One reason I feel at home in Mexico City is that there are similarities to where I am from, the NY metro area. Most Americans who come to Mexico don’t know that there is immigration INTO the country, and have little interest in such. But Mexico’s small immigration groups have had a much larger impact on the country than their numbers would suggest. And believe it or not, one of the most steady streams of immigration into the country has been from Japan.
Roberto Yuichi Shimizu is a second-generation Mexican who is fluent in Spanish, Japanese and English. And believe it or not, his family has made their home and mark in the working-class neighborhood of Colonia Doctores. Roberto’s father, Roberto Sr, is known for founding the Museo de Juguete Antiguo de México (MUJAM, Antique Toy Museum of Mexico), basically as a place to safeguard his tremendous collection of antique commercially-made toys, almost all from the 20th century. Despite having 3+ floors of a building in Dr. Olvera Street stuffed full, Roberto Sr. states that the museum holds only about 5% of the total collection he has amassed over his lifetime.
Not even 1% of what the museum proper holds
Roberto Jr., who prefers to be called Shimi, grew up around this collection and his father’s obsession with scouring flea markets and other places to find more toys. These outings brought him in contact with Mexico City’s street culture, along with growing up in Doctores. It also seemed to instill in him the need to dedicate himself to something, even if it wasn’t toys. Shimi’s father also encouraged his children to read. The children were limited in what they could ask for, except in the purchase of books, of which they were allowed to purchase however many they liked. One book Shimi bought was on graffiti art in the United States. With this book, he became familiar with the work of famous graffiti artists such as D. White in New York. And he was hooked. Shimi would go on to become an urban artist, painting in various parts of Mexico as well as the United States and Brazil, but he is best known as an organizer and promoter.
Shimi studied architecture in college, becoming interested in urban studies and design. After working for a time in Japan, he returned to Mexico to help with the family business and, of course, the museum. Shimi decided to take a vacant warehouse in the same neighborhood and convert it into a kind of museum annex, calling it the Foro Cultural de MUJAM. It was dedicated to experimenting with new ideas in urban art, music and events for collectors of other items such as stickers. During its run, the Foro Cultural was sucessful enough to launch the career of several urban artists and musicians, but it became too big to run without outside support, which unfortunately, did not come.
Graffiti “tattoos” on the rooftop space of MUJAM. (L: AA Monk R:Lina Fresa)
The Foro closed, and Shimi began organizing street events in Colonia Doctores, as well as taking over the top floor and roof of his father’s museum as a kind of headquarters for his activities. The roof area is called the “rooftop” using the English word. Shimi describes as a kind of “speakeasy” (again using English) for urban artists as it is generally not open to the public, but it regulary hold events which are. These and other areas of the museum have urban art interventions, large and small, which Shimi likens to tattoos. Each tells a story of an event and/or people who have gathered there. About 100 works have been painted at the museum, but not all are still in existance.
Urban art murals inside MUJAM (L and C artists unknown, R: Nabs @nabsd.art)
Since the Foro closed, one of Shimi’s main projects has been the creation of the Doctores Art District, focusing on culture in six colonias (neighborhoods) located just south and southwest of the historic center of Mexico City: Doctores, Obrera, Algarín, Buenos Aires, Roma and Condesa. The first four are poor, working-class areas which are adjacent to Roma and Condesa, which are upper class and already known for culture.
This and his painting has since led to the launch of the Barrio Vivo (Living Neighborhood) Festival in 2018. It was an immediate success, and so far the only fully home-grown urban art event in Mexico City. The 2019, it had the participation of 90 artists, 70 of whom had to compete with hundreds of other contenders to win space to paint. Half of the winning entries were from abroad, from countries such as Spain, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, the United States, France, Canada and Venezuela. In the end, about 60 murals were painted in the Doctores Art District, and the event was supported by Osel Painting, Tuborg and Golden Kintama as well as borough authorties. Despite the event being only in its second year, the accepted artists paid their own expenses to come and paint, as patronage right now for the event is absolutely basic. These artists believe it is worth paying such costs to have a Mexico City wall in their “book.” It is also important because Shimi selects the participating artists taking care to have both well-known and upcoming artists working side-by-side.
Shimi is called the “curator” of urban art in the Doctores Art District, but he shrugs off that title. While it is true that he selects artists and assigns them space, he says the real curators are the “grafiteros” of the area. If they do not like a work, they will vandalize it. If they do like it, they will leave it alone. He calls it “street curating.” He expects only about 40 or 50 of this year’s murals to survive to next year.
Organizing the Barrio Vivo event takes a full year to do, so work on the 2020 version has already begun. His work with urban art has led to invitations to speak about Mexico’s role in it in the country and in the United States, with his experience and education giving a unique perspective. Shimi believes urban art is important in Mexico because it can rescue, or at least give value to lower-class neighborhoods such as Doctores. If quality murals exist, people from other parts of the city and even tourist will visit, allowing people to see a different side to these neighborhoods. For this reason, one of his main goal is to continuing the development of Barrio Vivo, if not in numbers of artists and murals, in better logistics and cooperation with more organizations.
Both Robertos (father and son) have emphasized that Mexico has been very good to their family and that it is important to give back. Both the museum and the urban art activities allow them to do this. The museum gets quite a few visitors despite its location and even more so now that it is an “embassy” of modern urban art, bringing together artists from all over Mexico and other parts of the world. The benefitting colonias have also responded very favorably, with building owners now approaching the museum to offer space to paint. And not only private buildings, Shimi has gotten wall space on local landmarks such as the Hidalgo Market and the public employee union building.}
Barrio Vivo is part of both Mexico’s muralism tradition as well as the modern global boom in urban art. It has already worked to mitigate Mexico’s reputation for violence and disorganization, but Shimi believes much more needs to be done.
All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia – featured image of work by CTNFZ