The use of street art, also known as graffiti,
has become so popular in recent years that Lyman Chaffee goes so far as to call
it “a mass communication medium.”
that the graffiti resides in often affects perception of graffiti by a
country’s citizens. In most of
North America graffiti is considered to be a defacement of public property, is
usually seen as distasteful and tacky, and is often associated with poverty and
crime. Within Mexican culture,
however, graffiti has taken on a different connotation. Various forms of graffiti are
widespread throughout Mexico and seem to be tolerated to a greater extent than
they are in the United States and Canada. This artistic
medium is individualized by artists within their local culture; their
works participate in a dialogue with the socially-constructed world of
graffiti. This essay will describe
many different forms of graffiti found in Mexico, as well as attempt to
describe the artistic, social, and political motivations behind these works of
Mexican graffiti art often deals with
political and social issues. Criticism and scholarly writings on Mexican graffiti art often discuss
artists draw on a tradition of street art pioneered by earlier mural artists. Murals often seek to express political
opinions, but are often said to sacrifice creativity for propagandistic
utility. Tags, a quick “signature”
type of graffiti, are a way for young graffiti artists to create a new identity
or alter-ego in a “figured world” – a place where they can hide behind
their tag names.
As Sylvia Ann Grider suggests, the writing of important names on walls often tie these names to a
significant object, event, or place with Mexican culture.
No matter what the graffiti seeks to
conceptually engage with, from politics to identity, the artist that creates
the work is attempting to freely express themselves through their artistic
work. Such is the purpose of all visual art, and graffiti should not be viewed
any differently. Although this may
seem strange within our industrial, First World nation, it has become
increasingly common in many less industrialized nations such as Mexico. It may even be possible to say that
Mexico has developed a culture of
Background/Summary of Research
Latin American graffiti has been a hot topic
of interest analyzed by many anthropologists in recent decades. Many motifs seem to exist within
previous research conducted in this subject area, such as: graffiti crews as
communities, creating an identity for oneself, freedom of expression, and art
as a political, historical, or cultural medium. Many other authors, including Chaffee, have also attempted
to explain certain factors that influence Latin American street art, and I will
give a brief overview of the relevant literature.
One of the most common misconceptions about
the use of street art as viewed from within Mexican culture is the relation
that it has with “gangs” and “violence.”
Valle and Weiss describe the youth groups that take part in acts of graffiti as familia or
These crews are not violent gangs as they are portrayed in North American
media; instead they act more like a family unit. The members of a certain crew become very close with one
another, taking care of each other, learning from one another, sharing
supplies, and spending the majority of their time with one another.
This ability to feel as though they are part of a community is one of the
motivating factors for many youth to become part of a graffiti crew. Most individuals that are part of these
youth crews feel isolated from mainstream society, and therefore they “seek out
the company of others who resemble them” as a way to feel accepted.
Thus, their passion for graffiti is a means of bringing them together.
Just as being part of a graffiti crew
generates a feeling of acceptance, the ability to create a new identity often
establishes a sense of comfort and control for Mexican youth. This ability to hide behind a tag name
or alter ego is what Valle and Weiss describe as the “figured world” of
The “figured world” can be seen as a place where the youth feel safe expressing
their emotions because it is not necessarily attributed to themselves. David Spener and Kathleen Staudt attribute this obsession of spreading a “tag name” to the fact that many youth
within bigger cities, such as Mexico City, feel as though they have no
The use of
graffiti to publicize their moniker gives them a sense of validation that they
are otherwise unable to achieve. Valle and Weiss describe this phenomenon in a similar manner, because it
is this “virtual identity...that can make artists famous through a pseudonym
(tag name) while providing them with physical cover.”
This security allows youth to feel
comfortable, achieve ‘status’ within their local society, and still maintain
their regular identity apart from the figured world of graffiti.
Another genre of predominantly Mexican
graffiti that artists use to establish individual identity is what Brenda Jo
Bright and Elizabeth Bakewell briefly refer to as
“C/S” or con safos.
