Buenos Aires: Drawing a new crowd

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The unusually creative street art that adorns the walls of the Argentinian capital is a big attraction for tourists. Matt Fox-Tucker puts us in the picture

There's a phrase in Spanish: por qué pintar es lindo, which means "why painting is beautiful". Walking around Buenos Aires' Palermo Soho district, with its abundance of murals, you'll soon understand why this saying has been adopted by a group of local street artists.

Around here, the street art differs from that found in most other parts of the city. You won't find so many tags and bombs (which rival gangs or crews traditionally use to mark their territory) or political graffiti; the designs tend to be more creative, thoughtful and intricate – and use visual messages rather than words or slogans. After all, this is one of the city's trendiest districts, much frequented by tourists drawn to its designer clothes shops, cafés, restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

Many of the artworks are also of extremely high quality, which is hardly surprising when you learn that a large number of the local artists have backgrounds as illustrators and graphic designers.

It's lunchtime and I've arranged to meet up with a friend in Plaza Serrano to show him some of the nearby graffiti hot spots. Before we head off, I seize the opportunity to say, "I'm not a tourist, I live here" – a well-known catchphrase in a stencil design by the local artists Run Don't Walk.

Close to Plaza Serrano, along Russel Street, we watch tourists and locals posing for photos in front of the graffiti. Here, a group of alien-like creatures with antennae leaps from the walls. Their brightly coloured clothes painted over a stone grate draw attention away from their pallid faces, seemingly reflecting the elaborate designs in the fashionable boutiques just around the corner. And the local artist responsible leaves his signature under the pseudonym James Enzor, in homage to the 19th-century Belgian surrealist painter, who spelled his surname with an "s".

We moved on to a nearby cobbled alleyway named Santa Rosa. Here, Alfredo Segatori, who has been invited by the city government to paint murals all over the city, has decorated a wall in his distinctive style. It shows a typical Buenos Aires street scene.

Along the same passageway, the front of a studio has been transformed by Gualicho into a bright red, yellow and blue canvas, with painted plants and animals enveloping its windows and doors.

Around the corner near the intersection of Uriate and El Salvador, a collaboration between three well-known Argentine artists – Jazz, Ever and Nemer – covers the whole façade of an old town house. Animals, including a donkey and a dog, are fused with humans in a surreal collage. This creation is close to one of my favourite parrilla (grill) restaurants, La Lechuza.

I asked the artist RBR from Stencil Land why there are so many murals in this area. His response was surprisingly pragmatic: "A number of artists have workshops nearby. They tend to paint close to where they live as they don't want to carry their materials too far."

The graffiti movement in Argentina is relatively new. It started after the country's economic crisis in 2001, when groups of stencil artists formed and started covering the streets with their designs. The scene is now flourishing, with works not only by local but also by international artists.

In Buenos Aires, it's illegal to paint on public buildings. But street art is legal, as long as the artist has the consent of the owner of the wall. Of course, this is not always sought or obtained. In most cities in Europe or the US, the police and governments crack down on offenders. Artists may even end up in jail. But here the authorities are far too occupied with other issues that stem from Argentina's social and economic problems. Prosecutions are extremely rare.

"If you paint in Europe, the police can treat you badly," says the French artist Louis Danjou, known as Grolou. "A lot of foreign artists choose to come to paint here because everything's so much easier."

You can also see some of Grolou's work on the "Graffitimundo" street art tour run by two British expatriates, Marina Charles and Jo Sharff. It starts in Palermo and takes visitors around some of the city's most impressive designs in the neighbouring barrios (districts) of Villa Crespo and Colegiales. The tour ends along Thames Street (pronounced: "Tam-mess" by the locals) at the street art gallery called "Hollywood in Cambodia". Fans of Banksy and stencil art will love this place. On the ground floor is the Post Street Bar. Its walls are plastered with colourful, ironic and humorous designs by Buenos Aires Stencil, Run Don't Walk and Malatesta. These are the three stencil collectives who founded Hollywood in Cambodia. Upstairs, a small exhibition space shows off the latest designs by some of the city's best-known artists, and there's also a roof terrace decorated with bright murals.

Street art is everywhere, even on the stonework of historic buildings and churches. You just have to keep your eyes peeled.

Travel essentials: Buenos Aires

Getting there

No airline currently flies non-stop between the UK and Argentina. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies to Buenos Aires from Heathrow, but stops at Sao Paulo in Brazil en route; it will start daily non-stop flights on 27 March next year.

The main connecting options are Iberia (0870 609 0500; iberiaairlines.co.uk) from several UK airports via Madrid, and Tam (020 8741 2005; tam.com.br) from Heathrow via Sao Paulo or Rio.

Getting around

Graffitimundo (00 54 911 3683 3219; graffitimundo.com) offers three-hour street art tours on Wednesdays and Fridays at 3pm. Tours start at AR$90 (£14) and include minibus transport. Private tours are also on offer year-round.

More information

Textura Dos: Buenos Aires Street Art by Matt Fox-Tucker and Guilherme Zauith (Mark Batty Publisher, £25).

Argentina Ministry of Tourism: 00 54 11 4312 5611; turismo.gov.ar.

See buenosairesstreetart.blogspot.com for more photographs of Buenos Aires street art.

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