Painted Walls: The History of Santiago Street Art

Yes, Valparaiso is known as the Mecca of the country’s street art. But the central neighborhoods of the capital also weave a heady visual and historical narrative to the cultural underbelly of Chile’s only metropolis.

"Wild Style" writing, Santiago Centro (photo by EyeSpyCat)
"Wild Style" writing, Santiago Centro (photo by EyeSpyCat)

In the decade following the decline of politically-charged murals gracing the walls of eighties-era Santiago, so much so that by the latter part of the decade saw a 'Muralist Coordinator' installed within the government, another form of public (but not publicly sanctioned) expression was taking root.

Based on the style whose artists used the New York City Subway cars of the late seventies for studio space, Graffiti Hip Hop (GHH) flourished in the Chilean capital. Founding members of the movement, artists such as Cekis (now working in Brooklyn) and LA crew NCS, began tagging those concrete canvases left open by their forerunners in the styles of the times: bubble and wild style and 3-D typographies of the artists themselves and their crews, or iconographic characters drawn from hip-hop culture.

Wheatpasted in paper panels, Bellavista (photo by EyeSpyCat)
Wheatpasted in paper panels, Bellavista (photo by EyeSpyCat)

Yet it wasn’t until the sons and daughters of former political exiles began returning from the capitals of Europe, bringing the continent's styles with them, that the city’s scene began to take on the dimensions that today make it one of the most respected galleries of the anti-establishment art world.

“I understand [the political mural] more as a feature that is a precedent and a pictorial reference,” says Coas, a local street and graphic artist whose work is found throughout the city. “What I paint isn’t directly influenced by that; what I consider to be the forerunners of my work are the references to the attitudes of occupying public spaces.

On the heels of the new millennium, young artists in Chile and Santiago laid an aesthetic groundwork that, though by no means apolitical, nonetheless focused energy on an individual’s presence—albeit an anonymous one—in the community’s streets. What followed has proliferated into the disparate urban artscape one walks through today, down hidden city alleyways or in the plain daylight of Alameda.

The budding diversity was what prompted Os Gemeos, a twin-brother street art outfit from Sao Paulo, Brazil to push Chilean street art to a worldwide audience. Impressed by what they found on their visits to the country, they began submitting examples to San Francisco street artist Barry (aka Twist) Mcgee’s now-defunct magazine FIZ. Soon a pipeline of ideas and inspiration formed between Brazil’s street art capital and Santiago.

Typographies, Bellavista (photo by EyeSpyCat)
Typographies, Bellavista (photo by EyeSpyCat)

As a result, the city’s street artists have painted Santiago into one of the hemisphere’s best concentrations of what has been called the last major pictorial form of the twentieth century.

The works “can be interpreted in a variety of ways, as much as the viewer can imagine or wants to believe,” Coas, who says he never “decided” to enter into the street art world, relates. “But they’re situations—life situations—better still, each brush stroke represents an irregular interpretation of life; nothing is stable, everything is dynamic.”

Indeed, variety abounds. Next to the complex GHH style that still thrives float three-eyed Eastern spirits and gurus, malignant fairy tales, nude women and scribbled homunculi, stencils and Boy Scouts, clever politicking and protest: the street art, like the city, offers an intriguing study in contrasts, played out by artists who remain in the shadows and whose work is never guaranteed the security of temperature controls or viewer etiquette.

Santiago Centro (photo by EyeSpyCat)
Santiago Centro (photo by EyeSpyCat)

However, as in many parts of the world, that aspect is also starting to change. Though closed by 2010, BOMB gallery in Santiago Centro offered indoor wall space to various street artists from Chile and elsewhere in South America. Likewise, the Basque Country-based GKO Gallery, specializing in Urban Art, has set up shop in Providencia (though you’ll need to make an advance reservation by phone or email to take a look). One could take this as a positive development: according to El Mercurio, of the 100 or so arrests made related to graffiti in 2012, around 34% of them occurred in Region Metropolitana, and it wasn’t until 2003 that large murals in and around centralized areas, such as Plaza Italia, weren’t simply erased by authorities.

Could it also spell the practical decline of an art form that, by its nature, has thrived on anonymity and resisted absorption into the “traditional” world of art and artists?

Not necessarily. “While having more spaces to exhibit artists’ work is great, I don’t think it will leave the street because,” argues Coas, “in the street is where the preoccupation with liberty in the ‘Democracy’ still lives and is expressed.”

So for now you still have time to tour what the city’s walls have to offer. Below is Revolver’s starter route through the tattooed neighborhoods of Centro and Bellavista. Though by no means exhaustive, it’s meant to provide a nice starting point for further exploration:

You can check out more of Coas' work on his website:

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