The basic idea of con safosis that the person writing it
is saying, “I free myself from whatever ugly slur you write against my name”.
This symbolic graffiti always accompanies names in some way, and is important
in Mexican culture because of the value that is associated with names for
animate and inanimate objects.
Instead of hiding behind a figured
world as Valle and Weiss describe, con safos allows Mexicans to put their own name, as well as
the names of loved ones, on a wall without having to fear that the graffiti
will be defaced.
of graffiti is very common among Mexican youth because it enables them to
establish an identity safely as well as communicate with one another.
Chaffee describes this form of public elucidation as a type of “mass
communication” that often engrains itself within a culture and becomes a
predominant way of expressing oneself.
Graffiti has become such an integral part of
Mexican culture because it can be used to express concern about politics and
society. This functional aspect of Mexican street art has been thoroughly
analyzed by scholars. The type of political graffiti that has a long history
and has been most popular in Mexico is the mural. In fact, Mexican murals date
back to the pre-Columbian era, and modern muralism back to the 1920’s and 1930’s when Diego Rivera was spreading murals throughout
Mexico in the post-revolutionary period.
Scholars are not unanimous in their opinion as to the validity of murals as a
type of graffiti. Chaffee asserts that murals are less artistic than
traditional graffiti because they must be done in a timely manner as well as
portray a meaningful message, whereas Bright and Bakewell believe that “graffiti...[is] public vandalism, while muralism is, conversely, read as a legitimate art form.”
In my opinion Chaffee’s opinion is not a valid argument to refute the
legitimacy of murals as a type of graffiti because the connotation behind
graffiti is often as significant as it is for murals. Although distinct in many
ways, murals have a similar purpose as conventional graffiti. For this reason I
choose not to differentiate graffiti and murals as two separate classes. In
general though, the way society classifies art, as either vandalism or muralism, may affect whether it is perceived as legitimate
The idea of murals being used as a medium to
convey political messages may seem strange at first, but in Mexico it is one of
the best ways to maintain a “public visibility” while the anonymity of the
street artist keeps the state’s power in check.
According to Chaffee one of the main
reasons that murals are so popular as a form of political communication is
because newspapers, magazines, and television are not universally important
within the Mexican culture.
much time is spent on the streets in Mexico, walls are a very simple and
effective way to get messages to the public. Graffiti also becomes extremely important to smaller, more
marginalized groups in society, or those whose opinions run contrary to the
mainstream political view. These groups have no access to other forms of media
and cannot afford other ways of getting their messages to the public. Murals can express a great deal of
information, be visible to thousands of people, and convey messages that would
be very difficult to express in words alone.
The third important use of graffiti as a
political medium is its prevalence near the U.S.-Mexico border. Border graffiti often employs an
“avant-garde” aesthetic that reflects its position on the cultural frontier.
Functionally it borders on both high art and political propaganda.
Physically it resides on a similar fine line, between opposing classes
Completely different cultures can
usually be found on either side of the walls that separate the U.S. and Mexico,
but the murals attempt to ‘break down’ the wall by defying cultural norms and
creating a sense of unity between the two countries.
It is through the genre of border art
that Mexican muralists and graffiti artists attempt to make a name for themselves and prove that they are in no way inferior to
their American counterparts and the rest of the world.
While it can be used as a medium for political
commentary, graffiti is universally perceived in the scholarly community mainly
as a form of self-expression. Valle and Weiss claim that it is the equivalent
of shouting “I’m here! Look at me,” to get the attention of the public and gain
some type of prestige and self-worth.
Although this form of self-expression is normally thought of as an act of
vandalizing public property in much of North America, it means much more to the
artists: “In the graffiti movement the object is not the destruction but
re-building a new definition of the city.”
