Category: Chile.

Freedom Writers of Valparaiso

Martin Croucher

The cells of the old county jail in the Chilean city of Valparaiso are empty. The burned-out shell of a building was once used to house the political enemies of former military dictator Augusto Pinochet.

travl1_22oct09Now, it sits isolated in an industrial area of the city, the residential buildings nearby seeming to withdraw from it, as though not wishing to be associated with its grim history.

But Henry Serrano Ruiz, a teacher at the nearby Valparaiso Fine Art College, believes that the building can be saved.

He is one of many residents who is supporting the transformation of the former jail into a cultural centre to support the growth in local art.

“It used to be a symbol of repression, now it will become a symbol of free expression,” he said, gesturing down at the former prison from the workshop garden of the art college.

The city is famous for its grassroots arts scene and is known by people as the ‘cultural capital’ of the country. But there are few galleries here.

Instead, the walls and houses of the port city are a showcase for the exquisite graffiti art of thousands of talented young men.

“Art galleries are not open to these teenagers,” said Ruiz. “That’s why they do it on the streets, using the walls as their canvas, and the street as their galleries.”

Valparaiso was used as a port by Spanish sailors in the 16th century, and the hill-top town which overlooks the cove grew up organically.

Partly because of the natural beauty of its labyrinth of cobbled streets and quirky 19th century houses that overlook the harbour, the city was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2003.

Indeed, the city lives up to its reputation through the exquisite street art that colours the walls. Such is the quality of the work, that Ruiz hosts an annual competition to identify the best graffiti in the city. Many of the winners, he said, were once his students.

“There’s a growing phenomenon where different tribes compete to produce the most artistic graffiti,” he said.

“Some of them came here to study formal art. The first thing they did after graduating was to go out onto the street and paint the walls.”

Although the city is the birthplace of Pinochet, the shadow of the Generalissimo no longer hangs heavy over the people who live here.

Indeed, the face of the leftist president Salvadore Allende, who some say was assassinated when Pinochet rose to power, is a common motif of rebellion on the city’s walls.

Ruiz said that graffiti is a relatively modern phenomenon, coming to fruition only after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1990.

“It started during Pinochet’s government, but only took off in the 90s. People were writing political slogans on the walls and they were being washed off the next day by local officials,” he said.

“When the government changed, the graffiti lost its political edge and become more of an art form.”

Now it’s common to see graffiti artists on the street stencilling their designs onto the walls in broad daylight. Indeed, many residents have explicitly asked street artists to decorate their homes.

“They don’t accept payment though,” said Ruiz. “It wouldn’t ever become a commercial activity.”

One resident, Carmen Gomez, said that many of her neighbours have had their homes decorated by graffiti artists.

“I’m happy with my home as it is,” she said, sitting on the step of her house overlooking the bay while smoking a cigarette. “Some people have had it done and it’s nice,” she adds, with a smile.

Where to stay:

Hotel zero:

Hotel Zero is a traditional town house turned boutique stop-over, with seaviews and funky furnishings. Dh1,000 per night.
How to get there:

Air France KLM flies to Santiago via Paris. The cheapest flights we found in October were roughly Dh2,740 each way.

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Category: Chile
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