The Artists of Valparaíso

The Chilean port city of Valparaíso had a creative solution for their massive graffiti problem. The town elders allowed their walls to become massive canvases for local artists to express themselves through the spray can. In doing so they have resurrected their nickname “Jewel of the Pacific,” turning their amphitheater-shaped enclave on the Pacific into a citywide outdoor museum. The murals have become so much a part of the landscape that most local “porteños” (people from a port city) see it as an integral part of their Valparaíso’s identity.

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In the nineteenth century, Valparaíso, located 110 kilometers from the capital of Santiago, had a thriving port, servicing ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans before or after they crossed through the Straits of Magellan.  Early globalization created a golden age for the city. Intercultural dialogue filled the cafes. Sailors dubbed it, "Little San Francisco," its 42 hills stacked with houses reminding them of North America’s own jewel by the bay.

The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 however dealt a serious blow to Valparaíso’s port-based economy. The city suffered but continued on as a magnet for artists and writers. One of them, Pablo Neruda, build a home on a particularly well-placed promontory. The house has been turned into a museum celebrating the life and words of this revered Chilean poet.

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Signs of economic decay and political upheaval began to appear with some citizens expressing their frustrations through graffiti, seeing their work as a voice for the disempowered or disenfranchised.  This is nothing new, the word itself dates back to antiquity. "Graffiti" and its singular form "graffito" come from the Italian word graffiato which translates as "scratched."  But this uncontrolled expressionism became an eyesore to many.  Then came graffiti artists such as Valparaíso native INTI who took his “nom de spray can” from the Quechua word for the sun as homage to his South American roots. His huge murals are infused with ancient and modern Latin American culture and issues dealing with the themes of life, death, religion, capitalism and politics. There was no doubt that there was a great artist depressing the button of his spray can. His work soon gained international recognition.

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While painting public or private property without the city’s or the owner's permission is considered vandalism, government officials and individual businesses are now approaching the “grafitero” to commission work. Travel companies such as Extremo Norte run graffiti-focused tours led by graffiti artists with participants getting a hands on lesson as part of the experience. Combined with being declared a World Heritage Site in 2003 based upon its urban design and unique architecture, this “If you can’t beat them, join them” approach to urban revitalization is paying off in tourism dollars and infusing the city with creative energy.

click to view the complete set of images in the archive

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