Street Art at the Mall

Street art is different from graffiti.  One is vandalism, an outlet for fury, a way gangs mark their turf, a cry of despair in the urban jungle. The other is an artistic experience to savor on your way to work or the pool or your best friend’s house, noticing new details with the changing light of the day or the number of people on the street.  In February, 2020, Unicentro Mall featured an exhibition of street art produced by 4Eskuela, a local group of artists and art school.

painting of tiger

Welcome to Unicentro. I’ll be watching you shop today.

Street art is very big in Medellin. There are several schools with hundreds of students who learn music and dance as well as painting, all part of transforming Medellin’s meanest streets into places of self-expression.

painting of tennis shoe
Not just any sneaker, this one has a complicated world to navigate

The images are simple and complex at the same time: a sneaker that any kid might have taken off and tossed aside, a smiley face, a block U from a university logo. Until the sneaker shows its two sets of teeth, one of them bared with a predatory sneer under what might be a computer terminal, the other exposed in the front like piano keys, or toes. The smiley face’s short body connects to what might be a tombstone. Shapes, colors and faces crowd behind the main images, incomplete, almost random, leaving room for a careful viewer to make intricate interpretations: the artist’s inner states? Stories of the neighborhood where the artwork appears?

painting of indigenous people
A photo of street art created by artists named Arte Visual – whose work dominates this display in Unicentro – and Shay, Kaos and Ske, in Medellín in 2016. The smaller photos above show it in neighborhood context.

Afro-Colombians are influential in the cultural life and history of Medellín, and their presence in the street art of the 4Eskuela Krew is vividly felt.

painting of woman on wall
Afro-Colombians and tropical colors on a Paris street

This photo in the exhibit showed that the artist Arte Vital had gone to Paris to leave  Afro-Colombian beauty on a street corner.

There were some pieces that spoke to the graffiti traditions of street art, too: bright colors, block letters so fat and curvy they might spell out a word – or might not. So much youthful exuberance, energy, a little whiff of anarchy – a long way from the sober memories of Afro-Colombian heritage.

two photos of street art, one a woman in a headband and glasses, below it a snarling panther
Not all art is meant to be beautiful. Sometimes, it is intended to be disturbing.

I was in a workshop about “learning to see” last year, and one of the exercises we went through involved going to an art gallery and intentionally looking for a work that we found unsettling or disturbing. Something we wanted to walk away from, rather than linger in front of. The photos above of murals in Medellín fit the bill: I had to force myself to stand and look at them, try to put into words why I did not find beauty there. Why I wanted to walk away. In the upper one, the lack of symmetry in the shapes to the right unsettles me. Something in my brain wants the images to swirl into something more recognizable, something I can put meaning to like the person with the Afro, granny glasses and headband to the left (but has the person been “tagged” with a triangle just beyond their face? In protest, as happened in the gentrifying neighborhood I read about in Bushwick, Brooklyn? Or does the triangle mean something to viewers younger than I am, when placed above what I think is a puff of smoke? 

The lower one has only one image that is partly recognizable, an indigenous man in profile with a spotted wild cat head and skin on his head, but even that has been sliced and reassembled so the edges don’t line up. As if the artist doesn’t want this to be too easy, or maybe doesn’t want to re-create the object this head and skin remind me of, which is a piece of tourist kitsch sold in souvenir stores to evoke the tribes of exotic areas in Colombia most of us in Medellín will never go. Everything to the left of that is so layered that I can’t understand what it was meant to say: maybe some realistic body parts in parchment colors, sinew stretched across bones, of birds not humans? but spray-painted over in black, so it’s hard to tell. Was this the artist’s work – Arte Vital again, it says in the corner – or again, did someone “tag” this mural in protest? 

Malls in Colombia thrive because there is so much to do there,
including stretching your eyes, your brain, and your spirit.