The artists are seeking to do this as
well as seize agency, demand recognition, and establish a community that they
are able to freely participate in. Mexican street art has accomplished this and
more by building a completely new and interesting subculture centered on
graffiti while shedding light on its ability to be a constructive and creative
The results presented within this next
section have resulted from analysis of my data collected during a weeklong trip
to South-Central Mexico in February of 2010. The graffiti that I observed was mostly found within Mexico
City, the same place that Valle and Weiss conducted their fieldwork with the
two Mexican youth crews.
of my trip was not centered around anthropological
fieldwork, therefore the amount of data I collected was not very
extensive. My decision to document
the graffiti that lined the walls and streets of Mexico City was made when an
accompanying peer described the view from the bus as a “culture of
graffiti.” This instantly drew my
attention and I began taking as many pictures as possible and taking notes
whenever I could.
The data that I collected was more
qualitative than quantitative in the sense that I did not have a large sample,
and unfortunately I was not able to capture all of the detail that I would have
liked. Most of the time spent
travelling through the city was on a bus, so I took pictures out of the window
but was not able to stop and make extended observations. The only time I walked through the city
was at night, making it difficult to collect further data. Although my ability to observe the
graffiti was fairly limited, my long bus ride through the city gave me a small
sample of various types of graffiti in different locations around Mexico
City. This sample has given me a
sufficient amount of data to begin to analyze and interpret the place of
graffiti within the context of Mexican culture.
While attempting to analyze the relevant data
I considered using Chaffee’s method of classifying graffiti into colours and physical location and using this as a basis for
However, trying to describe pieces of
street art based on their formal attributes did not intrigue me, and so instead
of grouping the art works according to formal similarities I have grouped them
according to what I judged to be the artists’ intentions.
Figure 1 represents the general
proportions of ‘motivation’ that I observed within Mexico City in terms of
graffiti. It is easy to see that
street art is predominantly a way of expressing one’s identity and trying to
gain notoriety within the figured world of graffiti. Figure 2 (A, b, c) shows three graffiti works
that I observed during my fieldwork. The first two images are difficult to distinguish from outside of the
cultural context, but could be seen as types of vandalism and pure
artwork. The third image is a
clear example of a political mural, although I am not aware of its meaning or
significance to Mexican culture or history. It could represent the exploitation
of indigenous workers, which is a very common theme of Latin American protests.
These three images are fairly representative of the small sample I was able to
collect during my time in Mexico City.
I decided to include Figure 3 to convey another major theme I came across in my reading
as well as my observations. According to Chaffee, in authoritarian systems “street art breaks the
conspiracy of silence,” whereas in more democratic societies it is used “to lobby
for their [citizen’s] interests.”
He also goes on to state
that “in regimes of particularly long or harsh authoritarian rule, an
emotional catharsis often takes place immediately following its demise.”
This release of emotion often includes
a great spike in the amounts of graffiti because citizens have been oppressed
for such long periods that this change in government allows them to express
their long-repressed emotions. Political upheaval can play a very significant role on the amount of
graffiti and its style immediately thereafter. It is easy to see that a moderate government with some
degree of freedom as well as law enforcement is the best choice to keep
graffiti to a minimum, which is normally the goal of the governing body.
In conclusion, my findings are very similar
to the previous research that has been undertaken in the area of Mexican
graffiti. Although I did not have
a very large sample size, I was able to observe examples of each type of
graffiti mentioned within the literature and approximate its significance
within Mexican culture. My observations seemed to fit into these general
categories: cultural, political, vandalism, pure art, advertisement, and
self-identity. The exception to the strong correlation between my work and
previous studies involves the prevalence of political graffiti – an issue
I will return to in a moment. There are quite a few other noteworthy things
that stood out to me that I will also discuss, including the omnipresence of
graffiti, the use of graffiti as advertisement, and the aesthetic beauty of
graffiti in public places.
At least half of the graffiti works that I
documented in Mexico City were “tags.” This supports the findings of Grider as well as Valle and Weiss who posit that personal
identity is a key factor underlying the popularity of graffiti in Mexico,
especially among youth.
