Expat Life

An open letter to Mayor Cabrera: Cuenca is a beautiful city so why not make it more beautiful by getting rid of the graffiti?

Editor’s note: The following is a letter from David Derby to Mayor Marcelo Cabrera on the subject of graffiti in Cuenca. David, a visitor from the U.S, met and spoke to the mayor at a public function in January and was encouraged by Cabrera to follow up with a letter. This is the English-language version of David Derby’s letter.

Dear Mr. Mayor,

Thank you for your warm greeting and for taking the time to talk with me at the art celebration in Cuenca last week. I am the Irishman who now lives in Virginia, in the U.S., who is considering moving to Cuenca. You had asked me about my impressions of Ecuador and, in particular, Cuenca and I remember making a point about the impact that the graffiti I see around the city had on me.

Graffiti on an El Centro wall.

I came to Ecuador to spend the winter months away from the cold in the U.S. and to rest, so this is my first visit to Ecuador and to your lovely city. I have fallen in love with the architecture, climate, culture and the people of Cuenca, so much so that I and my wife Veronica, are seriously considering making our home and investing in Cuenca.

What makes me think twice about such a serious move is the graffiti that desecrates the walls and buildings of Cuenca. I ask myself: how can the people of Cuenca let such a jewel be defiled in such a manner? Isn’t the tourist industry a large part of the local economy? If the graffiti gives me pause about living here, doesn’t it also make tourists think twice about coming back for another visit, and what do they tell their friends about Cuenca and Ecuador when they go home?

Turning a blind eye to what is an insult to all of the people who live here is a slippery slope, as those who have no respect for themselves or others go about defacing both private and public property, marking their territory like dogs, and attempting to have us fall to their level of contempt for society.

In thinking about why the people of Cuenca allow the graffiti to dominate much of the cityscape, I am reminded of buying a new car. In the first few weeks of enjoying and taking pride in your new purchase, you take extra care parking it in a manner that provides the least opportunity for it to sustain damage. Then, as time goes by, it gets one little dent or scratch, then another and eventually we don’t notice all the damage that makes our new car look like an old car. Similarly, when we paint a room in our house, at first it looks fresh and clean but as time passes and it gets marked and soiled, we eventually don’t notice how shabby it has become. There is an English word, adopted from the Greek, to describe this sort blindness: it’s scotoma, meaning that the evidence is right in front of our noses but we can’t see it.

A rare scene in Cuenca: Police make graffiti artist erase his work.

It would be easy for me, as a visitor, to say nothing about the problem. I can get used to the graffiti, just like the people who live in Cuenca have. I can leave it behind when I go home and focus on the good memories of enjoying my time in here and in Ecuador. I have greatly enjoyed being with the people I have met.

On the other hand, I have come to love Cuenca too much to simply leave without making an effort to make this great city even better. This letter, then, is a call to action for you and the people of Cuenca.

Can you imagine Cuenca without graffiti? Wouldn’t people, both residents and visitors, take more enjoyment from their walks in the city without the visual pollution? Wouldn’t real estate values increase with greater pride of ownership without the desecration? A graffiti-free Cuenca would improve not only the quality of lives of those who live here and visit, but also the local economy.

A graffiti-free Cuenca is a worthy and achievable goal that most of the citizenry can buy into, I believe. And once that goal is achieved it would inspire other cities in Ecuador, and indeed in other countries, to follow the example.

Where to start? Henry Ford once said: “The man who thinks he can, can, and the man who thinks that he can’t, can’t.” It is simply a matter of attitude and I believe, Mr. Mayor, from the few moments I spent with you that you are a man that can.

I am sure that there are laws on the books that can be used to make Cuenca graffiti-free Cuenca. If necessary, it would be a simple matter to strengthen those to improve their enforceability.

For the law to be effective, the penalty must fit the crime. For example: After a perpetrator is apprehended, he or she should be arraigned and sentenced within 12 to 24 hours. Then, the sentence should be carried out within 24 to 36 hours. An appropriate sentence, I suggest, would be that an offender who damaged two square meters of property should be made to clean up four square meters. The sentence would double for repeat offenders. If offenders are minors — and I understand that the vast majority are — then the parents or guardians should be made aware of the sentence and be required to pay for the paint and and cleaning materials needed to fix the damage.

This is just suggestion. I’m sure there are many others that would also be effective.

