Shannon Salerni – Latin American Street Art

Shannon Salerni

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EN 10?-???

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Reclaiming the Public Space: Street Art, Resistance, and Democracy in Latin America


Despite officially transitioning from dictatorships to democratic regimes, many Latin American nations, decades after their revolutions, still grapple with challenges to democratic consolidation. Persistent socio-political issues threaten to upend established democratic rights and institutions within the region. However, where governments have failed to adequately address these concerns, the Latin American street art scene has emerged to combat censorship and safeguard human rights and political freedoms. In this paper, I argue that street art promotes democracy in Latin America by preserving the memory of past tyrannical abuses, condemning ongoing institutional injustice, and facilitating social change. First, I start by detailing both the inherent democratic power and historical significance of public art in Latin America. From there, I transition to show how contemporary street art ultimately protests against social issues such as indigenous erasure, violence against women, and police brutality. Lastly, I argue that these works and their messages have catalyzed democratic progress through concrete socio-political changes.

The power of street art to foster democracy lies in its ability to humanize the built environment and frame how citizens interpret its social, political, and cultural dynamics. Urban architect Dr. Ana Cristina García-Luna Romero writes that although “the unbridled development of cities has led to their dehumanization…. [A]n urban image… [nonetheless] generates a visual frame for the inhabitants of the city” (44). When high-density architecture encroaches upon free spaces, it stifles cultural and political expression and generates an urban image of sterility and censorship. However, the documentary Grey City shows Nina Pandolfo, a leading Brazilian street artist, whose work exemplifies how repression has bred resistance in the form of graffiti movements. She describes the use of graffiti images as “a direct language,” and speaks to the uniquely collaborative nature of street art as a public good, “not an art that only one person owns” (2013). Due to its accessibility, the public space breaks down class-based barriers to both creating and viewing art and allows traditionally oppressed citizens to take back the visual narrative, combating urban dehumanization with diverse cultural expression. Indeed, Latin American street art is foundational to democratic values in the area.

Additionally, the questionable legality of street art enhances its impact. Dr. Marcy Schwartz argues that “public walls that serve as canvases further expose the dilemma of artistic expression under censorship” (Schwartz 132). In other words, street art is a manifestation of the extreme legal risk that artists must undertake to disseminate their messages against suppression by the government. This underscores the art’s urgency. Such art makes political statements that then quickly become ingrained in the environment for all to see and react to. Therefore, public art is a cultural demonstration of democracy that allows civilians to alter the visual fabric of their cities and, as a result, challenge the legal boundaries of the political status quo.

In the context of twentieth-century Latin America, where rapid urbanization and dictatorship created an oppressive political climate, street art historically served as an avenue for social commentary and the reshaping of national identities. The Mexican muralism movement is a strong example of the intersection of artistic tradition and revolutionary politics in Latin America. For example, renowned artists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, known as “Los Tres Grandes,” strived to “visually [convey] many narratives of anticolonial resistance” and “educate the illiterate masses of workers and peasants” through a universal language, art, following the 1910 Mexican Revolution (Bogerts 128). In this manner, “Los Tres Grandes” popularized street art as a medium for the empowerment and political inclusion of the common person and catalyzed similar anti-authoritarian art movements across Latin America. International political sociologist Dr. Holly Eva Ryan emphasizes Siqueiros’ influence in the development of Argentine cultural resistance during the 1960s. She cites how he urged Argentine artists to “free creativity from the auspices of dry academicism and elite gallery circuits” and ultimately inspired the practice of using graffiti stencils to educate the public and support pro-working-class policies in the streets of Buenos Aires (104). This practice transitioned control of the political narrative from the elites back to the people and contributed to a new national identity centered around laborers’ rights and cultural vibrancy. In summary, street art has played an integral role in promoting social commentary and even self-critical education.

In addition, public artworks have historically preserved a collective memory of injustice in Latin America. According to political scientist Lisa Bogerts, street art can serve as “a guardian of people’s cultural memory” through the memorialization of political symbols, social injustices, and heroic role models (55). This idea shows how, evoking feelings of empathy and solidarity, street art can remind communities of their shared history and unify them to prevent democratic backsliding. Throughout the twentieth century, this theme of memory has been prevalent in Latin American urban imagery, specifically during periods of unrest. Bogerts states that during the Ongania dictatorship in Argentina, “the names of students who had been killed in clashes with the authorities were often invoked as epitaphs and indictments of government brutality,” making the claim that these memorials “demarcated spaces taken back from the authoritarian state” (109). Her argument reinforces the notion that street art makes an example out of history and calls for the remembrance of past struggles, regardless of governmental attempts to gloss over violence and abuses of power. In this fashion, street art exhibitions form a public museum that maps its community’s resistance to authoritarianism.

