuse and alternative gender lifestyles.  So, while some graffiti writers are engaged in the construction and appropriation of urban spaces, and sometimes able to contest dominant uses of the city, other are reabsorbed into the mainstream (Young 6).

No longer commissioned by the revolutionary state to define a national and aesthetic identity, these nonconformist artists are drawn to the transformative potential of art to question the negative aspects of a postmodern society that has replaced the social ethos by making the consumer market the ultimate marker of success.  Beyond the trends and the traditional forms of exhibition, the artistic discourse once again stands as a weapon to fight for utopias and ideals, to challenge the status quo and dissolve the skepticism that tarnishes our faith in the future.  Art remains a strategic weapon to challenge the uncontested primacy of a capitalist society backed by a corporatist state.  In this process of national and cultural reconfiguration, the creative principle not only becomes a social actor, but it also a means to fight determinism and conformism, a powerful force to show that poverty, apathy, and consumerism are reversible paradigms.


[1] The Cholo (lower class Mexican migrant) culture became a significant presence in the 1960’s in Mexican and Chicano neighborhoods, and it’s a phenomenon linked to the Pachucos of the 30s to 50s.  

[2] An interesting episode narrated by Bernal Díaz del Castillo in his Crónicas de la conquista (1568, cap. CLII) is the graffiti feud ensued between Hernán Cortés and some of his men for the allocation of the Aztec gold.  Story tells that some of the Spanish captains vandalized the exterior walls of Cortés's hacienda to show their disatisfaction in the way the loot had been handled. After several days of accusatory remarks from both sides, Cortés harshly concluded: Pared blanca, papel de necios (white wall, fool’s paper), implying that a white wall is the paper of any fool who may feel driven to scribble on it.  Cortés, in this act, was asserting his power and his  ownership of the wall.  A few days later, someone retorted: Y aun de sabios y verdades, e Su Magestad las sabrá muy presto (About wise men and truth, your Majesty may very well know), accusing Cortés to be a fool himself for asserting  his superiority by inscribing in his own wall. 


Works Cited

Buil Ríos,  Ricardo. Graffiti, arte urbano (educacion, cultura e identidad en la modernidad).  Tlalpan: Universidad Pedagógica Nacional: 2005.

García Canclini, Néstor.  Hybrid Cultures, Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity. Minn.  University of Minnesota Press: 1995.

Kozak, Claudia.  Contra la pared: sobre graffitis, pintadas y otras intervenciones urbanas.  Buenos Aires: Universidad de Buenos Aires, 2004.

Sánchez, Jorge. “Climbing Jobs, Bombs, and Pieces.” Welcome amigos to Tijuana. Graffiti en la frontera. José Manuel Valenzuela Arce, ed. 24-31.

Valenzuela Arce, José Manuel, ed. Welcome amigos to Tijuana. Graffiti en la frontera.  Mexico: CONACULTA, 2012. 

---.  “I Have Seen the Writing on the Wall.” Welcome amigos to Tijuana. Graffiti en la frontera. 10-23. 

Young, Alison.  Street Art, Public City: Law, Crime and the Urban Imagination.  New York: Routledge, 2014.