If directed from the top with sufficient focus and resolve, I believe that Cuenca could rid itself of the graffiti plague in short order. Would the effort be worth it? I think it would.

Thank you, Mr. Mayor, and the people of Cuenca for your warm hospitality and making me feel at home.

With much love and respect …

— David P. Derby

  • Pixelvt

    Well written and to the point, especially the point of how we can get used to it yet it is right in front our our noses. I have been down now for a couple months and many times before, on this visit my wife and I immediately noticed the great increase in graffiti. It is sad really, and a contrast to some degree of the increase in police presence we have also noticed.

    My guess is of course the chumps that do this are out at night and police presence is reduced. But I concur with the writer that this is a major problem for an otherwise beautiful city.

  • Robyn

    I would be willing to contribute to a reward fund for the arrest and conviction of graffiti vandals in the historic center of Cuenca

    • StillWatching

      I will be happy to match your donation, Robyn

  • Galileo

    Good luck on getting the police to enforce the law.

    • Nancy Galloway

      Get it enforced by the Guardia Cuidana,not the police.

      • StillWatching

        Why not both? If I had my way, they’d put a bounty on all graffiti punks and any citizen hauling one in by the scruff of the neck would collect the bounty.

  • Don C.

    Let the people’s artwork stand. Once again, people from outside an area, trying to remake it into their idea of utopia. One person’s eyesore is another person’s expression of love, art or political expression.

    • Dan

      Let the artwork alone but get rid of the 95% that’s garbage. Then, develop programs to give these kids something useful to do.

      • StillWatching

        Agree completely. I’m 100% in favor of all the murals around town, but the mindless tagging isn’t art work, nor an expression of love or anything else positive. It is an arrogant call for attention. It is a cowardly form of bullying.

      • sueb4bs

        bloody good idea — maybe to consider…

    • Pixelvt

      Give me a break graffiti like the crap we see here is ugly everywhere done by punk kids everywhere, and believe me it is not art (for the most part) and it has nothing to do with where one is from

    • Don, this is not artwork. Street art is one thing, but we are talking tagging, which is done by gangs and wanna-be gang members. Here’s a very well-written article that emphasizes the difference. ” The main difference between graffiti writing and street art is intention. Graffiti writers are not interested in the general public understanding their artwork. They are primarily concerned with other graffiti writers who can decipher the coded tags and appreciate the style of the writing. Also the ritual of vandalism comes into play.” http://schriftfarbe.com/the-difference-between-street-art-and-graffiti

      • StillWatching

        Young lady, you have more patience than I do, but I have a difficult time being calm and rational when I’m seeing red. Littering and graffiti makes me see red. Your post is a work of art.

      • Dano

        I think you have your countries mixed up, most of it is NOT gang related. It’s mostly just independent taggers, vandals and ‘anarchists’

      • sueb4bs

        Good grief — I am glad it’s not in my head to decide it is MY culture to pontificate about graffitti (others love wall art) I will not climb on my high and mighty horsie –all these nicey gringito ideas about how things OUGHTTA BE …for them, of course… I think wall art in SOuth America is a different dynamic than the gang art all over the U.S..Have you, Irishman, considered you gotta accept a lot here ,more than graffitti as you call it if you make the choice to live in Ecuador. This is not your gringolandia to fuss over –and threaten to leave or not visit, a kind of quid pro quo –like this guy writing to the alcalde seems to be implying. It’s kind of like the perros de calle –, whose cultural business is it to change their habits? The perros de calle, I mean. THe dogs are many and have been perros de calle over the continent after we, the new colonials , pick up and leave the area.. Yuck, I do not like these attitudes…

        • StillWatching

          “Yuck, I do not like these attitudes…”

          And many of us don’t give a rats ass what you like or don’t like.

    • Lars

      Wall art is one thing and it is quite lovely. Graffiti, on the other hand, is vandalism and should not be tolerated.
      Mr. Derby has written an excellent letter to the mayor and I applaud him for it. Any reasonable, “thinking” person would certainly agree that the terrible graffiti problem serves to take away from the many otherwise charming aspects of Cuenca.
      Please, Mr. Mayor, move to eliminate/reduce graffiti as soon as possible. Thank you.

      • StillWatching

        Best post you have ever written, Lars. Thank you.

    • Ken

      There is a big gulf between Vandalism and Art

    • StillWatching

      By now, everybody knows how I feel about the “It’s their country” crowd, but this Don C. is the most egregious example of a lack of common sense I have seen in a long while. I’d be willing to bet that 95+% of all people living in Cuenca would like to do away with the tagging graffiti that defaces private property.

