Cuenca’s anti-graffiti campaign: Activism meets activism and consensus is hard to find

Feb 14, 2020 | 118 comments

Graffiti under the bridge: Where tagging and street art meet.

By Daniel Williams

This past weekend, I had my views challenged during a graffiti removal celebration for a campaign called “Keep Cuenca Beautiful.” To be clear, I don’t do any tagging, but I am a visual artist.

Around noon on Sunday, I was told by a good friend that we’d meet at the venue and serve as mediators between the taggers and the removal committee. But when I showed up, I was alone among many enthusiastic gringos who felt it their duty to erase the various scribblings on the walls of Cuenca. Suddenly, I was thrown into the role of ambassador, and like an effective diplomat, I was to remain impartial until I’d gathered enough information to take an informed stance that would unite the silenced “vandals” and this brush-bearing band of expats. Let’s see how this turns out, I thought as I covertly leaned against the back wall of the spacious room.

These days, I consider myself a leftist in the realm of communal art. In my adolescence I was an anarchistic advocate for chaotic, defacing graffiti on every surface; back then, the vandal was a sort of anti-hero figure, like the pirate or cowboy archetype. Now, my views have become more targeted towards the healing of social wounds left by history’s hegemonic policies — less “to hell with the world” and more so “to hell with poverty, inequality, disparity, and all of the like.”

When I was more misguided, I’d felt that a collage of tags spoke volumes, but I was less selective of which tags, or stylized signatures, resonated with my worldview and less sympathetic towards property owners. I saw the streets as a forum, and I still do to an extent. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. claimed that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” I believe the same applies to graffiti. Vandalism is symptomatic of an oppressed community. I believe our efforts should treat the problem’s cause rather than its symptoms. So, you can probably imagine how this outlook clashed with those of my neighbors at this particular event.

Keep Cuenca Beautiful volunteers on the job in Centro. (El Tiempo)

It’s incredibly difficult to refrain from clapping when the crowd around you bursts into applause after a speaker declares a statement that you disagree with. Members and activists of this committee were celebrating their hard work, but there was some rhetoric that I couldn’t immediately support.  As a slideshow and stock inspirational music rolled in the background, I placed my hands behind my back and listened to the main speaker talk about how “punishing taggers won’t work and they need to be educated.”

I winced as one particular photo faded into view — a group of well-meaning activists scraping off a beautiful decal on Calle Larga. The nuances of graffiti (the overarching concept), street art, and tagging have been endlessly discussed, but most have agreed that tagging is a nuisance. There are some talented taggers whose writing, despite its complexity, will never be met with the same celebration as that of an achieved calligrapher, but that’s beside the point. In this particular case, the committee was removing art. The speaker just happened to call it “propaganda.”

I found this bothersome, namely because of the cultural context that certain images hold. There was a surge of graffiti in the city after the people of Ecuador revolted last October in reaction to Presidential Decree No. 883. The order removed fuel subsidies and called for the eradication of other socialist programs in order to meet the terms of a six-billion-dollar loan borrowed from the International Monetary Fund. Gas prices spiked overnight. The people went on strike, protested, and ultimately won a historic victory against exploitive neoliberalist policies, which have plagued South America since the 1970s.

Street art that offers precautions and remedies to police teargas attacks during the October protests.

One of my favorite pieces of street art from the paro was a list of precautions and remedies that would help victims of teargas attacks. Was this piece of graffiti not a form of education? Would its removal constitute an erasure of history? If the city of London can mount sheets of Plexiglass over illegally painted pieces by Banksy, a notorious and anonymous street artist, why can’t the city of Cuenca protect the legacy of its people and its artists? In the future, we may regret that some of these pieces disappeared without a trace; they are sometimes primary sources, like journals or periodicals, that speak for the public and reflect the times. Whether conscious or subconscious, there seems to be a privileging of the colonial architecture over the living, breathing voice of the people, which ultimately forges a new history.

After the main speech concluded, I wanted to initiate a dialogue with one of Keep Cuenca Beautiful’s organizers. I wanted to tell him how more people would support the movement if it were rebranded. I wanted to persuade them that they could meet the taggers and artists halfway because, in the end, we all want to live in a beautiful city. As a fundraiser, they’d just released a logo for their clean the city campaign that branded themselves as “tag busters.” This direct opposition seemed to be a shift away from the idea of collaboration under the umbrella term of “beauty.” Unfortunately, the conversation that would ensue didn’t start out well, and it surely wouldn’t end well.

