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A Street Art Renaissance

by Tony McClafferty

Photos by Tony McClafferty

A few weeks back I was walking home from the office in Recoleta when I stumbled upon what seemed to be a spontaneous graffiti session on the corner of Sanchez de Bustamante and Charcas.  I stood there and watched two men on scaffolding paint the southeast wall on Bustamante.  There was a group of some 6 or 7 people watching and photographing from across the street.  I stopped for a split second before I took off running the two and half blocks to my apartment to grab my camera.  I wasn’t sure how long it would take for the police to break it up, so I quickly made it back, camera in hand, determined to capture the scene.  Once I returned, I realized that the men weren’t painting anything.  They were plastering panels of a huge photograph on the wall, and they didn’t seem to be in a hurry at all.  I took some pictures and then walked across the street to figure out what was going on.  I quickly found out that no one was going to stop the graffiti artists. 

Buenos Aires has relaxed attitude when it comes to graffiti.  In fact most of the people that walked by as we watched seemed to enjoy the fact that art was going up in their neighborhood.  There was however one compliant.  An elderly woman whose balcony faces the wall came down to ask why they were painting monsters.  But, note the complaint was not about the graffiti, it was an art critique. 

In the group, I met Polish street artist Yola Kudela whose work we were watching go up.  Yola recreates famous Renaissance paintings as street art with twists that makes the pieces modern and poignant.  The majority of her work is located in the Polish capital of Warsaw where she has reinterpreted Michelangelo, Titian, and Antonello da Messina using a style of photographic collages.  Yola’s use of real people in her interpretations breathes a new vitality into these classic Renaissance images. Yola had arrived a week prior from her current home in England to recreate “The Vicious Circle” by 19th century Polish artist Jacek Malczewski here in Buenos Aires.  Yola’s version features photographs of people that she met during her time in Buenos Aires.  There are people from different parts of the world including Argentina, France, Colombia, Bolivia, and United States.

A Street Art Renaissance

The Vicious Circle by Jacek Malczewski

A Street Art Renaissance

“I wanted to represent the diversity of those living in Buenos Aires,” Yola explains. “For me coming to a foreign country, it was important to talk a bit about immigration, about the movement of people.” When asked about her movement, her decision to come to Buenos Aires, Yola replied. “I came to visit a friend, but I was also interested in doing something here as well.  I’ve been told about the graffiti and street art here, and I wanted to participate.  I was able to get in contact with people here so that we could collaborate.”  

For Yola, this relationship was important especially concerning the collaborative nature of her topic: the collection of people from diverse backgrounds, moving in circles together. “I didn’t want to come here and just put my art up. What’s the point to put it up and then leave?” she explains.

So Yola arranged to install her collage in conjunction with other street artists living and working in Buenos Aires.  Her piece is situated between the work of three other artists:  Jaz from Buenos Aires, Corona from France, and Other from Canada.

“These artists helped me integrate my work into the city’s art scene,” Yola recounts. “It was amazing to work with them.  There was no artist ego at all. They left me a large space in the middle, and told me that I could work freely.”

A Street Art Renaissance
A Street Art Renaissance
A Street Art Renaissance

Above, the artists: Yola Kudela and JAZ

While talking with Yola, one of these artists returned in a beat-up grey auto with dinosaurs painted on the doors.  Jaz, the solo Argentine artist in the group, has been spreading his graffiti around Buenos Aires since 1999, and his distinctive style can be seen all over Palermo, the barrio where he grew up. 

“I love working with other artists when they visit Buenos Aires,” he says.  “Graffiti is a mobile art form, and it’s part of our culture to bring our art with us wherever we go.” 

But after recounting a story of a visit to Paris where he spent a night in jail for attempting to paint in a shady neighborhood and also explaining the dangers of painting in São Paulo, Jaz admits that Buenos Aires is a unique spot for street artists. 

“We are lucky to have the freedom to paint here, and I think this freedom allows creativity to develop.  But still, I’d like to see the younger artists take advantage of it more”, he laughs.  “But I think that that is just the drive to improve.  The art here is always changing, always progressing.  It’s hard to stay still for too long.”  When I ask if he thinks that his collaboration with Yola will stick around for a while, he nods.  “The artists will respect this.  It’s large and detailed, and Yola’s piece especially is very beautiful.  Still it’s hard to say for sure.”

Jaz explains that he expects that the piece would be incorporated into any future graffiti that goes on the wall.  I think that would make Yola happy to know that her photograph capturing Buenos Aires’ mixture of human stories will remain in the mix for some time to come.

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