Two summers ago, I travelled to Buenos Aires, Argentina for six weeks on a Study Abroad Program to study the Spanish language and culture. Buenos Aires is a luxurious city influenced by Italian architecture and the cosmopolitan capitals of the world. The people on the streets are beautiful and exceptionally kind. Yet there is a stark contrast in the beauty of this city compared to the beauty of the rest of the country. This difference is not necessarily something bad, yet it turns negative when these differences divide the population in terms of power, status, and opportunities.
Due to the Great European Immigration Wave in Argentina in the 20th century, most of the residents of Buenos Aires are of European descent. The concentration of lighter skinned Europeans being located in the largest city in Argentina led to a beauty standard that resembled more closely the Europeans rather than the majority of the darker skinned Argentinians. When I was in Argentina, even in other parts of the country all of the advertisements depicted light skinned models who looked nothing like the major population.
This idolized beauty standard led to noticeable mistreatment of those who did not slightly resemble this image or come from European descent. In order to challenge the status quo, the street artist duo Primo took to spray painting large murals of solely dark skinned and indigenous people on the streets of Buenos Aires.
Primo is made up of two artists, Sasha Reisen and Nicolás Germani, who stand out from other street artists because they exclusively paint darker skinned people which drastically contrast with the abundance of advertisements featuring lighter skinned models. The intended effect of these murals is to not only show that there is beauty in all shades of skin, but also to bring the presence of the darker skinned Argentinians into Buenos Aires in a beautiful way. One piece that I find particularly stunning is the mural of a young dark skinned woman with a pony tail. The image is simple. In this simplicity, Primo is able to show the normalness of having different skin tones. In addition, the angle of the woman’s head is slightly up showing that she is not hiding, she is proud.
While many people specifically in the street art community praise Primo’s work for the beauty of the portraits, not everyone treats them with the same appreciation. One mural of a black man with a snake coming out of his mouth had not been finished in one day, so Primo wrote “mural en proceso” (mural in process) only to return the next day to see that someone had painted over the image. The vandalizers instead wrote “mural en DESproceso” as well as “Y el respeto?” (and the respect?), “No se tapa, se respeten” (don’t paint over it, show some respect), and drew a speech bubble that said “no respiro” (I’m not breathing) as if the black man was saying that he couldn’t breathe now that the vandalism had covered his face[i]. While it is not clear if these comments are in regards to Primo not having respect, black people not having respect, or just a silly prank, the effect of this vandalism was that the mural was ruined and Primo had to start over in another location. According to the article by BA Street Art, the artist duo commented on the vandalism by reporting that they felt hurt and angry that these people implied a lack of respect and that they wasted a lot of time and resources just to have to start over again[ii]. This act of vandalism could have been a meaningless prank, but it also could have been targeted towards Primo since they are creating somewhat controversial murals by solely painting darker skin people. Since the vandalizer left their street art name “Lake” on their tag, it does seem as though they are directly challenging Primo.
One critique of Primo’s street art is that since graffiti is a relatively new medium of art, it certainly does not hold the same impact on a community as other longstanding forms of art. People may not attribute the same respect to graffiti artists since graffiti is often associated with rebellious teenagers who are “up to no good.” Potentially, by using a medium that is not well respected, it could lead to these murals not being respected as well and have a reversed effect on the intention to create beauty around darker skinned people in Buenos Aires. Nonetheless, while this street art is not the ultimate fix to racism or changing the beauty standard, it does start conversation about what is art and what is beautiful.
[i] “Graffiti Wars as Primo Mural Painted Over Before It’s Finished.” BA Street Art. 2012.
[ii] Ibid, 2012.