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The paradox of street art: a tool for protesters and a weapon for colonisers

16 June 2021

Street art and graffiti have long been forms of protest. When the streets speak, the voices we hear are of the struggles we bear and the memories we hold. But in Madrid, street art is increasingly being hijacked and weaponised and used as a form of colonisation by those who are more powerful.

Street artists are hired by local businesses, political parties and city councils who commission artworks in order to accelerate gentrification – and therefore the social and ethnic cleansing of neighbourhoods. Public spaces are being tagged, claimed, privatised and monetised with the aim of attracting more outsiders to visit and move in. These outsiders are believed (at least by councils and private landlords) to be willing to pay more money for where they live and therefore indirectly cause the evictions of those who can’t.

The people who get pushed out are typically the working class, single mothers, immigrants and people from marginalised communities who, through an institutional lack of opportunities from early on, are viewed as less economically valuable in an area, even if their presence has formed a part of what makes this neighbourhood “cool, diverse, lively and LGBTQI-friendly”.

A new artwork has emerged.

An artwork by Dase.es on Plaza de la Corrala of an elephant breaking through a concrete wall to reveal a jungle behind it was commissioned by En Lavapiés, an association of Lavapiés shop owners sponsored by Madrid City Council, and it’s already aiming to bring in as many outsiders as possible to the barrio.

Plaza de Corrala, 2021

Until being jet-washed away by Madrid City Council last year, an artwork by Guillermo J Bueno depicting Iron Man (a mantero) being pinned to the ground (oppressed) by three police officers (the State) was one of the neighbourhood’s most famous and loved pieces.

Plaza de Corrala, 2019

Madrid Street Art Project are critical of the new work of an elephant breaking through a wall, explaining…

With all due respect to the artists, we think we need more art and less selfie backgrounds in Lavapiés. The previous murals there had neighbourhood-related content, or included reflections on different subjects and they were erased exactly for those reasons. Now, we guess the town hall is much more comfortable with a trompe l’œil which says nothing about Lavapiés and brings people to the area looking for their best selfie.

And that is exactly what happened last weekend.

On the website of En Lavapiés, it reads…

“This weekend, Lavapiés becomes the best setting for taking selfies. Throughout the weekend, a Tik Tok school will be installed on Plaza Nelson Mandela so that you can learn the best tricks for making your videos go viral.”

Plaza Nelson Mandela is a square known to Lavapiés residents as a hub of equality, anti-racism, anti-capitalism and LGBTQI+ force in the neighbourhood. On it, we have La Quimera, a self-managed social centre; opposite it is a social housing block which is slowly being privatised and evicted, flat by flat. The empty shell of the legendary Senegalese restaurant (the first in Madrid) Baobab lies empty and abandoned on this square waiting to be demolished and replaced with a four-storey hotel, and then there’s the square itself with a dozen concrete cuboid benches where Lavapiés’s migrant communities come together daily for some fresh air.

A protest for justice for the late Mame Mbaye in 2019
Artwork expressing the freedoms that undocumented migrants come to Spain for by Muska
Unknown artist depicting what appear to be celebrated figures from Latin America’s indigenous people
The south-facing wall of Plaza Nelson Mandela displays a decaying artwork that has been here for many years

And last weekend, this same square is hosted a Tik Tok pop-up school and used the closed facade of Baobab as one of the backdrops.

It must be stressed that the more affluent classes are not to blame for gentrification. This process is only possible in a capitalist system, which is the one we’re in today. But given we’re all very familiar with the process of gentrification, shouldn’t we take more personal responsibility for its outcome?

Should artists be held accountable?

Because street art has long been – and is still believed to be – an act of rebellion, its presence feels edgy and cool. But look a bit closer and you’ll find that an increasing number of works don’t challenge the status quo at all. Worse still, these works are oblivious to the social realities of their settings, treating public spaces like blank canvases rather than places already packed with countercultures, diversity, old and recent history, and their own social issues.

These artworks can even deceive you by appearing political, imitating an uprising, but they’re in fact intentionally inoffensive and were even commissioned by an institution whose values reflect the complete opposite of rebellion: preserving the system and maintaining the city’s deepest inequalities.

A form of colonisation.

Artists ignorant of or apathetic to local issues create vibrant façades that undermine the identity of existing communities. These artists are appropriating a place for their own (or their client’s) use, which encourages outsiders to visit based on the artists’ imposed identity of the neighbourhood.

Not all artists are paid, of course, but they may instead be working for status. Vallecas, Carabanchel, Usera and Tetuán (the poorer and – by no coincidence – more community-focused barrios in Madrid) are saturated with paid and status works, especially in Lavapiés which is where, recently, house prices have experienced one the most dramatic increases in Madrid, where they’ve gone up almost 50% since 2015.

When the artist’s work has such a profound effect on so many people’s lives, they must be challenged on the idea that being paid or gaining status is their greatest priority. In Madrid, we want the murals on our streets to represent us, to call attention to the truths and struggles of our neighbourhoods. We want them to challenge both residents and visitors to think critically about what should change and what should be left untouched. When the streets speak, it should be the voice of the neighbours that are heard – not of the colonisers.

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