Identifiers of Culture in Valparaiso Street Art

This was a chapter I wrote for a semester project while I was studying in Chile at the Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez. If you’ve ever been down there (especially Valparaiso) you know that every imaginable surface is caked with layers and layers of posters and paint. This is a commentary using 10 hand picked examples on the implications as to what that art signifies on a more macro level…


Street art in the city of Valparaiso is unavoidable. Yet while most of the walls are covered in more typical bubble style ‘throw-ups’ and professionally commissioned murals, the real character of the city lies within the subtle and often under-appreciated street art that sits everywhere in between the more visible and globally generic graffiti.

1.

The most important aspect of the street art environment in Valparaiso to recognize, is that street art is not just a factor of the city’s character, but that it is instilled in the culture. While there are city employees that are employed with the task of cleaning up the unwanted graffiti around the city, it is inevitable that it will be replaced by another artist’s paint. This inevitability cannot be blamed on a societal structure of unthoughtful and inconsiderately rebellious youth like you could argue in the some cities throughout the United States, but rather on the historically expressive and utilitarian culture of Chile, and more specifically of Valparaiso.

This portrait of a street corner in Bellavista is indicative of the implied artistically oriented culture. This is because even though there is nothing apparent that holds traditionally aesthetically pleasing value, there is an observably important detail present. That detail, minor as it may appear, is the street name (Parroquia) painted with its direction onto the wall itself. While this may come across as trivial in it’s nature considering that street direction is less malicious than vandalism, it still creates a pretext in which it validates the use of public space as a canvas for utility, whether that be for practical, artistic, expressive, or informative use. That recognition sets up the context of how the following art pieces pictured will be explained, and how they are considered relevant in an environment that is dominated by color and immensely various artistic composition.

2.

Continuing with the theme of street art being an important factor of the culture in Valparaiso, I believe that there is an argument for street art in many cases to exist for no reason more than vandalizing for the sake of doing it. To elaborate and to illustrate the point, throughout Valparaiso it is not uncommon to find writing on walls that was done with conventional writing pens, or sloppy writing with a spray paint can that does not hold any intrinsic value. I have noticed that in the evenings, groups of friends will hangout, drink, and smoke together on their respective areas on staircases throughout the city. Thus it is possible that the more petty cases of vandalism are attempts to personalize and manifest a sense of character that is specific to a moment or recurring group of people.

This is important to recognize because it displays on a micro level how much street art is seen if not as an outlet, then as a vehicle of a claim to territory. With a pen, a poster, or a spray paint can, people have the ability to claim not just a segment of wall, but a whole city as their own. This is why it doesn’t matter whether or not the words/ drawings have any meaning attached to them, it isn’t the physical graffiti that matters as much as the act. Therefore these smaller examples of random and non-premeditated acts of vandalism further exemplify how street art is a fundamental characteristic of the identity of Valparaiso.

3.

One of the reasons why Valparaiso feels so authentic is because for the most part, the artistic presence is not forced. It is created by real people for all the reasons stated before, and thus it is a proper representation of the city and the people that live there. However there are some feeble attempts at beautification that improperly display the character of Valparaiso, or do so with a bias that is polarizing of the city. This is unfair as it is unthoughtful because it is generalizing of the city, and between the 45 uniquely different “cerros” that make up Valparaiso this is impossible. It would be along the lines of someone saying that Cerro Alegre was the best representation of Valparaiso, and as anyone who has had the pleasure of spending any time here knows, that isn’t true.

The scene pictured above illustrates this well. Between sloppily structured, eclectic and unrelated, single-layer stencils, the mural is an obvious attempt to capture Chilean culture in a friendly and inviting manner. Yet at the same time it is hypocritical, because as it pictures with bright summery colors, people dancing, children playing, and street performers performing, the top of the wall is covered in deadly spikes and two stories of barbed wire. It is painted onto a wall that is protecting an abandoned lot filled with a crumbling, graffiti ridden building. It is laughable, because the scene that this mural is trying to mask is infinitely more representative of Valparaiso and certainly has more character. At the same time however, this is allegorical to foreign perceptions of Valparaiso. Tourists come to see the colorful walls and eat at cafes with high trip advisor ratings and spectacular views overlooking the city, but they often do not venture into the hills to see the true shades of Valparaiso.

4.

