The identity of a neighborhood can manifest itself through street art. Take San Fernando Valley, for example, where two artists transformed a mile-long stretch with murals celebrating Latino culture. Even when it’s not trying to show the pulse of a particular neighborhood, street art has the ability to tell stories in a way that can move locals and non-locals alike.
And perhaps that’s why, regardless of what part of the world they came from, these works of public art moved, inspired, and spoke to us this year.
"If they took me alive, would you want me back alive?" – Mexico City
A year after the 43 students from an Iguala teachers college were kidnapped, Enrique Peña Nieto addressed the United Nations General Assembly and said that Mexico was “fully committed to law, human rights, and peace,” though there has been a lack of urgency and empathy from his administration when it comes to Ayotzinapa. In September, a hard-hitting campaign was launched to ask EPN, as well as other powerful families in Mexico, how they would feel if their children had been among the disappeared. In Mexico City, posters began cropping up all over featuring images of the children of some of the country’s most affluent families. “If they took me alive, would you want me back alive?,” the posters asked. It was a powerful and memorable piece of protest art that served as a stark reminder of how class disparities influence how justice is meted out.
Borrando La Frontera – The Border between Sonora and Arizona
“There is an arbitrary notion where one place ends and another begins,” said Jonas Cuarón this year, when speaking about the U.S.-Mexico border. It is this spirit that motivated artist Ana Teresa Fernández’s ‘Borrando La Frontera’ art installation. Armed with sky-blue paint, Fernández worked with 30 others to “erase” both sides of the border fence separating Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Arizona, by painting it to match sky, according to NBC.
“This wall has become a symbol of pain, a symbol where we lament the lives who have not been able to cross it,” said Fernández, who was born in Mexico but raised in San Diego. “For me, the border, the border wall, is like a tombstone.” Authorities did not interrupt Fernández as she pulled “down the sky.”
A tribute to a fallen artist – Oakland
In September, Antonio Ramos was in the middle of painting an anti-violence mural when he was gunned down. The mural was dreamt up by middle school students, who had pictured themselves as superheroes helping their communities. His piece made an important statement, and those who stepped in to finish the piece made sure the message wasn’t incomplete.
Donald, eres un pendejo – NY, LA, Miami
Donald Trump’s 2015 has been defined by all the crappy things he has said about immigrants, women, muslims, people with disabilities, and basically everyone. Over the summer, mysterious black-and-white posters started appearing in NYC, LA and Miami, labeling Trump a pendejo. With the catchy slogan,”The only thing that should be ilegal is mezcal,” the posters managed to turn Trump’s hateful rhetoric into a marketing opportunity.
Well played, Ilegal Mezcal. Well, played.
"Libre" – Harlem, NYC
In September, sections of the Bronx and El Barrio were transformed by artists as part of MONUMENART, which brought some of Latin America’s leading street artists to create work in Alto Manhattan on the theme of immigration. Puerto Rican artist Viajero’s piece was a powerful statement on the treacherous immigrant experience. With “Libre,” a young boy sits inside a delicate paper boat as he leaves behind all he knows.
“…The newspaper used for the boat is more than just a literal translation of a boat made of paper, but the intention of this boy leaving somewhere by creating his escape with a material, newspapers, that is easily found and readily accessible,” Viajero told William and Park. “The newspaper articles and advertisements symbolize memories and history the boy travels with on his journey.”
Though Viajero drew inspiration from the Puerto Rican community for this piece, it’s something that speaks to what’s happening on a global scale, too.
International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – San Juan, Puerto Rico
Puerto Rican all-female art collective Moriviví teamed up with Paz para la Mujer for to paint a mural to raise awareness about domestic violence. The mural featured nude Afro-Boricuas shielding themselves with their arms.
“To present our mural to daily passersby, we had to compete with the billboards that form part of the publicity bombardment that distorts the image of women, present[ing us] with unrealistic, unattainable, hypersexualised bodies, commodified to sell products. For that reason, we presented a full-bodied Black Latina woman, with one breast larger than the other. This is a real woman, the one we must accept and protect,” Moriviví wrote.
Unfortunately, people had issues with the nudity in the mural and one night, vandals painted undergarments over the original. To protest this act of vandalism and censorship, and a group of women posed topless for a photo in front of the piece, to make the point that nudity shouldn’t be taboo. Their protest sparked a much larger conversation about how women’s bodies are viewed and treated, making it one of the year’s most memorable street art pieces.
Gentrifiers as exterminators - The Bronx, NYC
This year, real estate developers Somerset Partners and Chetrit Group threw a “Bronx is Burning”-themed party in an attempt to rebrand the Port Morris neighborhood as the Piano District. The party, which drew many celebrities, was decorated with burning garbage cans and bullet-riddled cars, a clear allusion to the borough’s darker days in the 70s. It wasn’t long before Bronx residents took to social media to speak out against the developers trying to gentrify the borough with a #WhatPianoDistrict hashtag campaign.
The movement also inspired Alberto Serrano, aka Tito Na Rua, and Alfredo Bennett, aka Royal KingBee, to take the protest offline, creating a mural that shows gentrifiers exterminating locals.
When Warmi Paint Left Its Mark – Ecuador
In November, Maria Castillo, aka Toofly, put together Warmi Paint, an all-female festival in Ecuador to encourage women interested in careers in art. “We have to show them that, yes, this girl wants to paint graffiti, she wants to become a graphic designer, she can become a muralist, she can become a speaker about the culture and social issues that occur in her community and this young woman could become a voice of the culture and so being an artist shouldn’t be looked down upon,” Toofly said.
As a result of the festival, Ecuador got its first 131-foot by 26-foot mural, believed to be the largest scale public artwork in the country’s history.