I should say this first. I’m not completely biased on this issue. I’ve got to give credit where credit’s due. I believe this group has done some amazing things for shopkeepers and schools, whose storefronts and facades had fallen victim to vandalism; after all, love notes, smiley faces, and shoddy nicknames don’t provoke much thought in terms of street art. They’ve also raised money among themselves and received funding from business owners within the community in order to purchase their own paint and supplies. They have the community’s support. By looking at the committee’s Facebook page you can tell that the majority of the Cuencano population seems to approve of this group’s efforts. The name of this committee implies that they wish to keep the city in a pleasant and appealing aesthetic state. This is a noble goal, and I commend them for the work that they’ve done thus far.

But, they don’t seem to be willing to work with their “adversaries” — taggers and street artists (who are sometimes one and the same). As activists, the committee members seem to fail to acknowledge graffiti as a form of activism.

This city-commissioned mural embellishes the front of Mercado 10 de Agosto. The artist’s tagging styles are significant design elements within this piece of street art.

I was having a fairly civil discussion with some of the members, when this organizer hovered by a few times, probably drawn in by the gesticulations of debate and thought. They joined us, and I presented my views. My entire premise was a constructive critique that the group lacked appeal for potential younger and edgier participants (perhaps a bit like myself) whose definition of beauty is heavily grounded in public works of art. Street artists envision a city full of murals, and I learned that the committee is actually making an effort to commission some artists. Problems arise,however, with lack of city funding and the regulations surrounding UNESCO World Heritage sites, which forbid murals to be painted on older buildings and architectural structures.

But there’s also an “us versus them” or “good versus evil” mentality that seems to be the spirit of the group. Anti-graffiti campaigns tend to thrive off of this pervasive rhetoric of moral superiority. The organizations usually accompany the process of gentrification, in which neighborhoods are renovated not for the preservation of their culture, but for their monetary aesthetic value. After some conversation, I didn’t think that gentrification was the motive of the group. However, without a clear mission statement, and without strong public relations tactics that address these particular concerns that have been raised by some citizens of Cuenca, I can see how some audiences could be bothered by the committee’s presence. I wanted to make the committee’s leaders aware of this perspective. Currently, their “About This Group” section on their private Facebook page only addresses tagging, yet the timeline is encouraging of public artwork and full of beautiful pieces of street art throughout Cuenca and across the world. I think this statement warrants an update in order to avoid misrepresenting their motives.

Daniel Williams

The aforementioned precautions could help these community activists from repeating the same debate and line of defense over and over again. For me, this was my first time having this conversation, and I approached it with excitement. Ultimately, the conversation ended with the other party leaving abruptly after my argument was deemed “elementary,” as if I weren’t allowed to be critical. Though they say that they’ve invited taggers to attend their meetings, after this incomplete discussion, I find it hard to believe that those spearheading the committee are open to dialogue with artists and meeting their expectations of beauty. I hope that they prove me wrong.

The politics of graffiti are complicated. Just as this group challenges the practice of graffiti, I’d like to challenge the practice of graffiti removal in the most productive way possible. Perhaps it’s not best for graffiti removal to be the face of a movement. The repainting of beige and brown walls is not beautiful in and of itself, though there is great beauty in the philanthropic gesture. Also, I wish that young artists, who are oppressed and nearly voiceless, weren’t vilified or seen as uneducated “assholes” by those in the committee.

There needs to be an extension of sympathy in this regard. And then there are these big looming questions. “Fascist” is a strong and overused word, but at the same time, we must ask who determines whether a piece of art is worthy of public display. How does covering graffiti affect a community’s political environment? When does the removal of art or a political statement become a loss of history? When does a city’s graffiti problem become too overwhelming? How can street artists continue to paint their work without defacing private property? How do we work with both the budding and established artists of the city as to ensure that we aren’t projecting our foreign standards unto those of a different culture? I don’t see this line of questioning as inappropriate. It’s never inappropriate to challenge one’s approach towards a community effort. Instead, I see how the proper answers could bridge the gap between this organization and some of the people who are skeptical towards or opposed to this group’s mission.

I’m definitely not displeased with Keep Cuenca Beautiful, but I was a bit disappointed in their conservative and perhaps unwavering viewpoints towards some of the ethics and philosophy surrounding the culture of graffiti. In the future, I hope to see more front-facing information about this organization, collaborative efforts, public art spaces, conversations, and openness to criticism. But it won’t happen if my fellow artists neglect to attend these meetings and if the committee continues to ignore the presence of the collectives of artists throughout the city. In the meantime, all I can do is keep my fingers crossed and continue to stir things up in a meaningful way.

Daniel Williams is a visual artist, writer, and educator from Augusta, Georgia where he earned his BA in English literature. He currently lives in Cuenca with his wife and daughter.

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