      Don, don’t you get it? Graffiti punks have no right, legal or moral, to deface anybody’s property. This is vandalism, pure and simple.

    • sueb4bs

      You nailed it, bud…

    • krieg93

      I’m Ecuadorian and I can tell you that we dislike this “art” just as much as you gringos do. Classless people have no appreciation for what we’ve been given and the government is too inept to enforce the law or at least clean the damned walls.

      • StillWatching

        Bravo, krieg and as I have posited elsewhere, I’d bet most Ecuadorians feel as you do.

  • Ellis Nelson

    This could be a great opportunity for gringos to have a positive impact on Cuenca. Why not an expat-led community service to help clean up the graffiti, working with the mayor, cops and the kids who get caught. Complaining gets us nowhere.

    • Ken

      Creating freshly cleaned “Blank Canvases” is not the solution. Punishment and Prosecution will spread the word and send the message that it will not be tolerated.

      • Ellis Nelson

        A heavy-handed approach won’t work. The average age of these “artists” is 14 (U of Cuenca study, 2015) so you’re not going to lock them up. The trick is to have them fix the damage and get the parents involved, as the writer says. You don’t need to catch them in the act since they can be ID’ed by their tags and style. Enforcement and follow-through is the key but make the kids fix their own mess — then, the word will get out.

        • StillWatching

          I don’t have any answers, but I appreciate your effort to foment the discussion. Perhaps a multifaceted approach would be effective———– a combination of carrot and stick, so to speak.

    • StillWatching

      I’m 100% in. I love my city and I love those that work to keep it clean and beautiful. I would support any effort of the nature you suggest, Ellis.

  • Hugh Loomis

    When my wife and I first moved to Cuenca from our initial landing spot in Quito about four years ago, one of the very noticeable bright spots was the lack of grafitti as compared to Quito. As time went by, more and more wall markings made their way into Cuenca along with the inherent sadness they brought. We heard grapevine mentions of how minors could not be prosecuted and hence the proliferation. True or not, Cuencanos must protect the beauty of their city. Please Mr. Mayor, do something soon to maintain your city’s stance as one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

  • David Naccari

    Thanks, David. The often heard excuse from some Gringos that “it’s just their culture” is baloney. The ugly graffiti is a desecration to one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Put me on your list when you are organizing your committee to rid Cuenca of its graffiti.

    • Lars

      Me too! I hereby volunteer to help with such a project.

      • StillWatching

        I’ll be right next to you, Lars.

    • StillWatching

      Ten thumbs up to you, David. This “It’s their country” nonsense flies in the face of common sense. This guy Don C. carries it to a ridiculous extreme. His attitude is the equivalent of saying any law breaking can be rationalized if it is prevalent. Yes, damnit, if you don’t speak out against something evil, you are lending that evil tacit approval. Edmund Burke and Dr. Martin Luther King said it better than I ever could:

      “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

      “The failure to condemn an activity is indeed, an offer of tacit approval. All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke

      “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” Martin Luther King Jr.

  • Carswelljames Carswelljames

    Great article and important points. I visited Cuenca in 2016 for three weeks. I really enjoyed the city but was turned off by all of the graffiti on all of the buildings and even on some churches. Because of this I have elected not to return to Cuenca.

  • LadyMoon

    While I would also like to see less graffiti (but love, love, love the murals), another law with no enforcement would be useless. What actually WORKED in another hispanic city* was to have two (only) teams of two wo/men available to paint over the graffiti daily. As soon as the new graffiti was spotted, a call was made and the team would be dispatched. Since the tags were covered within hours, I guess the perps gave up. The graffiti eventually didn’t even happen. Worth a try! (*Albuquerque, NM)

    • Glenn P Hebert

      We do that with our wall in Otavalo and it rarely comes back, like you said. Unfortunately, the rest of Otavalo seldom follows this practice.

    • lorenzo

      Yours seems to be the best suggestion as a fix, LadyMoon. As most of us know, involving the police to catch the perpetrators won’t be effective here. It’s also not fair to place the cleanup responsibility on the property owners.

      I don’t know if the graffiti bothers the average Cuencano enough to join in on the effort. However, there seems to be enough people concerned here to form the teams. You would also have to have enough “spotters”. Money for paint and other cleanup supplies is another consideration.

