In November of 1989, the Berlin Wall was smashed to pieces and, at the same time, so were the thousands of works of graffiti created since 1961 by politically motivated artists, coming from all four corners of the world to cover the wall as a means of protesting its existence. Exactly twenty years later, in November of 2009, there will again be the matter of a wall, but this time it is not a wall of shame, that some called “the wall,” but a wall of peace, a bearer of hope.
What is it all about? It’s an initiative of a group of youth from the Centro Cultural Siembra Arte, in the Peñalolén municipality in Santiago de Chile. The mayor, Mr. Claudio Orrego Larrain, expressed his support for the World March for Peace and Nonviolence, and the teenagers are in contact with the association World Without Wars, which is the promoter. Thanks to their enthusiasm and persuasion, these youth arranged for the municipality to put at their disposition a large wall on a city avenue that borders vineyards.
The project consists in covering this 1,000 meter long wall with graphics on a common theme: peace, nonviolence, and nuclear disarmament. Something never seen before!… Along these lines, the current Guinness record was set in 2007 for a 700 meter long wall created in Spain. Although this is not even remotely the principal motivation for the participants, that record will be broken.
Very quickly, the network of graffiti artists starts up, the first meetings mobilize “tribal chiefs” and independent artists, those in charge at World Without Wars coordinate the logistics: the forces come together. The result: more than 500 people sign up – the majority youth, coming from all over Chile as well as Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Paraguay, Costa Rica, Mexico, Spain, France, and Canada – to cover the wall during the days of November 13, 14 and 15.
Apart from these 500 artists, some 100 volunteers organized around the project, under the auspice of the municipality. So, to cover 2,000 square meters, approximately 2,000 liters of paint are needed, donated by the company Sherwin Williams… and of course, the event will take place under the watch of the local population.
Graffiti is an art form that annoys, provokes, rebels, is usually politically incorrect and points to the ills of society. Above all it is uncomfortable because it is in the view of everyone, on the street. It is not surprising that some object to it being considered as art, preferring to qualify it as vandalism. Without a doubt, these people are followers or shareholders of sterile advertising – the antithesis of art, also found on our walls – which has one mission: to transport us toward places of consumption.
The purpose of art is at least threefold. To being with, the artist draws on himself for his own material and, thus, is liberated from that material in a cathartic manner, prompting the viewer, who recognizes those same elements in himself, to identify. The artist can also transfer his own material outside of himself through the expression of new worlds, created in whole as fully ripened fruits, through a kind of alchemy, prompting the support of the viewer who understands the sentiment of the artist to be that of his own. Finally, the artist, through his work, allows for a transcendence toward new, unknown spaces, echoing the viewer’s own search deep within.
If graffiti makes one uncomfortable, that is also the proof that it is alive. In his book Graffiti, regularly reissued since 1960, Brassaï discusses marginal art, primitive, ephemeral, one in which Picasso took part. Guernica, the monumental fresco three and a half meters high by nearly eight meters wide, has become a reference work for denouncing war. Thus, a precursor to graffiti artists, the same Picasso also provoked when, during World War II, a Nazi officer asked him: “Was it you who made Guernica?” he responded: “No, it was you!”
Indeed, art has the purpose of reminding us of ourselves and at times this hurts, similar to how certain graffiti artists say that they consider their paintings to be a burn.
Archeologists hesitate to consider as graffiti all of the prehistoric paintings at Lascaux. However, they are murals, without at doubt the first ones of humanity. But who knows how the creators were considered 16,000 years ago? As vandals, fools, wizards, visionaries? Did they help the caveman take one more step in his evolution?
We stand in awe in front of the Last Judgment, a fresco 20 meters high by 10 meters wide, painted by Michelangelo around 1515, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. What they don’t tell us is that at the time the fresco was a scandal, due the 400 figures represented that are completely nude.
While Michelangelo received his orders from the Pope, the Mexican painter Diego Rivera, an emblematic figure in murals at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, not only attacked the church and the clergy through his work but also was able to recount the history of the Mexican people, long ago colonized, through vividly colored paintings.
Graffiti is present in the most significant moments in history. We find its fingerprints in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt; in Tikal, in Guatemala, one of the principal Mayan archeological sites; in Turkey, with the runic alphabet used by ancient Anglo-Saxon people; or in the Varyags, those Vikings from Denmark and Sweden; in Constantinople, in the Roman catacombs; on the wall of the prisons of the tower of Crest, in France, where, around 1850, Protestants were imprisoned for religious or political reasons; during the revolutions; under occupation (the Reichstag covered in graffiti by Russian troops); during the Algerian War; during May 1968; and more recently on the subway in New York, on the walls in Hiroshima, etc.
Graffiti is not only a rebellion, it can also be a path, an invitation to think, to see in another way, a passage to another reality, an invitation to go out of the box. No matter what, this form of expression does not leave anyone indifferent. Thus for example, recently, this past April, the first international graffiti exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris received more than 80,000 visitors in one month.
We congratulate in advance these 500 graffiti artists who should give us a breath of fresh air, as they have to open new windows in this world that is becoming suffocating…
What are these youth going to tell us, through their viewpoints and their sensibilities, so often worn on their sleeves? What are their works going to remind us of? What communicates “peace” for them? What kind of peace will their painting send us toward? How will they express their rejection of violence? Will it incite us to definitively adopt a nonviolent attitude? How are they going to show the nuclear monster? What kind of realization will it awake in us?
We congratulate this courageous cultural exhibition that consists in making tangible a collective thought and feeling that seems to say: watch out, the world can change; and watch out, we have to change.
*(Translation: T. M. Orzolek)*