Oaxaca's radical street artists won't be muzzled
A typically pointed work by Oaxaca artist Yescka
“Oh that’s pretty. What a nice combination of colors.”
That is Yescka, a prominent Oaxaca City graffiti artist, dismissing with a mirthless chuckle street art he considers divorced from the political and/or social context in which it’s made. It’s a judgment that neatly sums up the aesthetic stance of this increasingly visible state capital’s cadre of sprayers and stencilers and splatters, one that can be traced back – at least in part – to a watershed moment for Oaxaca City and the rest of the state: the popular protests that broke out on June 14, 2006 and, more importantly, the state’s response, the reported brutality of which galvanized a generation of activists and artists. This event is for a generation of Oaxaqueños what Jesus’ crucifixion was for his tunic-clad followers: a contradiction, both a tragedy to be constantly called to mind and commemorated but also a moment of rebirth and the catalyst for a renewed sense of purpose.
The hyper-political nature of Oaxaca’s street art is in marked contrast with the bulk of what I’ve seen livening Guadalajara’s countless examples of spirit crushing architectural drib drab. While often striking and creative, the works decorating Mexico’s second largest city (my home for the past year-and-a-half), at least on the surface, come off as largely contentless, un-concerned with poking at the fat-padded – but dangerously well-equipped – paws of power.
At the risk of drifting into trite sloganeering, art, be it a bust of Homer set on an alabaster pedestal in the Louvre or a giant purple-green phallus thrown up on the side of a defunct brick factory in Detroit, expresses at least to some extent the spirit and state of mind of the people. So while it may – or may not – be a facile litmus test by which to gauge the relative intensity with which two culturally disparate city’s residents engage in things socio-political, it is nonetheless tempting to use each locale’s street art to do just that.
While on the face of it there is nothing wrong with, say, a painting of delicate water lilies floating on a limpid pond, it is easy to imagine you might turn your paint brush and palette away from the purely decorative and – newly weaponized with the gunpowder of rage – point them towards the despotic Leviathan whose club-wielding thugs you watch through stinging, tear-streaked eyes beat your friends and relatives to a mushy pulp.
According to Yescka, whose studio (dubbed “Espacio Siqueiros” after the most overtly political of mid-century Mexican neo-muralism’s Big Three) I visited while in town for a gastronomic vacation, that is precisely what happened to him after the federal government came down hard on protests mounted by section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) on June 14, 2006.
“The [government’s] reaction was severe,” recalled the stocky, bearded Yescka, reclining with a tall beer and surrounded by tubes, spray cans – plus several large finished and unfinished canvases. “Gas, beatings, big smoke bombs lobbed from helicopters – it was brutal.”
Yescka – whose real name he declined to give – remembers how at one point word reached him that his aunt, a teacher and union member involved in the protests, had gone missing.
“It was absolute chaos. I went out into the streets to look for her – and throw rocks,” said the artist with a breezy equanimity that belied the bedlam he was describing, adding, “That’s how I became involved in the movement.”
Leading the charge against, primarily, the state of Oaxaca and its governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, was the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), a coalition of the SNTE and dozens of other organizations that joined forces following the outbreak of unrest on June 14. Yescka, most likely inspired by APPO, likewise formed, along with 30 other similarly angry, politicized artists, the Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca (ASARO).
ASARO exists – as does APPO – to this day, operating chiefly from art gallery Espacio Zapata, a warren of rooms across the street from Yescka’s studio. Exhibited inside are, as you might expect, the works of various collective members, although the bulk of the displayed pieces were authored by Yescka.
Not surprisingly, the work of one of Oaxaca’s most respected “guerrilla” artists – a man who has gifted, legally or not, his work to several trend-setting metropolises around the world – is highly declamatory. Not for him the obfuscation of which visual artists often make use, a deliberate obscurantism that it’s easy to imagine conceals a complete lack of intent or point of view.
Yescka’s skill with stencil and spray can are obvious, but the work on display in both the Espacio Zapata gallery and his nearby studio isn’t remarkably unique; aesthetically speaking, it harkens back to the stenciled iconoclasm of Warhol and other pop artists, who take the familiar and render it absurd by isolating it from its context or, in the case of Yescka, subverting it by adding incongruous elements for maximum irony. Four paintings depict, respectively, Gandhi, Che Guevara, Frida Kahlo and Stanley Kubrick sporting mohawks, ripped denim jackets and other punk rock accoutrement, while another features the Indio beer logo superimposed over an image of the the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Since its emergence from the fecund, nutritious muck of social upheaval, Yescka’s art collective ASARO has seen its membership expand and contract. It currently boasts fourteen constituents, each with something stylistically distinct to offer the organization. Asking why a group of street artists opted to operate from a fixed indoor location brought Yescka back to government repression, the lynchpin behind the organization’s founding, and in particular how state lawmakers recently gave, according to the artist, law enforcement a key tool in stamping out visual reminders of widespread dissent.
“It’s a dictatorial law,” observed Yescka, referring to an initiative, recently passed, which allows authorities to take draconian measures against protests, strikes and blockades – and against artist expression critical of governmental policies.
“Making art in the street has always been difficult, but the moment we became more overtly political was when the government started to crack down. We throw something up and they immediately paint over it. Then we go and paint on that, and they go over it with another layer.”
He paused to take a reflective pull on his Tecate, adding, “After a while it started to look like abstract art.”
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Artist Yescka in his Oaxaca City studio
Right next door to Espacio Siqueiros is 10-year-old Urtarte, a separate collective with a six-person roster. One of its members is Vazquez, to whom fell the luckless job of humoring an intrusive reporter. He swiftly corroborated Yescka’s account of the government’s practice of painting over art heavy with critical content, while leaving the rest alone.
“The government began a campaign of ‘beautification,’ painting over overtly political murals, especially ones that addressed the events of June 14,” Vazquez informed me while applying some mysterious liquid treatment to a stack of thick sheets of blank paper.
“A lot of very good, nationally famous collectives had their work covered up,” he added, working furiously with a cigarette dangling from his lips. “A lot of foreigners come looking for murals and they can’t find them.”
If the attitudes of both Yescka and his neighbor Vazquez are to be taken as representative of their city’s general artistic mien, then the government should brace itself for a sisyphean task in regards to stamping out artistic manifestations of civil dissatisfaction; both men seem as dug in and battle-ready as badgers. Exterior of the Urtarte Collective's studio in Oaxaca City
Neither can they be tempted away from political engagement by lucrative commissions for decorative, apolitical murals, if Yescka’s closing statement during our interview is any indication.
“In the end, the ones that chase the easy money are forgotten, while the ones that did what they wanted, refused to compromise, are remembered,” said the artist before emptying a last stream of sudsy beer into his upturned mouth. “What did you do for society, for humanity? What did you say – or did you just paint for rich people?”
While government-sponsored white-washing – literally – of Urtarte and ASARO’s work makes it difficult to find on the streets, it’s an easier matter to simply visit their respective studios, as well as Taller Siqueiros, Yescka’s personal space; they're all clustered together on the same small block two blocks east of the cathedral.
Urtarte and Taller Siqueiros, Calle Porfirio Diaz 510.
Espacio Zapata (ASARO), Calle Porfirio Diaz 509. Hours for both locations are unlisted and likely vary.
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