Book review
Democracy on the Wall:
Street Art of the Post-Dictatorship Era in Chile
Guisela Latorre, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2019. Pp. 230. $89.95 cloth; $29.95 paper.

Lincoln Cushing, in The Americas, January 2021

Chilean mural book coverPublic art. There's no more contested a space for images than the streets, where the struggle for representation is between artists and the state, and often between artists themselves. This book's cover art, “Integración,” is a microcosm of that theme, illustrating the shifting styles and approaches used by new generations of Chilean public artists in a society redolent with such history. This book offers an investigation and analysis of contemporary Chilean street art, including a range of media, from murals to pasted paper banners and projected images, in the period following the Pinochet dictatorship.

"Integración” is a collaborative mural painted in 2011 by respected art veteran Mono González from the Museo a Cielo Abierto (MCA), based in the working-class community of San Miguel in southern Santiago, and visiting French graffiti artist Julien “Seth” Malland. González painted in the classic style pioneered by the Brigada Ramona Parra of the 1970s, upon which Malland has superimposed a young modern muralist/tagger in the act of creation.

Chilean-born Latorre lays out the political and cultural dimensions of the current period. Although a switch was thrown from “democracy” to "dictatorship” when Pinochet's 1973 brutal military coup overthrew elected socialist president Salvador Allende, the reverse was not true when a disgraced Pinochet was finally forced from rule in 2002. Right-wing and conservative forces persist at all levels, and conditions for most Chilenos are not good. A minor public transportation fare hike in 2019 triggered mass protests, heavy state response, dozens of deaths, and a government shake-up, and still unresolved.

Yet, despite deep social inequalities, repression now wears a softer glove. One remarkable example cited by Latorre is the “end of blatant censorship and the opening of cultural spaces," a phenomenon that has made possible much of the new generation of art featured in this book. Latorre interviewed many artists and interprets the sometimes subtle or obscure messages in several illustrated works, exploring the political nuances of expression in the post-dictatorship period. One example is the MCA's first community mural, “Los Prisioneros” (2010), featuring members of a 1980s local rock band who stuck it to the man with oppositional messages. As a feminist scholar, Latorre also examines gender issues: she interviewed several members of all-female graffiti crews, noting that though “male graffiti artists still greatly outnumber women, the graffiteras I interviewed were . . . less concerned and constrained by gendered discrimination [than those in a study of London and New York]”(143). And, in a delightful coda to her fieldwork, Latorre brought Mono González to the United States to teach classes at her university and in the neighboring community.

Chilean mural, 1985It is wonderful when scholars pay attention to activist public art, but this book falls short in a few ways. Latorre focuses on Chilean graffiti, tagging, and murals, but does not adequately show their organic link to the “other” street art—posters. For an examination of these, I recommend a title not listed in her bibliography, Cristi and Manzi's Resistencia gráfica: dictadura en Chile (2016), which drills into the political and cultural legacy of Chilean political posters and other direct public art produced by two collectives, the Association of Young Plastic Artists (APJ, 1979 to 1987) and Tallersol (1977 to present). For a broader survey of contemporary murals, see Palmer's Street Art Chile (2008), featuring extensive illustrations organized geographically with a national map for reference.

It is also a stretch to frame this book as being about “democracy on the wall” when “much of the graffiti and muralism featured in this book tends to be implicitly rather than explicitly political” (21). One long-time artist reflected on the loss of hard targets, bemoaning that they ended up “posting crap about clean air, about saving the whales” (55). The lure of commercialization is hard to resist: one artist admits “I live in the capitalist system and at the end of the day I will have to pay my bills with money” (109).

Posted to Docs Populi / Documents for the Public 3/18/2021; Illustrations not in original review.
Bottom photo of mural in La Victoria, Chile, 1985 by author; see article.