Series : Off the Passarelle
The lady with a bright yellow face and blue hair is everywhere in Barcelona’s back streets although most people won’t notice her. To the untrained eye she’s just another piece of street art on a wall or door, easily lost amongst years of other graffiti. But to one romantic, the spray painted face stands out even in the most crowded situations.
The keen-eyed man is a creative Canadian who moved to Spain for work, leaving the love of his life on the other side of the world.
Upon arrival loneliness quickly set in for the artist, so he set about making an intricate stencil of his girlfriend’s face and spray painting her smiling mug all over town. Now when he walks the city’s streets he sees her everywhere.
It’s no secret that Barcelona is one massive urban canvas. Huge works cover apartment blocks, garages and factory walls, while small pieces occupy traffic lights, fire hydrants and door knobs. They all have a story to tell but if you don’t run in artist circles, then finding the best pieces, big or small, can be the first trick. The second is understanding what they mean.
Luckily there’s a group of local artists who recognise this and as a result they’re offering donation-fed walking tours through the city that give outsiders an insider’s perspective as to what lies beneath the spray paint.
Guided tours can turn a lot of people off but before you roll your eyes at the thought of such an activity, you need to hear about the Barcelona Street Style Tour (BSST). For anyone heading to the Catalonian capital, put this very high up the ‘to do’ list.
It’s a far cry from 50 socks-and-sandals-wearing tourists trailing a guy yelling into a megaphone and holding a stick with a stuffed penguin dangling from the top. This tour is a wander through the city’s edgy El Raval suburb with a small group of like-minded people that gets inside the minds of many of the artists. More importantly though, it’ll open your eyes and challenge the way you look at what decorates the street art capital of the world.
Have creativity, will paint
We met our Peruvian guide Chris outside the MACBA – Museum of Contemporary Art - where every day, skateboarders swarm in their hundreds dominating the sprawling concrete space that’s framed by old Spanish buildings.
Chris, dressed in purple pants, a shirt covered in cats and a knee-length green woollen coat is a freelance photographer who has become part of Barcelona’s quirky wallpaper in the seven years he’s lived here. He started with a brief rundown on how street art came to be so prolific in the town, and what artists go through nowadays to keep it that way. It all erupted in 1977 when Spain’s then-dictator General Francisco Franco kicked the bucket.
“When he died people started to make the most of their newfound freedom and expressed themselves in the streets,” Chris explained. “The police had other things to worry about so artists went crazy and things really exploded between the 90s and mid-2000s.”
The city’s walls flourished with colour and creativity. Then, in 2006, the council gave way to pressure, largely from mainstream tourist operators who wanted the streets free of paint, and introduced an anti-graffiti law.
Since then €8 million a year has been spent on trying to keep the walls clean and hefty fines have been dished out to spray can-wielding culprits caught red, blue, green, orange, purple and pink handed.
In some cities that might be enough to curb street art, but although Barcelona’s canvas might not be as plentiful as it once was, there’s still a giant pool of artists that’ll be damned if a fine is going to stifle a creative mind from showcasing its work. Now artists simply have good running shoes, and there’s no better place to see a guy high-tailing it down the road with paint on his fingers and two cops on his heels than El Raval.
Located just one block from the city’s tourist trap of La Ramblas, El Raval is largely devoid of anyone clad in a Hawaiian shirt or sporting a fanny pack. Originally it was a working class suburb full of immigrants. Now the hipsters have moved in, so the narrow streets are an assortment of traditional old man bars, fruit shops and €4 barbers, mixed with trendy watering holes, record shops and retro clothing stores that charge by the kilo. Kids in tracksuits chase footballs down the footpath while five storeys up neighbours hang washing on balconies the size of baby’s cots and chat colourfully about what made the headlines that day.
Don’t call me Cornbread
“What do you think of tagging?” Chris asked the five people in the tour group. Everyone declared that hastily scrawling your name on a wall or desk or bus stop doesn’t constitute art. “Agreed,” said Chris, looking up from the cigarette he was rolling, “but you have to remember, that is where street art started and for that we have a guy called Cornbread to thank.”
Enter Daryl “Cornbread” McCray, the man from Philadelphia who is credited with pioneering street art there in the 1960s. As a kid Daryl was given the nickname Cornbread. He hated the name, but his peers persisted with it until Daryl eventually conceded: “If you’re going to call me Cornbread, I’ll be Cornbread and I’ll write my name everywhere.” And so he did.
When the youth of Philadelphia began to recognise his signature plastered all over town the idea of self-promotion quickly caught on and tagging was born. Different styles of writing developed. Some replaced their name with an image, others just started to draw on walls for the love of drawing.
In the end it’s all led to what is now arguably some of the best art in the world: produced in the streets, for all to see, for free.
So with Cornbread on our minds, we wandered the streets of El Raval.
“I like this monkey,” Chris said, pointing to an endearingly simplistic primate’s face colourfully stencilled on a door. “On the surface he looks innocent. But look at his massive black eyes - this monkey is tripping balls! And to me, that’s Barcelona. You always have to look twice because nothing is what it seems.”
We stopped at another door covered in a collage of different stencils, paintings and tags. Chris’ knowledge about each of the pieces and the artists behind them was colossal. We were introduced to works by aliases such as Pez, Balu, Murone, Nemik, Zabou, SM172, C125, Bombson and David, to name a few.
He points out their subtle and not-so-subtle quirks and talks about the romantic and platonic relationships between the artists. As it turns out, street art circles are about as incestuous as the yachting industry and this often has a bearing on the design and location of pieces.
“These two artists were dating so you’ll often see their work close to each other. One would’ve been painting while the other looked out for the cops and then vice versa.”
As we wandered Chris pointed out places for cheap beers and tasty hot dogs but by now we were only scoping for art. Before this tour it was easy to walk the streets simply admiring pretty pictures on walls. Now everyone in the group was searching for the next piece, trying to pick who the artist was, and studying them for some alternative meaning.
As with all art, it’s subjective. But unlike most art circles, the rules here are different. If someone doesn’t like a piece or agree with its message or simply wants to occupy that particular wall, they’ll just splash their name over the top of it – commonly known as a cover up.
“Maybe you don’t like cover ups, or any other piece of particular street art, but you have to appreciate three things about each piece,” Chris said. “The person behind it has to be creative enough to come up with the fonts and colour schemes, they have to be talented enough to control a spray can, which is not easy, and they have to have balls.”
So chances are if you don’t like a particular piece it’ll be gone before long, wiped out with a few strokes of a council worker’s brush or smothered by another artist’s work. Unfortunately the same goes for the ones you’re fond of. That, however, is the nature of this street art beast and it’s also why it’s near impossible to get bored with just strolling through Barcelona. Walking parts of this city is literally like walking around an art gallery, although in this instance, the excitement that comes from finding something that makes you laugh or think or remember is enhanced because you don’t know if it’ll survive the night.
“I don’t expect you to remember all the names we talked about today, that’s not the aim,” Chris explained at the end of the day. “Hopefully now you can look at Barcelona in a different way. Street art is alive here and that’s just what we want everyone to see.”
If you're in town, the Barcelona Street Style Tour is well worth the trip!
*Photos by the author