THE STREET ART OF MEXICO CITY

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 Evan Dale // May 6, 2019 

There are few places more diverse and more culturally transcendent than Mexico City. The thriving metropolis is a keystone center not only of modern culture, but of ancient culture as well. Where now stands the largest metropolitan population in the Western hemisphere and the most populous Spanish-speaking city in the world, once stood Tenochtitlan – capital of the Aztec Empire. Founded nearly 700 years ago, the stones of the city have been moved and marched upon countless times, shifting the course of its urban plan, its diversity, its linguistic preference, and its sociopolitical makeup. But if two things have survived the better half of a millennia of countless change, it’s the city’s affinity for art and the socioeconomic forces that continue to drive and inspire its creation. 

 

Mexico City is massive. The living definition of urban sprawl, hours of driving through its outer rings only lead to more until the edges of its valley are reached and one ascends into the surrounding mountains. From there, looking down across the vast and endless plain, the colors of Mexico City reveal themselves in astonishing palette. It is a metropolis of unapologetic color where the freedom and courage of its citizens and their illustrious artistic pasts result in unapologetic usage of that color. From the Aztec era, akin to many of the world’s great ancient cities, colorful murals, mosaics, and patterns were said to adorn every home and temple. Gifts and messages to ancient deities, these works of art were, along with almost everything else about Tenochtitlan, destroyed by the conquests of the Spanish. But, the stories of ancient gods, the messages of ancient art, and the power of painting the city survived. 

 

Today, in an ode to Mexico City’s past, many works of street art continue to celebrate the ancient gods, while many, in a place as connected to modern religion as most cities in Latin America, commemorate Christian stories and values. Religiously, Mexico City’s citizens are diversified by their own history, granting them a rather liberal and culturally-open set of social values when compared to most modern Catholic meccas. The arts have a lot to do with that. Personal expression finds its peak in Mexico City where fashion, art, music, and architecture are valued higher than faith. Only superseded by family and an affinity for rowdy good times, the culture of Mexico City is nearly as powerful at an individual level as it as a whole. 

 

And yet, its grandiose image and collective spirit also owes itself to the arts. In the 1920’s, publicly-funded arts programs sponsored large scale mural and street art designs in an effort to reclaim and celebrate a national identity. Artists took to the streets, the warehouses, and the heights of buildings to splash Mexico City’s walls with green, red, white, and a newfound affinity for Mexican identity and nationalistic pride. Again, the city was overcome with the power of social statements made in public places, and the city’s sociopolitical structure married with artistic history was backbone to it all. 

 

Explosive growth in the century since has made Mexico City the kind of cultural capital with a culinary, architecture, fashion, design, art, and street art scene as well-rounded and influential on a massive scale as Paris, London, Tokyo, New York, LA, and Rio. The difference is that most people who have never been or studied, aren’t aware of CDMX’s artistic prowess. 

 

But, upon arriving in Mexico City the first time, the presence of paint and sculpture is all-consuming. Beyond graffiti and elaborate instillations, paint’s role is also a classic one. Because the arts are such an incremental part of Mexico City’s past, present, and future, storefronts and company’s rarely placard themselves with signs, but instead shell out for hand painted logos and murals, granting more eye-catching and intimate signage. 

 

Though the entire city is brimming with it, perhaps the neighborhood most acclaimed for its street art is Roma, just Southwest of the city center. Jacaranda-lined streets with classically preserved architecture make Roma reminiscent of San Francisco, New Orleans, and Paris where cafes, phenomenal food, and a surprising sense of quiet are all easy to come by. There, street art is also an easy find. A microcosm of Mexico City’s greater past and present, Roma, though small, is bubbling over with street corners, pocket parks, alleyways, and walls of each and every building commemorating an Aztec past, a Catholic present, and a grandiose celebration of personal individuality. Most of it is vividly colorful, dowsed in the same color palette that grows from every sun-drenched balcony of the city, but some is mysteriously diluted and even more mysteriously thought-provoking. The preserved and classical Spanish architecture finds itself adorned with commissioned works and the hand painted logos of the shops and restaurants at their ground levels. Buildings of lesser design are more often than not painted wildly with the tags of graffiti artist. But those, too, can be beautiful in a different way. And other buildings altogether are plastered with intricate mosaics and patterns. 

 

The many parks that dot Roma and all of CDMX are also painted end to end. Like public places in many cities around the world, they have been widely commissioned by government organizations in an effort to beautify the city and curb unwanted, illegal art. They are also bubbling over with sculptural pieces old and new. The city has a history of Romanesque, historical instillations that commemorate its complex past, and modern architecture that experimentally juts skyward at peculiar angles, but in recent decades, modern sculpture and sculpture altogether designed for social media (think I Heart NY statues or the famed, red Amsterdampiece) have become commonplace as well. Being a constantly explosive tourist destination, whose world acclaim has come largely at the hands of its art, music, and culinary scenes, Mexico City has taken trends in their own direction. And from there, they have churned out inspiration, and stylistic direction that has come to boast influence across the world. 

 

Whether it be fashion, food, or street art, all are telling of Mexico City’s courage, creativity, and undying uniqueness.