New muralism in my backyard

Part 1 of 2

I live in Colonia Doctores, near the historic center of Mexico City. It is not a neighborhood one associates with foreign expats in this city, although it is next Roma and Condesa, which have large expat numbers. The reason for the lack of gringos and other foreigners is that Doctores has long been a “zona popular,” a lower-class neighborhood.

It is not the most dangerous neighborhood in Mexico City, but it is not the safest and lacks the architecture (old mansions) as well as trendy nightclubs and restaurants that Roma, Condesa and points west have. Despite hearing gunshots and other disturbances (which to be fair, happen in “safe” areas, too), I have lived with zero problems in my modest apartment just off Lazaro Cárdenas.

Shrine to Santa Muerte near my house in Colonia Doctores

Mexico City has participated in the worldwide boom in street and urban art… basically, graffiti which has evolved into art. Most  of this work still uses the signature spray paint, but it is not unusual to see people painting walls with brushes, rollers, stencils and even using other materials such as charcoal.

So far, global attention to artistic graffiti has centered on New York and Europe, with Banksy probably being the best known artist of this kind. But Mexico has a number of advantages culturally that may make it the next major powerhouse in the urban art scene.

Mural depicting Azteca dancers in San Juan Totoltepec, Mexico City

The first is just the sheer amount of creativity the culture fosters. This atmosphere has one one major draw for foreign artists to not only come here, but often to stay the rest of their lives. As street art moves in mural making, Mexico is uniquely qualified to contribute to this endeavor with the tradition founded by Diego Rivera and others just after the Mexican Revolution. The kids with spray cans are now doing murals related to Mexican culture, history, social and political issues as well, but there are some important differences from their predecesors. First, many of these artists have little to no formal artistic training. They did not travel to Europe to study the masters or even go to the major art schools of their home country. They learned from their friends and through experimentation on their own. American artist and art teacher Jason Schell, who founded the Urban Art Show in Mexico, stated that there is a vast pool of “raw talent” that are creating with the bare minimum of supplies and support.

L: Mural covering a side of an apartment building by Jackson R: A stencil on a building, photo by Ezequiel netri

The muralism of the 1920s to 1950s was heavily patronized by the Mexican government, whose main concern was establishing the post-revolutionary regime’s legitimacy. To do this, they glorified the Revolution and created a new concept of what it means to be Mexico, one that included its indigenous past. The works that got commissioned were painting on government buildings, schools and other public places, with intended audienced (in most cases) ordinary people, not the elite.

Work by Maria Luisa Estrada Sanchez
Today’s urban graffiti murals are also aimed at the general public, but such work has only very very recently begun to be patronized by government entities and some community organizations. Until this decade, almost all mural work was self-financed, obtaining permission from property owners to paint. This meant that artists did not have government telling them what to paint; their only constraint was that it had to please the owner of the building. It also meant that their work did not appear on any government buildings, and have mostly been relegated to “zona populares” such as Colonia Doctores, other such neighborhoods in Mexico City and the adjacent cities to the north and east. It is interesting to note that these murals continue the tradition of glorifying Mexico’s mestizaje (mixed race) heritage, established in the 1920s, but does NOT glorify the government in anyway. In fact there has been work, both small and large scale, that is critical of the government and brings to light various social issues. One such issue relates to the still-missing 43 teacher-college students that disappeared in Ayotzingo, Guerrero and are presumed dead.

Portion of a work by estudiohikarimaerz dedicated to Mexican-Japanese friendship at the Museo de Juguete Antiguo.
Mexico’s promise as a street/urban art community is such that the international organization Meeting of Styles established a Mexican branch in the early 2010s and holds a festival every year painting in the southern part of the historic center and into Line 1 of the Metro. In 2018, Mexico’s first fully homegrown urban art festival was started by artist Roberto Shimizu, who paints, promotes and organizes out of his father’s fascinating toy museum (Museo de Juguete Antiguo de Mexico) located in Colonia Doctores (two blocks from my house). This event came onto the scene and exploded by 2019. In Part 2, we will talk more in depth about this event, especially the 2019 edition which just (officially) concluded.


Featured image: Mural by the Axolotl collective as part of the Barrio Vivo event 2019 in Colonia Doctores, Mexico City.

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