Madrid’s secret art city in an abandoned military barracks

One of the sites where Franco’s army would learn to build railroads, bridges and trenches now hosts an army of Madrid’s underground artists. Welcome to Zapadores (trenchers), Madrid’s City of Art. 

The massive military barracks of Fuencarral seem out of place in the small barrio in the outskirts of Madrid. This red-brick building complex surrounds a vast central patio, with a collection of bunkers occupying its garden. The Renfe railroad tracks linking Madrid to its outskirts run alongside the barracks, with the old village of Fuencarral visible in the distance. On the other side of a field of weeds covered in rubbish, there’s a homeless community who have erected makeshift shelters, forming another of Madrid’s hidden city slums.

The abandoned military barracks stands opposite a row of old, decrepit office buildings-turned-squatter house, right beside a storage unit for garbage trucks. From the street outside, you can even see tents and curtains inside the building – it’s still a squat. This relic of Madrid’s bellicose past now makes up part of the setting for a museum, art galleries and studios.

As you approach and take it all in, you’ll find yourself appalled and yet filled with wonder. A strange mixture of abandon and peace palpitates in the air. The barracks and the surrounding urban wasteland, striking in their squalor, leave the passersby charged with a morbid fascination.

Less than a year old, Zapadores is a new project belonging to the organisers of the Neomudejar – another art centre near Atocha Station. For decades following their closure, the Zapadores barracks were relegated to nothing more than storage space. But instead of tearing them down to develop the area, the Neomudejar organisers negotiated a deal with RENFE – as they did with the centre by Atocha – to allow the buildings to provide a space where Madrid’s urban artists can exhibit their work.

The capacious barracks were hollowed and cleaned out and now contain vast volumes of empty space. But the exhibits areas brim with paintings, sculptures, videos, or a mesh of every form of art you can imagine.

You could spend all day at the New Media Arts exhibitions, and considerable time in the galleries with stunning pieces up for sale. But if you make your way past the main buildings, you’ll approach the artists’ studios housed in what were once military bunkers. Now it seems like a commune set in a garden, but in the midst of a wasteland. The smell of metal, rubble and dust intermingles with the fragrance of pines and flowers, but as you near the studios, a wave of varnish and wood envelops you.

Jair Leal is one of several artists with a studio here. It’s a spacious place with canvasses, paintings and sculptures at every turn. Originally from Mexico, for 24 years now he has been making a living as an artist. He defines his art as figurative realism.

When asked about his influences, he takes a sip of his tea and glances around the works in his studio. Before he gets started, he pays homage to the one who encouraged him to follow his heart: his mother. “My friends didn’t have such luck,” he utters in Spanish, their parents having forced them to study something more practical. Jair always loved to paint, and he recognises what a great gift it was to have his mother’s blessing. “Un tesorazo,” he says. A huge treasure.

Then he talks a bit about Sorolla, Velazquez, Robert Rauschenberg; but for Jair, his primary source of inspiration has always been his surroundings. The atmosphere of the trencher military barracks-turned-art city is the perfect setting for his creativity to soar on a daily basis.

Each of Jair’s series deals with a different subject. You can see on his walls that the most recent series depicts the harsh emotions left in the wake of violent experiences. “Violence is everywhere,” he says, “but their consequences are kept quiet.” He wanted to give a voice to those bearing the aftermath of a traumatising event.

As with any other art, making a living from it can be unforgiving, but sometimes the hardest part to deal with is the view that painting is a mere hobby. It’s quite common for people to ask Jair to do free work – for the love of art! Jair says people don’t understand that he’s a trained professional and that art is his livelihood. As much as he loves what he does, love alone won’t put food on the table.

Jair’s career has not been without its pitfalls. The crisis of 2011 in Spain punished artists to the degree that surviving meant holding two or even three jobs just to pay the most basic expenses. The crisis coincided with when Jair was getting divorced. Finding the will power to lift up a brush and paint after waiting tables all day could be especially taxing.

Despite the hardships of the artist’s life, Jair has persevered. Now things are on the rise again with larger projects falling into his hands. He recently painted the background stage scenery for a fantasy film. The job of responding to the director’s every whim, without any frame of reference, was challenging but, in the end, very rewarding.

Making a living as an artist is a rough path to take in a world already rife with instability, but the freedom Jair enjoys is what makes it all worth it. The opportunity to set up his studio at the Zapadores City of Art came to him through word of mouth, and working there is helping him reinvent his artistic vision.

After years of painting at his house, the old barracks gives him the space to take his creations to a whole other level. He’s incorporating the use of sculptures, wood engravings, plastic arts, painted leather and printing with cement and paper. He can easily spend 60 hours a week at the art city. Sometimes he’ll even spend the night. Jair tells me,

Art is important for society. It’s a delicate tool to handle. We can use it to build bridges, to communicate things we can’t express in words, but we can also use art to spread propaganda. So we must be careful, and make sure it balances us.

Jair is one of many artists at the trenchers’ bunkers in this art city, which makes a point of filling its disused buildings with art. The relationship between the artists, their artworks and the ghostly, juxtaposing setting is intentional and the result is profound. But what it all means, however, is for the visitor to ponder.


This article is by Isaac Shamam, a Californian writer and musician who’s been exploring Madrid for more than a decade. Read his articles about Madrid’s thriving underground music scene and the Nigerian church in an industrial unit

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