Walking through the maze-like alleyways of the Ciutat Vella, it is almost impossible to miss the endless scrawl of graffiti across every available shutter and door. However, in a city where street art proliferates, the aesthetic and cultural value of this art form is sadly often overlooked. But despite strict regulations imposed by the Ajuntament to combat the spread of graffiti, Barcelona’s cool vibe and balmy climate have enticed street artists from all over the world to come and leave their mark, quite literally, on the city.
Given the fleeting nature of the majority of graffiti, pinning down the roots of this artistic movement is not a simple task. Luckily, the specialist tour company Barcelona Street Style Tour were on hand to clear things up. Chloé Lanier, who has worked for the company since November 2016, explained how modern graffiti likely began in the late Fifties in the US, after a teenager known as Cornbread fell in love with a girl named Cynthia. He began writing ‘Cornbread loves Cynthia’ all over Philadelphia to get her attention, and before long ‘tagging’ caught on, with people competing to find the most outrageous places to leave their signatures. From Philadelphia the movement spread rapidly to New York as intrepid artists began tagging trains that linked the two cities.
While graffiti in the form of hastily scribbled names and signatures was sometimes found in Barcelona prior to Franco’s death, it wasn’t until much later that street art erupted onto the scene. Street art’s more complex, conceptual nature meant that it was simply too risky to create during the dictatorship, when creativity and freedom of speech were restricted. Almost immediately after Franco died in 1975, however, Barcelona experienced a cultural explosion of sorts. Both street art and graffiti flourished as Spain transitioned to democracy, and the city quickly developed its own, mostly colourful and freeform, style. To this day, artists such as El Pez and Konair continue this vibrant aesthetic with their instantly recognisable tags of cheerful and purposefully childish images.
A mural by Bandido and El Pez in Sant Adrià de Besòs
Argentinian-born street artist Zosen Bandido moved to Barcelona as a young boy in 1990, where his obsession with street skating brought him into direct contact with the city’s growing urban art culture. Bandido explained that Barcelona experienced a ‘Golden Age of graffiti’ in the late Nineties and early 2000s. “Artists from all over the world migrated to Barcelona because of its reputation as a centre for street art. You could essentially paint anywhere you wanted, and so the growth of street art was really natural.”
One vital factor in this growth came in 1994, with the launch of the specialist graffiti brand Montana Colours. Co-founder Jordi Rubio was working at a local paint shop when he discovered that there was a significant gap in the market for street art supplies. His idea to incorporate a line of these products was rejected by his employer, but Rubio and his colleague Miguel Galea decided to follow their instincts, and thus, Montana Colours was born. Selling spray paint in 60 different colours, Montana quickly became indispensable for graffiti artists all over the world.
Yet Montana did far more than simply provide the artistic tools for street artists. In 2004, the brand’s first shop opened in the Born, and it soon became a meeting point for the growing community of urban artists in the city. The space encompasses a shop, a cafe and a gallery, showcasing work from up-and-coming as well as already established street artists from around the world. “Graffiti as an art form would exist without Montana, but Montana wouldn’t exist without graffiti,” explained shop manager Dario Chemello. Although Bandido attests: “The relationship between Montana and street artists in Barcelona is entirely mutual. Without us as clients their business couldn’t have expanded like it has, but they have always given back to the community by supporting both local and international artists.”
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Art is Trash gets creative with the city’s rubbish
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Gusanos’s bombs are commonplace in Barcelona
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Me Lata brightens city streets with his tin can messages
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Barcelona’s street art scene faced a significant setback in 2006, when the Ajuntament voted in a new ordinance cracking down on civil disturbances. Graffiti on any form of ‘public’ space was declared illegal in an attempt by the government to assert greater control over the city. This served to create a very visible dichotomy between legal and illegal street art, with the walls of buildings declared illegal ‘public’ space while doors, shutters and electricity boxes of private businesses were left unaffected by the new legislation, explained Lanier. Fortunately the law did not completely halt the city’s urban art scene, however it did mark a turning point in graffiti culture in Barcelona.
Barcelona-based street artist Francisco de Pajaro and his alter ego ‘Art is Trash’ stumbled across an inventive solution to the anti-graffiti law of 2006. “It all started because I was angry. I was trying and failing to break into the art scene here so I went out onto the street and began to paint on trash,” he said. By painting on rubbish and using tape to create lifelike arms and legs for his quirky trash characters, Francisco was largely able to avoid being fined by the city council. Robert Burt, owner of the urban art gallery Base Elements, soon took note of the mysterious ghost artist leaving his playful trash compilations outside the gallery. Today Art is Trash is one of the most popular artists on display at Burt’s gallery. A number of other street artists have also taken the step towards studio work in order to make some money from their talents and increasing popularity, but others have chosen to remain anonymous to avoid trouble from local authorities.
So where does this leave the future of street art in Barcelona? Bandido expressed concern over the city’s lack of respect for street art as an art form. “Many of the museums here disregard street artists and fail to recognise the value of having living artists creating urban art right here in our neighbourhoods.” While this much may be true, it seems there is hope. In 2011, the first Open Walls Conference took place in Barcelona. This annual urban art festival includes a number of conferences revolving around the topic of street art and provides a space for both locally and internationally renowned street artists to create murals. Another innovation in the city’s street art scene is Wallspot, an app designed to bring together those engaged in urban art. Artists can use the app to book a wall (all of which are legal) to paint on, and photographers interested in street art can then sign up to take photos of the ever-changing images. The popularity of these projects stands as a testament to the resilience of the street art community in Barcelona.