This next portrait on the other hand, that is of a tired, stubbled man with a painted on smile and a guitar, is a more appropriate representation of the city. It also plays credit to one of the most prominently noteworthy factors that people will undoubtedly notice in their time in Valparaiso. Street performers on first impression come across as a cute detail that seem to vanish after the performance is accomplished, or once the audience moves on. In this sense, they are similar to the street art of Valparaiso, because they are perceived as a backdrop. Like the paint that covers the walls, they will disappear with time and be replaced; for those who witness them, they only exist in the present.

It’s about more than just their existence however. While it may be charming and part of the ‘experience’ to be serenaded on the train to and from Valparaiso, for them it is not about sustaining the environment of artistic expression, it is a job. If not a primary means of income, then it is a secondary or even tertiary means of income. They wander down the aisles of the trains and the busses with their hands out in hopes of individual gratuitous donations of a few hundred pesos. When they move on, they cease to exist in the lives of the audience; this is true for the street art as well. People accept it and marvel at it because it is part of the experience, but it is less acknowledged that under the surface, it is telling of another culture that is the victim of a conflicted society.

5.

One contributing factor to the rebellious nature of the people that live in Valparaiso is Chile’s adoption of a more westernized commercial culture. This piece among others of similar context, was spotted outside of a Ripley’s shopping center in downtown Bellavista. Roughly, it translates to, “In the modern temples of consumption, our lives are lost. Stop looking helpless and act.” This piece of advice isn’t uncommon, for there are many like it that can be observed near any big-chain shopping center in Valparaiso, and with reason. People from Valparaiso have pride in their city. They like the market culture and the sporadic community that explodes over the hills because it all contributes to a unique sense of character, but these big-chain department stores such as Ripley’s and Fallabella are culture killers. They are an accumulation of generic popular things that prompts unnecessary feelings of want in people.

In a city where the foundation of social interaction is based on voicing individual and popular opinion, these big chains are the enemy, because their business is a means of mass conformity. These stores connect cities on a superficial basis, ‘New York’s hottest fashion, now in La Serena!’ They make a comparison which implies that locations that have these large chains can be just-as-good-as the others, and once comparisons are made, it creates a vicious cycle of competition. Even if that competition isn’t manifested physically, subconsciously people become aware of the commercial differences between neighboring cities, and inevitably what was once a neighboring city will become a rivaling city. This is why Valparaiso speaks so strongly against commercialism, because it is nullifying the character of Valparaiso, which revolves strongly around the active rejection of traditional consumerist practice.

6.

Another very common sight among the written graffiti in Valparaiso is the reoccurring and globally recognizable anarchy sign. However in Valparaiso it has seemingly taken on a subdivisional meaning. Whereas anarchy is typically associated with a state of disorder and the deterioration of authority and government, the use of the anarchy symbol in Valparaiso has more of an emphasis on the country’s historical plight of fighting for political equality, and uniting and strengthening the working class. Thus anarchy isn’t so relatable to the 70’s punk era interpretation, but more to a new definition that was conceived through political corruption and misrepresentation in Chile. This piece translates to, “study to learn, not to obey!”

Why that is relevant, is because before there were public education reforms in Chile around the late 60’s and early 70’s there was a horribly high rate of illiteracy and a large uneducated population. Allende started to establish government programs to educate Chile which worked; he set up the foundation of which the contemporary Chilean education system is built from. The Chilean people benefitted majorly from his accomplishments but in some instances were blinded my misconceptions. Regardless of the good that he may have done, he was still a brutal dictator and his accomplishments cannot overshadow his crimes against humanity. This statement written in blood red paint is a reminder that education is a gift which empowers people and doesn’t oblige them to any form of conformity. That in part is what defines the newly adapted use of the anarchy symbol in Chilean street art.

7.

Street art in Valparaiso also holds the ability to unite people under a common cause. For example this crudely written PSA on the side of a main road in Valparaiso. Chile is famous for having a ‘protest season’ in which different social organizations, labor unions, etc., publicly express their opinions regarding room for progress and development in Chile. The message pictured particularly stands out because of the context of the proposed protest. It is a student protest, and historically Chilean students have been responsible for mobilizing some of the most relevant revolutionary movements in the country’s history. Especially considering that students globally represent the future of any given nation, their voices are important because they represent a purist and progressive concern for the living conditions of the generations to come.

