Street art and democracy in Latin America

Project description

The explosion of street art in large cities across the world has received a wide scholarly attention. Drawing from different disciplines such as urban cultural studies (Biron, 2009), art studies (Waclawek, 2011), anthropology (Epstein, 2015) and sociology (Crettiez, Piazza, 2014), the literature has addressed the intentions of the artists, the forms of their interventions, as well as the reception of their work. 

In Latin America, scholars have tried to grasp the political dimension of this artistic expression. Graffiti emerged at the end of the 1960s in an authoritarian context. Then its expansion is contemporary to the transitions to democracy in the 1980s. Thirty years later, a context of frustration accompanies the explosion of street art in large cities. Representative democracy is a huge disappointment for younger generations. They feel disenfranchised and marginalized by the political systems, and reject the politicians who seem to ignore them. When voting is no longer an option, street art has been apprehended as an alternative way to voice concerns and convey public messages. In this line, graffiti and stencils have been studied as social movements in México (McCaughan, 2012), Argentina (Longoni, 2008) and Puerto Rico (Everhart, 2012) and as political expressions of urban disenfranchised youngsters (Chaffee, 1993).

This literature takes for granted that wall painting is an illegal repertoire of contention. It assumes that violating the law is part of its identity and reveals its political dimension. Graffiti is subversive because the artists invade public space and deliver provocative messages.

A closer look unveils a more diversified, complex and nuanced picture. Public space invasiveness can take many different forms and can occur in many different legal settings and political environments. Street art can consist of very large colorful paintings displayed on deprived peripheral neighborhoods’ semi-abandoned walls, provocative small stencils reproduced in more vibrant centric avant-garde zones, or letters aggressively tagged in residential or business areas. These expressions can develop in a legal vacuum, they can be illegal but tolerated by the police, or they can be regulated by specific rules. In addition, they can be dismissed as mere vandalism or valued as artistic expressions by local politicians and the public.

The complex interplay between the forms and contents of street art and the political and legal environments in a given time frame has not been systematically explored by the literature, a lacuna this project intends to fill.

Contribution to scientific literature

The project’s contribution to the scientific literature is two-fold: empirically, there is no comparative study of the interactions between street art and local authorities in Latin America; theoretically, this research shows that the interaction between artists and authorities informs the quality of democracy at the local level. The way some sense of civic awareness permeates the artists’ work, the subversive dimension of their contextual art, their disposition to engage in negotiations, the way they organize to claim representativeness, their capacity to constrain or even reverse the power relations with the authorities are all indicative of their contribution to what Stout (2010) calls grassroots democracy. Equally, when the authorities open a space for deliberation and accept the outcomes of the negotiation, they display a proclivity for participatory democracy.

Research design and expected publication

The project includes a comparative analysis of Colombia, México, Chile, Brazil and Cuba. A book will be published in 2019.