Inspired by the activism of these twentieth century artists, contemporary Latin American street artists continue to highlight systemic issues, including the cultural and political erasure of indigenous groups. Today, the longstanding effects of colonialism and the caste system have disproportionately affected indigenous populations, exacerbating social and environmental issues in their communities and denying them a voice in Latin American society (Linton-Villafranco). However, to counteract this erasure, political graffiti that rewrites the indigenous person into the urban visual frame has exploded in cities like Cochabamba, Bolivia. Dr. Lucia Palmer’s 2017 study of Cochabamba notes recurring stencils of burdened indigenous figures on public walls and columns, coupled with provocative slogans like “‘200 años de libertad para quién?’ (‘200 years of freedom for whom?’)” (3664). Her observations underscore the power of street art to condemn dominant political narratives and elevate marginalized groups into the public eye, demanding that passerby acknowledge injustice and strive for inclusion.

In addition to visually validating the existence and rights of indigenous individuals within Latin America, street art also displays typically overshadowed indigenous cultural perspectives. Chilean muralist Inti Castro uses art to increase public exposure to “the often hidden indigenous roots of his country” (Schacter 144). He depicts vibrant images of “Chilean chupalla hats, Quechua chumpi belts, [and] Chancay dolls” in the streets of Valparaiso where, like Cochabamba, there are tensions between indigenous inhabitants and ruling urban elites (Schacter 144). A stronger democracy demands stronger cultural competency; therefore, Castro’s efforts to make the cultures of the Southern Cone region more mainstream represent street artists’ role in combating racial injustice in Latin America.

Many displays of public art in Latin America also call attention to and condemn violence against another similarly marginalized group, women, to promote equality. Deep-seated machismo has perpetuated aggressive masculinity in Hispanic culture, and as a result, high rates of domestic violence and femicide (Barajas). Although these subjects are often considered taboo, street artists including the Moriviví Collective in Puerto Rico provoke discomfort with murals like “Paz para la mujer.” This mural depicts two nude women shielding their faces from assault. After the mural was defaced to cover the women’s bodies, the artists decided to paint over the areas of vandalism with images of the community’s subsequent protest, garnering international attention in 2015. Dr. Kadiri Vaquer Fernández praises Moriviví’s response, arguing that, “in this sense, the mural gives testimony to an ongoing struggle over gender-based violence, the feminine body, and visibility” (166). Here, she captures the idea that by confronting the uncomfortable and incorporating the community’s outpouring of support into the final design, the mural exemplifies how street art lends agency to oppressed groups and turns censorship into visibility for women’s issues.

However, street art protesting violence against women does not only take the form of murals and wall art. In fact, in Mexico City, these exhibitions specifically intervene on public squares, and thereby attempt to reclaim or at least re-contextualize certain spaces for victims of femicide. For example, to honor and visually represent the hundreds of women and girls lost to gender-based violence, the Mexican artist Elina Chauvet painted 300 pairs of shoes red and laid them out in front of the National Palace. To Chauvet, who was featured on PBS NewsHour in 2020, the striking red color “represents bloodshed, but also change and hope and love” (Barajas). Although this form of street art contains no provocative slogans or words, its resolute presence outside of a government building demands accountability and justice for the lives lost, and also appeals to the people to change the culture surrounding the treatment of women in Latin America, a powerful democratic sentiment.

Furthermore, with the recent global movement against police brutality, Latin America street art has seen a return to its roots in denouncing acts of police and military violence when the media refuses to acknowledge them. For example, Bogert’s empirical study of street art in Bogotá, Colombia identified nine unique instances of the pig motif, often used in connection with police figures across the city (307). In a political context, the image of a pig connotes corruption and greed. Therefore, it can be concluded that the recurring metaphor of the police pig across the walls of Bogotá, where corruption threatens to undo democratic progress, is an important means of disseminating a critical perspective that the state-influenced media does not show. Likewise, satirical artistic depictions of police officers in Chile, a nation both historically and currently marked by fierce anti-government protests, reflect the goals of democracy by encouraging public engagement with the subject. Oscar Nuñez is a Chilean artist known for painting military officers in yoga poses, an ironic choice underscoring the true lack of peace between protesters and police despite the government’s claims. Speaking to BBC, he describes how “people would paint the eyes red in a reference to the hundreds of protesters who have been blinded by projectiles shot by police” (Mesones Rojo). Not only does this example demonstrate how street art holds officials accountable, but also how it provides a collaborative outlet for dissent that subverts the censorship of traditional news media in Latin America, two tenets of democracy. Both the rhetorical strategies as well as the communal nature of street art form an attack on police brutality in Latin America.