The most noteworthy of student revolutionary groups in Chile were the MIR who were a far leftist group that were founded in the midst of the oppressive regime of Allende and Pinochet. They were able to inspire at their strongest, more than 10,000 students and supporters to actively protest against the intimidating oppressors who were controlling the country. Their actions and achievements directly contributed to the help of the collapse of the dictatorship and can be credited to getting Chile back on track to become the prominent nation that it is today. Being able to consistently keep students engaged in local and national politics is important because it promotes an air of awareness and incubates an environment focused on progression and the ever-longing pursuit for knowledge.

8.

A similar tactic can be observed in the wheat pasting of posters. These politically charged posters with similar intentions as the previously mentioned protest organizing PSAs, go mostly unnoticed because they blend in so easily with concert announcements, movie posters, and advertisements. They are however, arguably more important because they give a cause a real face. With this example, there are pictured five named faces of “fallen companions.” These faces provide silent reason as to why voices need not be quiet, and should be manifested in the streets. The posters are like strangers on the sidewalk, you won’t recognize them but you know that they are your neighbors, and that you share the same struggles of existing in a world that is controlled by elites. It doesn’t matter if these people are real or not (they most likely are), what matters most is that it makes you think about your community, and it inspires activism.

People don’t go to the streets to protest selfishly, they go to protest for the greater good of the community. They go to protest because they are ready to stand with the rest of their comrades that are fed up with neglect and unfair treatment. They go to protest because it is righteous and bigger than them, and these reminders are important for creating if not a direct, then a subconscious awareness of societal strife. It also acts as evidence of an unspoken support network of likeminded individuals. It doesn’t matter that they aren’t directly obvious, because it implies that it is a communal attitude rather than an opinion presented by a party that have a fixed set of beliefs. Therefore the mass stands stronger, through the unity of a singular problem; taking charge of one issue at a time.

9.

This document, providing the date of a local government election and the names of the candidates running, posted dead center on a piece in a graffiti riddled back alley is relevant because it brings full circle what this paper is trying to demonstrate. This act of reverse graffiti is an unspoken political statement, because whoever put it there understood who they were targeting. They were targeting the real people of Valparaiso. Real people being those who have something to say, thus they say it on the walls. The alley where this was posted is toe to sky covered in walls thickened by the masses of paint accumulated over the years. Thus it is apparent that there is a consistently active community that is involved in flocking to this location to silently express themselves politically and artistically.

This piece of paper, is an olive branch from those in their community that are more politically active, and gives the artists and the rest of the community the chance to have a voice that has real implications. This piece of paper was posted there strategically, because whoever put it there knew that the people reading it are the same people that write anti-consumerist messages next to the big-chain, culture killing department stores, and are the ones organizing protests by pasting posters on the streets and writing dates on the wall. This poster was erie to stumble upon because it felt as if it shouldn’t have been there, and that the person who put it there could have gotten in trouble for it. I think this is because the voices seen in the street typically are representative of progressive, left leaning associates who’s voices have been so notoriously silenced in Chile’s not so distant history. Thus this poster is a victory, because it acknowledges that everyone is aware that we all have our societal struggles and an equally important voice.

10.

This last piece in my opinion, is the best representation of Valparaiso and it’s street art culture. It roughly translates to, “If you’re strong, resist and don’t you forget about me.” Why this is so powerful is for all of the reasons stated before. Chile’s history during the late 20th century was an underdog story for the people that resided in the country. Those who were capable of seeing the malicious and terrifying acts being done upon them by their country’s leaders were subjected to exile, torture, or death if they were to display publicly an opinion against it. Before 1988, and under the terror regime of Allende and Pinochet, 3,000 political opponents were killed, another 3,000 were disappeared, and 30,000+ were tortured.

The people that became a victim to these terrorist dictators in their noble effort for change in standing up against their oppressive government, will never be forgotten by their families and friends who were just as involved by being Chilean. Rebellion and expression of belief has been built into the core identity of being Chilean, and it is forever for those who paved the path before them that these movements and active protests will be continued into the future. This piece is a reminder that Chileans are strong people, and that they must continue to make their voice heard, because there was a time when such an action could cost you your life. It is not just a privilege to fight for what you believe in, but it is the duty instilled upon individuals from birth with Chilean blood.