The writing on the wall


Isabel O’Toole puts down her spray can to marvel at murals that scream
¡Viva Artgentina!


Graffiti Argentina
Edited by Maximiliano Ruiz
2008, Thames & Hudson
152 pages, illustrations, hardback

Reviewed by Isabel O’Toole

HAT is to head as Argentina is to … graffiti. Or so we discover in Maximiliano Ruiz’s Graffiti Argentina, which quickly dispels the notion that the heart of graf art is Los Angeles and tempts its readers to stray further – to the streets of Argentina, where, literally, there is art around every corner.

Unrecognised until now, the main Argentinean graf artists have practised their passion on the streets unchallenged by the authorities. Influenced by Los Angeles graffiti art, Picasso and even flamenco music, those featured in this book demonstrate real dedication and originality. The collection of images charts Argentina’s main street artists in their quest to paint the town red (and blue, green, yellow…).

Graffiti Argentina may initially seem like a picture book, as the examples of graffiti on display are so intricate and eye-catching that the text is easy to overlook. However, it is sprayed with easy-to-read, inspirational quotes from the artists themselves through which they each reveal a real revolutionary spirit. Their commitment to changing their country suggests that you don’t have to be a Guevara to be a Che.

It is also interesting to note that the Argentinean authorities turn a blind eye to graffiti as long as it is not offensive: it has very much become a part of contemporary culture because people take it seriously, consider it as art, and do not create it as part of the “hip hop” movement. Indeed, designs coming from the streets are influencing Argentina’s visual culture.

Subtle dig at Banksy

The images are distinguished by technique and originality, and words appear sparsely. The artists talk of their influences but really, themselves, prove to be great influences for all graffiti lovers. Their work exhibits the dynamism of a post-authoritarian generation of young artists able to express themselves freely and, in thinking that they are playing catch-up with an international avant-garde, developing their own unique styles.

Blissfully, politics often takes second place. The main message of this book is that graffiti does not necessarily exist for the sole reason of making a statement. In fact, the book subtly makes digs at the likes of street artists such as the UK’s celebrated Banksy (without naming names), who has made a reputation for himself by using graffiti to criticise the government or challenge society’s views.

JAZZ, one of the artists featured in Graffiti Argentina, says: “The person who paints in order to get his work shown, or to get an article in some trashy newspaper to promote his work, completely loses the spirit of graf”. If that is not relevant to Banksy, who has recently been stripped of his anonymity, then I’ll puncture my spray can.

A mistake often made is the assumption that graffiti is not art, and so easy to overlook. However, the real mistake would be thinking that, through this book, editor Maximiliano Ruiz and his talented collaborators Pauline Aubry, Damian Regazzoni and Jorge Cordoba are seeking to enunciate a doctrine. Graffiti Argentina is not pretentious enough to challenge opinions about this art form. Instead, it attempts to encourage open-mindedness and the idea that people will stop at nothing to do what they love.

Banksy’s motto should be: “If you really want to say it, spray it”. The motto of Argentina’s streets should be: “ARTgentina, it’s all in the name”.

Isabel O’Toole is a student