Stencil graffiti: art or eyesore??
CBC News Viewpoint | July 14, 2006 |

When I first arrived in Buenos Aires something I was struck by immediately was the amount of graffiti I saw on the streets, buildings and even on the city's monuments.

After a little while, I began to see through what originally seemed like an unorganized mess to notice a recurring technique – graffiti created using stencils.

These stencils, typically measuring 12 cm high by 8 cm wide, are used to create spray-paint symbols and messages that are seen across Buenos Aires in even the swankiest of neighborhoods. This graffiti is not the work of a handful of disgruntled punks, but rather part of a trend utilized by anyone from artists to activists to make a statement.

The stencils can be artistic designs without a clear message, or politically motivated and satirical. For example, I've seen stencils portraying Argentine President Nestor Kirchner inserted into the logo for "Hello Kitty" with the words "Hello Kirchner" and another showing U.S. President George W. Bush wearing Mickey Mouse ears.

Some stencils are simply meant to cause a stir, such as one I saw that said "Material Girl" beneath a picture of The Madonna. Others are more serious: one stencil featured the famous McDonald's Golden Arches inverted to make a 'W' with the words "War Dollars" beneath.

I learned the back-story of the stencil graffiti from Armando Cabrera, a Buenos Aires-based artist who has been creating graffiti using stencils since 2001. He began designing them on his own, intending to use them in his legitimate art projects when he noticed the technique showing up around the city.

The exact origins of the stencil trend are difficult to pinpoint because it began with individuals like Cabrera who saw their artistic ideas reflected back at them and decided to make their own contributions.

What is known is that the stencils first started to show up in the neighbourhoods surrounding the University of Buenos Aires and eventually spread out over the city and later the country as a popular graffiti method.

Andres Iglecias, a sociology student who created his own stencil after being recruited by other artists involved in the trend, traces the origin of the stencils back to The Crisis of 2001. He argues that the tense economic situation of that period gave birth to the graffiti technique as a means of voicing dissent.

Of course, there are many people who would argue that the stencil graffiti is neither an art form nor an outlet for political statements, but an eyesore and a criminal act. And to be sure, marking the streets with graffiti is illegal in Argentina, which is why the stencils are often painted at night under cover of darkness. Another popular time for graffiti painting is during the many political protests and demonstrations that commonly take over the streets of Buenos Aires.

City officials and business owners are constantly investing time and money to paint over the stencils. In fact, this March the national government shelled out big bucks to cover the Congress Building in a new technology of anti-graffiti paint. Previously a popular target for graffiti of all kinds, the Congress is now graffiti free.

But while some see graffiti as a nuisance, others see it differently. In her book No Logo, Canadian author Naomi Klein champions graffiti as a method of public discourse that is accessible to everyone, not simply those who can afford to buy advertising space.

Cabrera, who has designed some stencils in support of gay rights and others to promote safe sex, agrees, saying "I think it is important as an individual, I have a public way to express myself that is free."

The stenciling trend has provided a creative outlet for making social comment that is open to anyone with the skills to make a stencil and wield a can of spray paint.

The high watermark of the trend came in February 2005 with the release of the book Hasta la Victoria, Stencil! Published by La Marca Editora, the book features photographs of the stencils on the streets of Buenos Aires. On its website, the publishing house calls the stencil graffiti "one of the most interesting forms of urban intervention and actually the most popular and creative in the city of Buenos Aires."

To launch the book, La Marca Editora held a party in a downtown parking lot during which artists were invited to mark their stencils on the wall of a neighbouring building. A recreation of what was created that day became the focal point of an exhibit in the Cultural Centre of Recoleta.

The book and the exhibit are legitimate forms of the illegal street art, but neither is a replacement for the graffiti itself because of their permanent nature. The stencils on the street, on the other hand, are constantly changing as old stencils are painted over and new stencils take their place. With any political developments or national event comes a series of stencils in response.

This constant state of flux is what keeps the trend alive; every new coat of paint creates space for the next round of stencils and their unique brand of social commentary.