Oaxaca Journal, V.11

By    Tuesday March 18, 2008

One of the prominent features of the political struggles that have taken place here in Oaxaca, Mexico has been street art. Sometimes it takes the form of beautifully designed posters announcing an event; sometimes artists combine bold stenciled graphics with political slogans like The revolution will not be televised; and sometimes they're more like an open canvas that becomes an expanding dialogue between different artists.

When I arrived in July of 2006 with my wife Betty and our 9-year-old daughter Emily, graffiti that seemed to be everywhere was one of the first overt signs of a brewing storm of protest. As we taxied through town full of anticipation and a bit of trepidation over our big move to Mexico, I noticed that nearly every wall had some spray-painted slogan. Virtually every one of them included the combination of words Fuera! (GET OUT!) and URO, which we learned was the initials of governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, not an abbreviation for European currency.

Photos: Peter Kuper

Some of the pieces I've seen have been inspiring masterpieces. A few were visual punches aimed right between the governor's eyes. Most were hit and run slogans with the ubiquitous GET OUT URO! mantra.

While the teacher's strike soldiered on for months, the street art took on a life of its own. New postings intermingling with old merged into an expanding message. I'd scrutinize the wall art and the images would shout back, urging me to attend a march, making me chuckle at a grotesquely accurate caricature of the governor, or making my blood boil over an injustice that ran to the core of Oaxacan society.

When the teachers' strike was crushed, back in November of 2006, the authorities immediately obliterated the street art. Slashes of blue, white and yellow paint used to obscure the graffiti can still be seen on many walls, yet they seem more like intentional artwork.

For the next year there was a visual silence. When the wall art slowly began to reappear, it was usually in the form of preprinted posters and few of those lasted before being torn down. In recent months, however, the spray-painted graffiti has reappeared with a vengeance.

Once again every available surface is being covered, but instead of ingenious iconography, potent slogans and urgent announcements, what's proliferating is tagging. The streets of this gorgeous colonial town are sadly starting to resemble the interior of a New York City subway car, circa 1976.

Certainly tagging can be viewed as powerless individuals trying to leave a lasting mark in their brief lives. If you visit the Egyptian wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, you can see the work of taggers who achieved a form of immortality by scratching their names into temple walls. Still, there's a stark contrast between work that communicates with heart and content, and graffiti that only rewards the letterer.

Yet, in a town as politically motivated as Oaxaca, thoughtful street art will probably return. Though it may not be televised, I suspect that the revolution will be spray-painted.

This is the eleventh installment in a series from Peter Kuper, a cartoonist and illustrator. Peter's coming-of-middle-age graphic novel, Stop Forgetting to Remember, as well as a collection of his first decade of Spy vs Spy strips have been recently published. His work is included in LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel, on view at the Norman Rockwell Museum through May 26, 2008. Peter will be appearing at the University of North Dakota Writers Conference with Salman Rushdie, Russell Banks and Junot Diaz among others, on the subject of Revolutions, March 26-28th and at the Jewish Community Center, San Francisco, May 5th, in conversation with monologist Josh Kornbluth.