Innovative graffiti is putting Argentina on the urban cultural map, according to Maximiliano Ruiz, the
author of a ground-breaking introduction to the country’s street art, in London for his book’s release.
He tells Gavin O’Toole why
MAXIMILIANO RUIZ is the author of Graffiti Argentina, a ground-breaking tour of street art recently launched by Thames & Hudson. Born in 1982 in Buenos Aires, he studied cinema at ORT university. At 19, he started working as an assistant director for production companies such as Film Planet or Patagonic Films, then as a director for video clips, TV shows and short cuts. He is the founder of “La Marangel Films” and the director of the Buenos Aires edition of the international shortcuts festival “Quickflick World”. He met graffiti artists during his many travels in South and Central America and developed a deep interest in Latin street art.
How did publication of Graffiti Argentina come about?
MR – A friend showed me a book about European graffiti he’d just been given. It was the first time I’d seen a book like that. The book revealed an art form of incredible quality but made in the streets, there for anyone to destroy and for everyone to appreciate. Immediately, I thought about the level of the local Argentine scene and how interesting it would be to undertake a project of this kind but focused on the local movement. First, I had to define whether the local level was worthy of such a project. Thanks to various cinema and TV productions about local Hip Hop, I had several contacts close to the subject who introduced me within the movement, but I was not completely convinced until I met Jazz, the local artist. With him, I discovered a branch of local artists that were detaching themselves from the standards of international graffiti in style and originality.
I must point out that the principal motivation was always how much fun and how interesting it would be to carry out a cultural project that I was not familiar with, in a format (book publishing) that I’d never worked with before, and which had no guarantees of reaching fruition. I think all this lack of awareness, motivation, allowed everything to come out in the best possible way. I set about bringing together sufficient material to put together an outline of 20 pages. Once I had got this, I contacted a French graphic designer and friend, Pauline Aubry, who was immediately interested and committed herself to the project. In parallel, I was investigating how the local and global publishing world worked. Once the outline had been finalised, I presented it to a local publisher important in the graphic arts, the director was very interested in the project, but the guidelines for editing it included changing the designer and director… I don’t know anyone who could have accepted such an offer. Then I discovered that in Argentina itself if the book was published it wouldn’t have much of a future. So I searched for the best art publishers in the world, Thames & Hudson seemed to be the best option and with the best profile for my book. I emailed them with the proposal, and a few days later I received a letter from the CEO. Two years later the book was being distributed globally.
What are the main influences on the artists that appear in the book?
MR – The principal influence for the local artists, I think, is in fact the lack of influences. The isolation from information and the lack of exposure to a mediocre mass culture from the northern hemisphere. The lack of materials for painting with and references (magazines, videos etc.) This was clearest in the 90s, a situation that has changed currently. This lack of influences is such that it makes the local artist look and concentrate on what is surrounding him naturally – context and culture. There’s a strong strain from Argentine tradition and indigenous South American cultures.
What do you consider to be your personal contribution to the evolution of graff art in Argentina?
MR – I think my contribution has been based on helping local graffiti to become a little better known. The projection of Argentine graffiti outside the country helps to generate interest among many artists and foreign movements and they even travel there forging alliances and friendships in ways that come out in the evolution of the local style.
Heart of graff art
Has Buenos Aires been converted into the international heart of graff art?
MR – No, I don’t think so. In fact I don’t think graff art has a heart. Sure, there are certain cities that are notable and Buenos Aires is gaining great importance in the current movement. It is the lack of nuclei and decentralisation that makes graff grow and evolve in unlikely places, like Argentina.
What are the special qualities of graff art in comparison with other forms of art?
MR – Basically, it is differentiated by being a movement born on the streets, and that has only managed to survive and develop because it has never left the streets. It is not an art form that can be taught, it is learned in anonymity and through constant practice, which takes place precisely on the streets.
Words rarely appear in the graff art in your book: is this the norm in Argentina graff and why?
MR – Letters are something more than important in graff: in fact graff was born in that way. In Argentina, the level of lettering is elevated and interesting as regards innovation. To be able to reach a point of really appreciating letters requires a great deal of knowledge about graff. When I began the project, I said to myself that I would do a book that pleased both writers with experience as well as those alien to the subject and I think that this is exactly why I decided to peel off the graff with letters and take the book through the forms and characters that I think are the strength of Argentine graffiti.
Do Argentine graff artists feel marginalised from the international avant-garde or do they form part of it?
MR – Local artists certainly note that they are not on the international circuit. That’s a fact. I think this has two sides to it: there are always those who demand more recognition and fame while many others know how to appreciate anonymity or a low profile. Argentine graff is experiencing a boom in popularity, it’s a moment in which it’s very important to defend the identity of local graff.
To what extent has Argentine graff art developed its own unique style?
MR – There are certainly new propositions and ideas in Argentina never before seen, but this is only the base of support and influence upon which new local artists who take local graff to new and more original styles are generated. I think this is a development that can be noticed clearly in Brazilian graff.
Why do the Argentine authorities turn a blind eye to graffiti?
MR – It must be principally because their superiors (the government) does not order them to repress it. Anyone with a bit of sense (even a policeman) knows that a kid painting a wall does not represent a threat. In Argentina, the police have things that are much more serious to worry about, even though they don’t want to tell us what they are up to.
Can the growing enthusiasm for graff art be associated with broader post-authoritarian tendencies?
MR – The anti-authoritarian tendency of the current government is definitely not related to the evolution or recognition of local graff. The government is unaware of the potential and quality of Argentine graffiti: if it were, this would expand and be promoted globally as Brazilian urban art is – but the differences are clear.
Is graff art taken more seriously as part of contemporary culture in Argentina than in other countries?
MR – It is taken very seriously at the private cultural level. Be it in design, or the profile of events or companies. Also at a social level it has gained much positive recognition among people, but not at the level of cultural policy. It definitely does not have the same recognition as many other developed countries give graffiti (although paradoxically these are the countries which repress graff most).
To what extent has graff art influenced other aspects of Argentine audiovisual culture?
MR – Today it is portrayed as the new urban Argentine culture, which generates a great deal of acceptance and inclusion in audiovisual and design media. There are now many companies that are buying into the graff style and culture in their corporate aesthetic and profile. The union between the urban style and the unlimited resources of new graphic tools allows the influence of graffiti to be taken to very interesting new levels.
Surely graff exists to make an affirmation – one message of your book is that this is not necessarily so: how come?
MR – In my book the artists defend the position that they are conveying a message in the non-message. There is nothing explicit, everything rests on the style and the effect this has upon people. It doesn’t matter what this effect is – good, ugly, bad, rejection – all that matters is that it has an effect that changes your day for one second.
What do you think about the work of Banksy?
MR – He’s a true professional (in the good and bad sense of the word) with regard to everything that making urban art means. His work is completely original, it’s everywhere, he’s known across the world, and he remains anonymous.