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It could be said that the history of street art is the history of humankind. Almost seventeen thousand years ago, early humans painted cave walls near Lascaux, in France. Cueva de las Manos (The Cave of Hands) in Santa Cruz, Argentina features hundreds of colourful hand prints purportedly done as early as 5000 BC. And the ancient Greeks and Romans used street art to advertise, to proselytize, to scandalize and vandalize. It's a vital form of expression and a historical record used by humans through the ages.
Street art is perhaps the most democratic of all art forms. Anyone with a message and the tools to tell it will find a multitude of places to share their stories. Walls, fences, alleys, garage doors, underpasses and abandoned buildings are all blank canvases for the intrepid artist. Street artists can make vibrant what was once derelict and can bring colour and life to forgotten corners of the city. Street art provides creators who lack access to the often elite world of galleries and museums an opportunity to show their art in a public space for all to see. Until recently most street art was considered guerilla art - created on the fly, under cover and without permission from property owners or civic authorities. However, in the past thirty years it has moved from the realm of the underground to be embraced by the mainstream.
Street art gained in popularity along with the emergence of New York City hip-hop culture in the 1970s and 80s. Then it was simply known as graffiti and usually referred to in a derogatory manner. Now street art is funded by civic projects and mural festivals attract locals and tourists alike. In Canada, Montreal hosts a massive mural festival every year (muralfestival.com) as well as Toronto (yorkvillemurals.com) and Vancouver (vanmuralfest.ca). Many cities in the Americas have a dedicated area or neighbourhood which features public art and murals — search Wynwood in Miami, River North in Denver and Chicano Park in San Diego, to name a few.
One of my favourite cities in the Americas for street murals is Santiago, the bustling capital of Chile. When you visit Santiago, be sure to check out Barrio Brasil. Located to the west of Santiago's Centro, this beautiful neighbourhood was once home to the city's aristocracy in the 19th century. Featuring many stately mansions that have since been converted into hotels and apartments, Barrio Brasil is now a laid back neighbourhood popular with artists and students. And, along with Barrio Bellavista, it has some of the finest street murals in the city.
Wander along the quiet, leafy avenues of Barrio Brasil and admire the vibrant street art that adds life to this neighbourhood. Not only are they visually arresting, the murals tell stories about Chilean culture, the workers' struggle, Indigenous rights and folk heroes. One of my favourites pays homage to the Chilean writer, Nicomedes Guzman, and his book "La Sangre y La Esperanza" (Blood and Hope). The story is set in the 1930's during the tramway workers' strike and describes the tragic but beautiful life in Santiago's working class barrios.
These street murals tell the stories of Chile and its people, of their pain and joy. Utilizing a wall or a dilapidated building, the muralist can engage with and speak directly to the public. This is the power of street art. It uses the city as its canvas and has an immediate impact, adding vibrancy through colour, composition and meaning. And in Santiago's Barrio Brasil, this power is on full display.
© All photos by Michael Shea
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