Street Art In Puerto Rico: Walls That Talk Loud

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Street art is a modern form of cultural expression, but it is one of the oldest types of art known by humans. Prehistoric men used walls in caves to paint messages for their communities, using abstractions to communicate about events, tales, or magic rituals. 

Similar scenarios have been repeated throughout history until these contemporary times. These art pieces have a powerful impact; disregarding whether people’s reaction towards them is somewhat positive or negative. 

The term “street art” includes any artwork made in public places — sculptures, paintings, pasting images, and projections. In all parts of the world, street art has a long history with the states’ authorities. It is seen as a valuable tool for several public outcries, commonly used for people to express themselves and fight social injustices happening within a country. 

Governments are sometimes reluctant to these expressions because they catalog some of these paintings as pure vandalism (as it happens with most graffiti) due to its unstructured and rather spontaneous look that does not present any deeper meaning or artistic intention. 

But either deep or superficial, all types of street art are organic signs of life and movement in a city. This is true for all urban countries of the world but resonates on a deeper level with Latin American countries. 

The region has used its walls and facades as a blank canvas for decades to communicate collective emotions and thoughts when individual voices are hard to be heard. 

The canvases of the people: Latin facades

The history of Latin American street art can be found in Mexican Muralism’s formative stages, dating back to the 1920s. This artistic movement originally started to create social and political messages to boost the morale of a then beat down post-revolutionary Mexico. So the “Mestizo message” would spread and reach all the crevices of the country. 

The power that some mural artists portrayed was such that it influenced many regions of the entire continent, from South to North America. This form of urban art became the lead manifestation of expression to many movements across the continent. It was the best and fastest way to denounce publicly what couldn’t be said anonymously. 

What continues to be attractive about street art for these regions is its relationship with public spaces. In contrast to official art created for the streets, such as sculptures or pieces of urban design, street art forces its way into places where it usually shouldn’t be or is not accepted. However, as a piece of art, it further adds cultural value to the area in a much more local, sentimental, and social way. 

Progress on political and social levels throughout these regions has shifted the motivation to create street art and broadened the reasons for their existence. Many artists are now using this form of expression for healing purposes, with the desire to add pieces of cultural value in areas where their identities are physically missing or deteriorated by time. This is the case for one of the Caribbean’s cultural centers, the island of Puerto Rico.

Santurce and other cities that healed through art

With its proximity to Latin America, Puerto Rico is a recipient and regenerator of many artistic movements that originated from Central and South America. For this reason and their own political and social turmoil, muralism was adopted relatively fast on the island until it became an established and accepted way of expression for many native artists. 

Its capital, the city of San Juan, is a place where the citizens actively take the initiative to transform their public areas with street art. The city renovates entire barrios by giving hundreds of artists spaces to paint and create murals across many buildings and residences. 

One of San Juan’s neighborhoods is called Santurce. It’s been called the city’s artistic hub for some years, as entire streets have been reclaimed by art associations to bring back their urban lives after a severe economic decline. 

The result is a collection of breathtaking and huge art pieces that display the dreams, traditions, and imaginaries of a whole community. The neighborhood has gained so much international attention that they host annual street art festivals to paint the walls with new ideas and give opportunities to many other artists. 

The festival, called Santurce Es Ley, is a way to celebrate its people and the artist behind each piece of work and the freedom to plaster their identities and individual personalities in a quick but unforgettable way. 

The rising popularity of Santurce has inspired and given hope to many other smaller cities of the island, many of which were severely damaged after the disaster made by Hurricane Maria back in September 2017. Entire neighborhoods were torn and needed reparations to operate again. 

One of these cities is the municipality of Yauco, located in the southwest region of the island. Before the hurricane disaster, an initiative to spread murals across the public spaces of Yauco was already in action, by the hands of a group dedicated to urban art called Arte Para Unir (Art to Unite). 

They built and created the project Yaucromatic, which consisted of 16 murals with unique and diverse motives spread all over the city’s facades, most of them in commercial sectors that were in dire need of renovations. 

Following Hurricane María, the city desperately needed new interventions, so after a year of the first initiative, Yaucromatic2 was put into action. This new project consisted of creating 13 unique murals, including one that stands out from the others for its authenticity and brilliance. 

Located in Cantera’s community, a set of mosaics form a beautiful macro mural baptized as Brisa Tropical (Tropical Breeze). The painting stretched across nine residences made out of bright colored polygons -a landscape of warm and tropical hues that follow the soft hill’s trace that constitutes this community. The other 12 murals are all different expressions of 20 artists, representing the city’s social discourses and the vital role of coffee in its inhabitants’ history. 

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