Expat-led anti-graffiti project is back in action but gets push-back from Cuenca street artists

Oct 5, 2021 | 65 comments

Cuenca’s “tag busters” are back on the streets, paint brushes in hand.

Keep Cuenca Beautiful volunteers at work in 2019.

Following reorganization meetings, the Keep Cuenca Beautiful project has resumed its work of painting over graffiti, focusing on Cuenca’s historic district. In recent weeks, volunteers have worked in San Francisco Square, San Sebastián Plaza and on Calle Benigno Malo.

Like most other public activities, the expat-organized project was forced to suspend its activities in early 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic. “During the layoff some of our  people moved away so we are recruiting new volunteers,” says project leader Juan Neira. “This work is motivated by our love of Cuenca and we are happy to finally be able to begin again.”

Following social media criticism by come street artists, Neira says the project is not about policing street art. “We do not decide what graffiti to remove, we are guided by Cuenca’s Directorate of Historic Areas guidelines as well as those of UNESCO.”

Before the pandemic, volunteers were assisted by city workers.

Neira says he understands opinions about street art are subjective. “In fact, we want to promote it but through appropriate channels. We want to see more high-quality murals on city walls and encourage creativity. Our goal is to make Cuenca an open-air art gallery.” He adds that much of  project’s work involves painting over random squiggles and “tags” that deface public walls.

Cuenca Mayor Pedro Palacio showed his support for Keep Cuenca Beautiful when he visited volunteer painters two weeks ago at San Sebastian Plaza. “These foreigners are an inspiration for all Cuencanos and I salute their great civic spirit and their desire to make the city more attractive,” he said.

Cuenca street artist “Topher Man”. (Photo by John Keeble)

In addition to recruiting volunteers, the reorganization work of Keep Cuenca Beautiful involves finding donations of paint, paint brushes and other materials. “We are appealing to public entities and private companies to support our work by donations,” he says. “Two years ago, Sherwin Williams gave us 2,000 gallons of paint and we need new donations to continue the work.”

Despite the project’s support of sanctioned street art, some Cuenca street artists question its intentions.

Artist and graphic designer Cristopher Guzmán, who calls himself Topher Man, believes Keep Cuenca Beautiful is an “elitist” project that wants to control and restrict creative expression. “Who are they do decide what is ugly and what is beautiful? Is a political statement, pima facie, ugly? Is a tag ugly? Do they pay attention to, and understand, the intent of the graffiti?”

Considering tagging, Guzmán says it often involves planning and preparation. “This is where street artists develop technique, such as rendering continuous line and gradient,” he says. “People say there is no message but this is not true. Beyond the craft there is the existential cry of ‘I am, I exist’ and the announcement of an artistic presence.”

Guzmán says he also finds it strange that Keep Cuenca Beautiful will paint over graffiti on walls that are not maintained. “Many of the spaces have been neglected for years. They are unrepaired and have not been repainted. Why don’t they repaint the entire wall if they want to be productive? Isn’t a spot of new paint on an old wall as ugly as the graffiti it covers up?”

Street artist Carlos Miller sees anti-graffiti campaigns, including Keep Cuenca Beautiful, as old people attempting to control the young. “I see them at work, painting, and they are all old gringos. What do they know of the art of the new generation, especially outlaw art and bad boy art? Do they understand it? Of course they don’t since it is art that rebels against the old order and old people.”

Miller who spent most of his life in the U.S. and moved back to his native Cuenca in 2015, says he believes many of the anti-graffiti volunteers have good intentions. “I know that North Americans are good people because I lived with them for many years, and this true of the ones who moved to Cuenca,” he says. “My complaint is about the arrogance that believes they are right and we are wrong, when in fact they have no idea about what is going on with young, creative people.”

Miller says the anti-graffiti campaign reminds him of a line from a Bob Dylan song he heard several years ago. “Actually, it was the old man who lived next to me in Miami who turned me on to it. The song says ‘there’s something happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?'”

Miller adds: “Of course Dylan sang that when he was a young man.”

For more information about Keep Cuenca Beautiful, see the Facebook page.


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