Pablo Allison has been working to create a photo project that captures graffiti and street artists throughout Latin America, as they navigate some of the most violent cities and regions in the world. His project, titled Artists In Violent Contexts, seeks to give a voice to these artists, and to allow them to speak on the dangers and rewards of their craft. We've included a selection of Pablo's work, as well as an introductory piece written by Vittorio Infante, a former advisor at Amnesty International.
Over the past few years, research has shown that Latin America is currently among the most violent in the world. Mexico and Central America have witnessed an unprecedented scale of homicides, whether in the context of narco-trafficking, cartels fighting each other and the state, or the murderous sprees by the Maras in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The humanitarian charity Doctors without Borders (MSF) recently declared that the Northern Triangle is experiencing a humanitarian crisis on the same scale as conflict zones, with murder, kidnappings, threats, sexual violence and disappearances affecting civilians.
The impact of violence isn’t limited to insecurity, and the siege mentality of a police state, with lethal force being used by the police to contain the epidemic. Violence tends to shape and influence the way spaces are used in a city – with invisible borders never to be crossed.
Cities are a catalyst for different communities, and people tend to show their resilience to the adversities that they face. In many of these neighborhoods where an outsider would never dare to go, there consists a community of graffiti artists that continue to thrive against all the odds.
Graffiti is, and will forever be, a fundamental act of reclamation, a rejection of oppressive structures to exert freedom. Graffiti, in contrast with many other creative practices, is a free art movement that is exercised and appreciated by individuals from all walks of life and by every social class from Mexico to Australia and back.
So while the pictures of reclaimed informal settlements in Rio de Janeiro and Medellin painted by street artists have grabbed the headlines and the attention of art critics and urbanists worldwide, many less well-known graffiti artists are out in the streets in the early hours using the city as their canvas. Their commitment to freedom of expression knows no fears or boundaries.
If in Western Europe aerosol artists are usually bypassing the law or breaking it altogether, in Latin America they often have to deal with a myriad of other challenges. “Graffiti writers need to be careful what they paint and what styles they use. For example, it’s not advisable to use the gothic style fonts since that particular lettering style is commonly used by the gangs to identify themselves and mark their territories”, said Smoke from Honduras. Adding that certain colors, such as blue or red, must be avoided in a piece as these are typically linked to gangs too.
Women graffiti writers, instead of being celebrated for their talent with the spray cans, have been threatened and attacked like many other Latin American women. Natsu from Estado de Mexico spoke from experience on how pervasive violence against women is.
Pablo Allison gives us a chance to go to the tags and pieces through his portraits, and approach a much deeper aspect of what it means to be a graffiti artist today in Latin America. Pablo’s images reflect the personalities he’s come across in some of the world’s most violent cities along with the work and ethos of each artist, but most importantly the sheer diversity of ideas about freedom of expression that these people hold so drear. The photographer has dug deep enough to show us another side of places such as Comayaguela and San Salvador, where usually the only writing on the wall is done by gang members.
In the current narrative, it’s obvious that many of us associate the issue of freedom of expression to the serious threats that journalists are reporting on corruption and narco- trafficking in Mexico face. But what about the day to day experience of a young graffiti artist, sneaking out at night to cover walls in paint – often on the run from the police and the gangs. Sure, they risk something ostensibly smaller than a journalist denouncing the upper echelons of the political system, but the scale of devotion to that idea of freedom, and freedom of expression should not go unnoticed. Keme’s words illustrate this drive and commitment: “When you love something so much you will stop at nothing to keep on doing it” and concludes, “graffiti equals love”. It’s an unmatchable feeling”. For each wall with a name tagged on, there’s a man or woman with their life stories, their hopes, their dreams, and their views as a citizen.––Vittorio Infante