Aztec Heart: An Essay on the Cult-Followed Mexican Graffiti Artist, ZOMBRA
Zombra’s first solo show in London, Aztec Heart, opens this week at Hackney Gallery. The cult Mexican graffiti writer and artist will exhibit a series of paintings and sculptures that integrate the street and art: something that ‘street art’ often fails to manage. The accompanying, hand made, limited edition zine includes an essay by Ron Seal, a nom-de-plume of another well-known graffiti writer (guesses on a post card). It is available to pre-order from https://www.hackneygallery.co.uk/ and will be shipped worldwide. The following is an excerpt from that publication…
Once upon a time I had a job. Painting white walls white with crusty punks in a soon-to-be-demolished block. It was alright, they looked out for me while I went to sleep in the toilet.
I was really in love with my ex back in those times. It was a fizzy love that, like any fizz, was great when first opened, completely flat soon after.
While it still had bubbles I met her on my lunch break. She asked if I wanted to swim in Burgess Park duckpond and, being completely enamoured, I said “LETS DO IT”.
She said “you never regret a swim” so I dived off the bridge into the murky water. The ducks took off, the rats climbed the bank, the African aunties looked at me like I was mad and then I went back to work.
Contrary to her promise, I did regret the swim when I heard a while later that the council trawled the pond and found about fifty knives and a couple of guns.
I’m telling you about this because blindly jumping off a bridge into a weapon-ridden duckpond reminds me of how I exited the UK in 2011. I was on the run so I learned to sail then hitched a yacht from Plymouth with a Turbo Tory captain, whose vessel couldn’t’ve been further from my piratic ambitions.
As we set off across the Bay of Biscay I looked back at the harbour and wrote a Facebook rant about “good riddance, Tesco Kingdom”.
Via a long-winded (no pun intended) crossing that I won’t bore you with here, I wound up in Tenochtitlan (aka Ciudad de México aka Mexico City).
Once the ‘Venice of the South’, 500 years ago Hispanic conquistadores drained its water and plonked churches on top of Aztec pyramids. Bordered on all sides by volcanoes, it’s now a totalised saucer of pollution, crumbling concrete, tiled colonial outposts and tamales oaxaqueños, tamales calientitos.
I wasn’t ready. I was a Tesco Kingdom troglodyte thrown into a psychedelic chaos of proportions you can’t imagine... even if you’ve been there.
My Tesco palate took six months to reckon with the chilli, my patchy Spanish took a year to understand Mexican rhyming slang; it was the graffiti writers who I met and my ability to read between the squiggles that gave me an ‘in’.
Walking round a city’s ring road is like scraping a DNA swab from its cheek.
And after a few nights of immersion I realised that Latin American graffiti is a story criminally untold. Which completely makes sense; mainstream graffiti is like mainstream music is like mainstream politics; all you ever hear about is western dregs.
It’s hard not to define graffiti in terms of how western it is or isn’t, not because USA birthed the whole movement (it didn’t) but because it’s the only story we’re ever told. I mean, if graffiti culture was the education system then StyleWars would be World War Two – an essential module in the course, but not to the extent that the majority of graffiti writers worldwide are still desperately LARPing the Boogie Down Bronx.
When non-Western graffiti enters the syllabus they’ll have to put Zombra on the cover of the text book. He’s the most prolific writer ever in Tenochtitlan, the biggest North American city ever; someone who has influenced the international graffiti movement irrevocably.
People have smashed it here, smashed it there, but anyone who has passed through returns home like an explorer who has met Genghis Khan… “Zombra es la neta”.
Zombra is a bastardisation of sombra, the Spanish for shadow, which is apt as he hasn’t seen sunlight yet this millennium. He’s a Shadow Being in the corner of every blink; sprayed on the side of earthquake-proof subway carriages, on the walls of pharmacies, sex cinemas and Insurgentes tiles, below barking mongrels that live on Nezahualcóyotl rooftops, among the piles of courgette flowers in La Merced, over corporate sculptures in the financial district.
Thing is that prolific graffiti writers are two-a-penny. I’m always amazed how the majority of them spend their life in tunnels, alleyways and rooftops yet they are as culturally cutting-edge as a packet of crisps. Boring graffiti eclipses the walls that it is sprayed over but Zombra is part of the minority who read the city like brail.
In the vein of light and shadow he refracts the city’s glow. Tenochtitlan's rays bounce through the ZO kaleidoscope.
Both are mestizo (of mixed cultural heritage). Both will maximise your life force, sacrifice you, then drink with you in the graveyard once your gone. So if you told me that a blue corn quesadilla frying on a Tlalpan hot iron was one of his mangled street paintings – or vice versa – then I wouldn’t question it; you’d be as right as wrong.
And that’s the story of Mexico that’s so impenetrable for western minds. While western logic thrives on black and white ideas, Mexico requires intuitive reflex every time the pearly logic reflects your image darkly downwards, or brightly upwards towards the sky.
So I wonder whether Zombra can be a well-behaved inmate of Art, an industry that sells ideas safely locked in the cultural cells of white cubes and frames.
The Art industry is another Jaula De Oro, another box, another form of the cell that is so integral to the western way. Spreadsheets, haulage, social media feeds, prisons and galleries respectively function best with formulas, pallets, pixels, the opiated and the pseudo-rebellious.
ZO is somehow bridging that border though. Curators have given him shows in Tokyo, Paris and now London. So maybe that fickle Art flop is ready for his auto-interactive, ever-shifting, multi-millennium energy... something other, something ‘illegal alien.’
Text by Ron Seal // ZOMBRA: Aztec Heart opens at Hackney Gallery on June 29, 2023 // This text was published by Actually as part of Zombra’s solo show