      You would probably want to get some sort of permission from the city govt. to do this. The difference between graffiti and art is usually obvious, but erasing art would be a mistake.

      The challenge is finding the folks willing to volunteer. Many, like me, have the time to complain and write suggestions. But when it’s time for action, we disappear.

    • StillWatching

      This was suggested by LadyLee a while back and is one of the few times I ever agreed with her about anything. It has been shown to work but I would use it as one tool in the tool box. I think a multifaceted approach would be most effective.

  • Kel

    Great article! I had a similar emotional reaction to the graffiti. However, I would push for an online notification process for citizens to report graffiti and a city task force to spend a couple hours each day to promptly erase it. If citizens see the city responding to the reports, that has ripple effects in many ways.

  • laura bodine

    SOLUTION! One group of artists, La Komuna, proposes a solution, at least to one block that connects the Otorongo Stairs to San Sebastian Plaza. That is to make the entire block an art project. They have sketches, neighbor’s permission and this week they go to the City for permission and money to make it happen. You can support their project with money, man hours or bringing food for the artists involved. Let me know and I can put you in touch with them. laurainksbodine@gmail.com

    • StillWatching

      What you refer to here, Laura, is art, not graffiti and if we can get art to take the place of graffiti, I’m all for it.

  • laura bodine

    In Santa Barbara, CA there is no graffiti. That’s because the law is for the property owner to paint out tagging within 48 hours or THEY get fined. The taggers get tired of wasting their paint on something that gets covered over very quickly. They look for sanctioned projects instead and the result is a clean and beautiful city.

  • fredtover

    The #1 problem with Ecuadorians is apathy! They simply don’t give a damm unless it affects them directly. The people here are wonderful one on one but as a society they lack much. Laura Bodine’s idea from Santa Barbara is good, make the owners erase their own and have a graffiti hot-line that sends teams of public workers or supervised jail inmates to remove the public graffiti and from homes of the elderly.

  • Kris T Daniel

    I’m in the process of writing a travel article about this beautiful city. Many reasons to love it, but number one on things not to love–graffiti. What a shame to see these architecturally significant buildings desecrated.

  • Jean McCord

    I was on the Otorongo Plaza side of Rio Tomebamba one day when a group of four or five young men started covering the river wall on the other side with graffiti. I spoke to the policeman standing there and asked if he could/would stop them as it was very ugly and defaced a beautiful river and city. He just shrugged, smiled, and did nothing.

    • StillWatching

      Jean, I know your Spanish is limited; are you sure he understood you? If so, I would have filed a formal complaint against the cop.

      • Jean McCord

        Sorry, I just now saw your response. Yeah, my Spanish is pretty decent and he definitely understood me. Plus, he could hardly misunderstand seeing the young men busily painting. I have no idea how to file a formal complaint against a cop.

        • StillWatching

          I’m going to find this out for you and when I do, I’ll post it here.

        • StillWatching

          Sorry for the delay, Jean, but my attorney took forever answering the question. He says that the most effective way would be to get the police officer’s badge number———– they all have them, just like in the U.S.————-and report him directly to police headquarters on Héroes de Verdeloma, which you will hit if you go north on Luis Cordero.

          He also noted that every police officer is required to give you that information upon request, just in case you can’t see it on your own. He suggests that the very act of asking for it may in itself be enough to spur the cop to do what you are asking. If not, take the information directly to the Police Department where they are set up to receive such complaints.

  • Dogoslave

    The City should consider imposing real consequences on the parents of these juvenile delinquents. Parents see all the signs of their kids graffiti efforts. The painted hands, paint stained clothing and spray cans are all pretty good indicators. Just catch a few kids “red handed”, turn up the heat on their parents……….. the word will spread like wild fire. Moma breaks a few broom handles in the “kitchen family court” and junior decides to get out of the graffiti racket.


    The horrid grafiti here is truly an eyesore…including the “art”…..there should be NO GRAFITI ALLOWED……$1000 FINE plus jail time of at least 3 days and restoring what they desicrated….people here fear heavy fines and jail time….the city needs to get serious about this ugly problem!!!

  • sueb4bs

    oh gawd, more pontificAting…..

    • StillWatching


  • Jean McCord

    Thank you. Again, didn’t see your response until now.

    • StillWatching

      One problem with my attorney is that he is more interested in philosophy than law. He reads Kant and Chopenhauer all day.