As a result of the protest against social issues highlighted in activist street art, Latin America has taken promising actions toward a more democratic future. After the incident with “Paz para la mujer,” Puerto Ricans “created different coalitions… provided outreach workshops, and organized protests to demand schools include gender perspectives in their curriculums” (Vaquer Fernández 166-167). These are the first steps toward dismantling machismo and teaching the next generation of citizens to value justice and feminism. Regarding police brutality, following the murder of a 16-year-old street artist by police in 2011, Bogerts elaborates on the “major scandal” that “led to a change in street art legislation” decriminalizing graffiti in Bogotá (189). Although artists still face penalties for spray painting, this legislation signifies interface and compromise between civilians and their government facilitated by the street art community. Finally, the hiring of Brazil’s first indigenous museum curator in 2020, Sandra Benites of the Guaraní Ñandeva people, marks a shift toward greater visibility of indigenous art. Interviewing with The New York Times, she emphasizes the “[inclusion of] Indigenous people and the artists themselves” for future exhibits (Langlois). This incorporation of indigenous Brazilians in the planning of how their cultural narrative will be portrayed at the national level expands on the goals of indigenous street artists and strengthens democracy in public institutions. In all three of these cases, the sentiments and community responses generated by Latin American street art have catalyzed societal changes.

Overall, street art has proved to be a democratizing force against censorship, corruption, and social injustice in Latin American communities. Reclaiming both the public space and the political narrative, murals, graffiti, exhibits, and other styles of street art hold governments accountable and uplift the voices of marginalized groups to reflect the cultural and political diversity of the region onto the built environment. By memorializing the struggles of the past and confronting present injustices, street art promotes conversation and collective action toward a more democratic future in Latin America.


Works Cited

Barajas, Joshua. “This artist’s red shoes stand in for all the women lost to violence.” PBS NewsHour, 10 Mar. 2020, Accessed 6 Dec. 2023.

Bogerts, Lisa. The Aesthetics of Rule and Resistance: Analyzing Political Street Art in Latin America. New York City, Berghahn Books, 2022. EBSCOhost.

García-Luna Romero, Ana Cristina. “Art and urban space: Reading the contemporary Latin American city.” Street Art and Urban Creativity Scientific Journal, vol. 7, no. 1, June 2021, pp. 42-69. EBSCOhost. Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

Grey City: Artists Use Graffiti as Political Resistance in Brazil. Directed by Guilherme Valiengo and Marcelo Mesquita, Pragda, 2013. Kanopy,

Langlois, Jill. “Brazil’s First Indigenous Curator: ‘We’re Not Afraid Anymore.'” The New York Times, 22 May 2020, Accessed 7 Dec. 2023.

Linton-Villafranco, Mellissa, host. “Beyond Land Acknowledgements | Indigeneity in Latin America.” Latino Outdoors, 30 Jan. 2023. YouTube, Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

Mesones Rojo, Gabriela. “Chile’s protest street art: The writing is on the wall.” BBC News, 29 Feb. 2020, Accessed 7 Dec. 2023.

Palmer, Lucia. “Rhizomatic Writings on the Wall: Graffiti and Street Art in Cochabamba, Bolivia, as Nomadic Visual Politics.” International Journal of Communication, vol. 11, 1 Jan. 2017, pp. 3655-84. EBSCOhost.

Ryan, Holly Eva. Political Street Art: Communication, Culture and Resistance in Latin America. London, Routledge, 2019. EBSCOhost.

Schacter, Rafael. The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti. Sydney, NewSouth Publishing, 2013.

Schwartz, Marcy. “The Writing on the Wall: Urban Cultural Studies and the Power of Aesthetics.” City/Art: The Urban Scene in Latin America, edited by Rebecca E. Biron, Durham, Duke UP, 2009, pp. 128-44.

Vaquer Fernández, Kadiri J. “‘Los muros hablan’: Protest and Provocation in Puerto Rican Feminist Muralism.” Camino Real, vol. 12, no. 15, 2020, pp. 153-69.