Weiss’ analysis of a figured world as a tool of identity formation seems to be
the most relevant means for understanding the culture of graffiti in Mexico
City due to the overwhelming prevalence of tagging. Almost every wall, door,
billboard, or visible surface in Mexico City seems to have been tagged with
some form of moniker that was illegible to myself.
These markings are clear to other graffiti artists and those who have immersed
themselves or have spent time within this culture of graffiti (Figure 4 a, b, c).
Instances of politically-motivated murals or graffiti were not as prevalent as I had expected within Mexico
City. The use of graffiti to
express political opinions was a very common trope found throughout the
literature, but I only saw one instance of overt politically-motivated street art. It could be that my
sample size was too small, or that the streets that the bus travelled on were
socially biased in comparison to the rest of the city. Another possible explanation for this
lack of political graffiti is that it may not be as common as it used to
be. As Figure 3 articulates, and
as Chaffee describes to a great degree, graffiti is most common at times when
there is great oppression from authoritarian rule or large degrees of freedom
from liberal, democratic control.
been great fluxes in the degree of governmental control throughout Mexico’s
long history, and these changes may explain differences in the style of
graffiti that emerges. It is
possible that neo-liberal globalization has greatly decreased the use of
graffiti to express one’s political views. However, there is still plenty of
dissent within Mexican society, and it could be that I was just unable to
capture, analyze, and interpret some significant amounts of political graffiti.
The amount of graffiti that I observed all
around Mexico City came as a surprise to me as it is much rarer in most parts of North America and I did not originally understand it. As I continually observed the graffiti
its aesthetic function became more noticeable. This concept is completely contradictory to the view of
graffiti as vandalism in the U.S. and Canada, but it makes sense within the
cultural context. Mexico is not as
affluent a country as the rest of North America, and therefore many citizens
live in small, simple houses that lack any form of distinction from their neighbours. Graffiti gives the streets a form of ‘life’ or aesthetic excitement that
would otherwise not be present amongst the thousands of small, inner-city
houses. Not only does it create
this environment and distinguish between houses, it is also used to advertise
and differentiate between types of businesses and shops. This is logical in a culture where
street art has become the main form of communication amongst the less prosperous.
In many instances I observed graffiti above shops where signs or billboards
would normally be employed to attract the attention of the public.
When I began my trip to Mexico I had no idea
that I would be enjoying the experience from the perspective of a student of
cultural anthropology as well as a tourist and volunteer. I was able to immerse myself within a
completely new and interesting culture from an academic standpoint and learn
more about graffiti from being able to observe and study its purpose in a
context that I had never seen before. This study sought to examine the various purposes for graffiti use in
Mexico City, and how these factors can be different from the rest of North America.
The use of graffiti that I observed in Mexico City was very similar to results
that have been published in the literature by previous researchers with the one
significant observation that the use of murals as political graffiti has
seemingly decreased in current years.
I think that future studies should focus on
this political aspect of graffiti in Mexico and attempt to track its prevalence
over time. It is difficult to say
from my results, but it could be that Mexican graffiti is changing to acclimatize
itself with the rest of North America. As Mexico struggles to become part of the First World, its
politics will also have to adapt to the change. As previously noted, this could mean that the prevalence of
political graffiti diminishes from Mexican culture, or experiences a resurgence in popularity. This all depends on the way that Mexican citizens, graffiti
crews, and youth view this change, and the way they choose to respond to
This research project was undertaken as
part of ANT1025G - Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, taught by Dr. Linda Howie. I am grateful to Dr. Howie for her critical feedback and comments on the original manuscript. The data
that forms the basis of the project was collected during reading week, February
2010, when I was volunteering at Foundation For His Ministry Orphanage in
Morelia, Mexico. I also appreciate the effort of my peer and good friend Randa Stringer who scrupulously edits all of my essays. Her
critical feedback has become an essential part of my writing process.
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