Look to the Walls

By Kary Vannice

One of the things you’ll notice when traveling in Latin America is that you don’t have to look far to find out what’s on the minds of the people who live there. All you have to do is read the walls.

By definition, graffiti is “a form of visual communication, usually illegal, involving the unauthorized marking of public space by an individual or group.” But graffiti is more and more becoming understood as an expressive art form as well. And municipalities here in Mexico are using it to send messages of public health and safety, encouragement and acknowledgement during the current global pandemic.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, has recently sponsored a movement of young artists to create larger-than-life murals to encourage its citizens to mask up and take precautions in an effort to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus. The Director of Culture and Traditions invited local street artists between the ages of 14 and 25 to participate in a city-wide muralist workshop. Various buildings and walls were designated in strategic areas throughout San Miguel to serve as their canvas for creating powerful PSAs for the people living near them or passing by.

The workshop featured two well-known and accomplished graffiti artists who designed the murals and then acted as mentors to younger artists who apprenticed under them, perfecting their technique while bringing the designs to life.

Luckily for San Miguel residents, the two have very different artistic styles, which makes the murals distinct and meaningful in their own unique ways. One artist, Juce, focused on honoring the many men and women who have contributed to the safety and well-being of all Mexicans, by featuring health care workers, supply-chain employees carrying boxes of safety equipment and even the general public wearing masks. He named the work “The triumph of society and work over a pandemic.”

The other artist, Persak, choose a more artistic approach, literally, designing three enormous murals of the Mona Lisa, Van Gogh and even Mexico’s own Frida Kahlo, all wearing masks.

San Miguel is not alone in leveraging street art as a public and popular way of encouraging Mexicans to participate in the effort to slow the coronavirus. Recently the news outlet El Universal featured Sergio Morales, known as Applezman, a Mexico City street artist who has also been spraying his visual messages along the city’s metro lines. One huge mural features Capitan America, Iron Man, Batman and Spiderman, all flanking a Mexican female nurse in scrubs and a mask. The tagline above it reads A Las Héroes de Verdad, Gracias (To the real heroes, thank you). It is significant in Spanish that the artist wrote “Las” Héroes and not “Los” Héroes. By using the feminine article (las) he is speaking about women, in this case nurses, as the true heroes of the pandemic here in Mexico.

When asked about the mural, Applezman said, “The image is of the nurse because they are the ones who are protecting us, not the National Guard or the Army; they will do so at their due time, but now, the honor is for these doctors and nurses, and everyone who is fighting.”

When questioned about how he hopes his art is affecting the people of Mexico City, he said, “Sometimes we think seeing is believing, but I only tell them to take care of themselves because sometimes those who don’t believe are the ones who fall. We know that everyone can get infected, ourselves, or our colleagues; that’s why I ask people to follow the rules. There are people who are against the system but that is not a reason to not take care of their own health and their families.”

An interesting message from a graffiti artist, someone many in our society would see as “against the system” himself.

It seems, in the time of coronavirus, factions who would have once stood against each other, municipalities and graffiti artists, have found a way to come together to send a message of hope, encouragement and gratitude. And at the same time made our bleak world more colorful and our outlook for the future a bit brighter.

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