They will tell you that it is unpolished, chaotic and dangerous. They also will tell you that it is bohemian, culture-soaked, arty and colourful. Yes, they are right, Valparaiso can be all of that. The city is an 'open air museum,' as dubbed by many. A big show where the actors are on stage performing twenty-four hours a day, in no need of a script. I took the dubbing literally and tried to discover why the place was labelled as such.
Well, once you step on the ground of the Porteños, look no further. The reason is written (or I should say painted) on every building and on every corner. Graffiti, throw ups, murals, interventions, collages and stencils seem to cover every available surface making Valpo a mecca for street art aficionados. Start walking the streets here and it will not take much until you find yourself glued to the viewfinder of your camera, trying to capture the explosions of colour all around.
I was not immune to the temptation myself. But it was while shooting that mural on the side of a church or that one on a five storey high building with a backdrop of the busy port that I started wondering. How did it all start? Who are the people behind those sprawling and mind-blowing creations? Why Valparaiso? What do they say about the place, the people and their cultural identity? I did not want to believe that the labelling would be so short-sighted and based only on what you could actually see. So, I put my camera down and began to scratch the surface, just observing life unfurling within the steep streets of the town’s many cerros.
Like many other portal towns in Latin America, Valpo (as locals call it) thrived during colonial times. The sea was pivotal in the shaping and development of local culture, urbanisation and lifestyle. The port saw the arrival of commercial goods as well as foreigners who settled and transformed society here, giving it a cosmopolitan feel. The opening of the Panama Canal meant that the city was cut out of many international shipping routes. The city lost its strategic importance but not its arty and nonconformist soul. In fact, the people of Valparaiso take immense pride in their cultural and artistic heritage as I came to understand from a group of university teachers I had the chance to meet and speak to.
Cultura Porteña is a synthesis of centuries-old assimilation of international customs blended and harmonised with local and popular traditions. It influenced the way people lived, socialised, ate and made art from figurative production to literature and music. An inheritance that it is still much alive today and which has created even more pride after UNESCO made part of the city centre a world heritage site. And the question came to me naturally: is the street art outbreak related somehow to the strong cultural and artistic tradition in this city? While it doesn’t seem to be a direct connection between street and traditional art, on the other side, what it has now become the city’s earmark appears to have had a solid relation to history and people’s lives.
Street art here has political roots. Its dissemination was the result of a political contention right back in the ’60s when the marxist Allende used the much economic method of mural art for his presidential campaign. Valparaiso was his hometown and became the canvas for his electorate. Following his victory, this form of expression was used by many of his supporters to express their collective solidarity with the new government. Things changed after the coup, which saw Allende dead and Pinochet violently ceasing power. Street art then went undercover given its roots as a tool to denounce the installed military government. It became a way for the people to express their ideas, feelings, thoughts and their thirst for justice and freedom. The walls were the places where individuals used their voice to express what the community could not.
This was the inception of street art, which has today evolved into an intrinsic part of the cityscape. Many years later, new generations of artists, despite the awareness of the political roots their art has, have moved on. Their work is rooted in the present, the now. It addresses social universal issues such as inequality, poverty, intolerance while also questioning the position of Chile and Latin American culture in a globalised world. Tags of artists like INTI, Cuellimangui, Un Kolor Distinto can be seen in many parts of town. They have created their own unique recognisable styles, that have made their names globally well-known.
And Porteños? They did not just stand there looking, they embraced it. If this form of art has become such an entailed part of the urban and social fabric is because they have accepted it. Its value has been strengthened by the fact that people of Valparaiso share and back up the messages behind the murals. They commission artists, protect and champion them. They give them a chance to enrich even more their already vibrant traditions. Wall-art represents their collective consciousness. Walls have become a mirror where the city analyses itself; they are no longer a barrier between the private and the public, but a physical space where the two blend in many unusual and thought-provoking ways. It is a place where life itself, local and Chilean, is on show.
Keeping in mind the social and cultural importance art has attained in Valparaiso, I picked up my camera again and went out onto the streets to shoot. What I saw in my viewfinder was a different town, different streets and a very distinctive light. With my images I tried to grasp the many faces of Valpo through its unconventional urban landscape. I tried to capture that fine balance existing between private and social life and of which the artworks (or just local art) are the mediums. I aimed to frame the town’s own search and affirmation of itself, its real rough and unique beauty. It was then that I could finally grasp the whole meaning of Neruda’s lines in his ode to the town, in which he says “never did you have time to dress yourself and always you were surprised by life”. Now, do not wonder why many leave their heart here.