Monday, September 25

Oaxaca Street Art: A History of Diversity, Uprising and Resistance


Both ethnically and linguistically diverse – there’s a profusion of captivating attributes that encompass the state of Oaxaca. In this oasis of bougainvillea, calendas and textiles, it’s tempting to romanticise this region; however, these chromatic wonders are interwoven with complex challenges. Of these, a range of social and political issues are illustrated through the proliferation of local street art. This collective practice pushes for public interaction, discourse and community organisation via a series of alluring visuals.

The contemporary street art movement evolved from muralism – a creative era that emerged after the Mexican Revolution. After the rebellion ended, public art was commissioned by the government in order to unify a fractured society through a focus on nationalism. These efforts strengthened cultural identifiers while also speaking to a wider population, including those who couldn’t read or write. Artists such as José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros employed their ingenuity to highlight socio-political issues, the narrative of the working class and in attempts to dismantle a hierarchical view of the past. While these efforts broke barriers, shifted local politics and made a lasting impact on the art world, they also faced shifting ideologies, racial violence and anti-immigration sentiments. Issues that are as relevant today as they were a century ago.

Local street art sometimes reflects the occupation of the building owners that the pieces are painted onto – like with this mural by artists Antonio Ckoser and Roberto Dominguez on the wall of the home of an artisan family in Barrio de Xochimilcio who produce hojalata works. Photo: Ehren Seeland

Social upheaval and community activism continue, as does the evolving focus of street art. One of the most significant movements in recent history is the popular revolt. In 2006, Oaxaca was embroiled in a siege that stemmed from police opening fire on non-violent protestors in support of a teachers’ union. In response, the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO) called for the resignation of Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz and organised blockades throughout the city. The occupation of Oaxaca lasted over seven months. During this time, martial law was imposed, tourism plummeted, and there was a fervent increase in the production of public art. The latter was intended to share anti-capitalist viewpoints, confront tainted media channels, show support for the teachers’ movement and demand justice for the victims of this conflict.

While Oaxaca boasts a plethora of cultural riches and indigenous heritage, it’s also one of the most economically challenged states. The walls of the city serve as a canvas to illustrate both the cultural pride and ongoing struggles of local communities. Classism, inequality, corruption, and the crisis of gender-based violence and machismo are common themes. Pieces are also created to denounce crimes against political and environmental activists who risk their lives to protect human rights and natural resources.

A highly detailed wood block print in the URTARTE workshop that highlights a blend of indigenous roots, along with local social and political movements. Photo: Ehren Seeland

Street art scene in muted tones in the Centro area of Oaxaca by artist Hashe Is. Photo: Ehren Seeland

Local street artists employ a range of techniques and materials that fit their ideologies. The Revolutionary Union of Art Workers (URTARTE) use wood block prints that are applied to biodegradable rice paper with a traditional press. Multiple copies are made and quickly applied to structures using wheat paste. This allows for an application that doesn’t damage historic buildings. As politically charged pieces are removed by the city, additional prints can swiftly take their place.

Lapiztola is a collective that creates vibrant, layered works with stencils and paint. Their graphics are typically focused on the indigenous identity of Oaxaca. Images of corn are included in order to show respect for the local domestication of this food source. The paliacate is also present in their designs – a bandana that’s associated with the strength and resistance of the Zapatista revolutionary movement.

Vibrant traditional dress from three regions of Oaxaca is highlighted in this Barrio de Jalatlaco piece by artists Hisek Cuatro, Dayen and Fredy Samuel. Photo: Ehren Seeland

As with much of the art world, Mexican creativity is largely offered from a patriarchal viewpoint; however, there’s a growing movement of female street artists and printmakers in Oaxaca. Katalina Manzano creates finely detailed murals that involve flora and fauna. Hoja Santa Taller is comprised of talented women who speak to ancestry, social issues, nature and the power of the female spirit through their visuals.

In order to peruse dynamic public works, one is able to navigate the streets of Oaxaca solo, but for a deeper understanding of the current repertoire, a formidable option is the street art bike ride with Coyote Aventuras. Their guided cycling tour covers artistic highlights in different sections of the city. In addition to being an informative and convivial way to explore local art with a small group of curious travellers, this voyage also encourages participants to look beyond the picturesque facades of Oaxaca and dig deeper into the complexities of this region.

Oaxaca is an undeniable wonder that’s replete with compelling traditions and history. It’s also a convoluted entanglement of ongoing political clashes, bloqueos, inequity and economic disparity. The global catastrophe of gentrification is also a reality for locals. The resulting tensions are reflected in Oaxacan street art. In order to better understand this diverse Mexican state, we can glorify the bougainvillea and calendas, but it’s essential that we recognise that this allurement is intermingled with a long history of conflict, demonstrations and rebellion.

* This article was sponsored by Coyote Aventuras *

Traditional, indigenous culture is also a common theme in local imagery, like this vibrant piece by artists Antonio Ckoser and Roberto Dominguez in Barrio de Xochimilco. Photo: Ehren Seeland

Wood block print in the Oaxaca workshop of art collective URTARTE that speaks to the culture of political resistance and demonstration in this state. Photo: Ehren Seeland


About Author

Ehren Seeland is an artisan liaison and product developer, as well as the Founder and Creative Director of Hecho – a curated emporium of ethically made pieces that marry contemporary design with traditional processes. Ehren lives and works full-time in Oaxaca. Prior to her move to Southern Mexico, she studied art and design in Vancouver, Canada and Edinburgh, Scotland. She worked as a designer in NYC, as well as in international development in higher education, which involved regular travel throughout 24 countries.

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