A mural blooms in Mexico City
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MEXICO CITY — The artist waved his brush in the air searching for just the right rhythm before slapping the tip against the concrete wall. From a frenzy of quick strokes, he soon brought forth the contours of a baby's toes.
The painter, Jonathan Ulsis Mendez, surveyed his work: a few inches of a mammoth mural spanning the length of two city blocks and containing seven centuries of history. Mendez, 33, is a muralist but not in the spirit of celebrated artists such as Diego Rivera or David Siqueros.
He perfected his craft on the streets that have been his studio, his signature contained in the graffiti tag: ene. And, unlike Mexico's famous muralists, ene labors far from the city's wealthy art scene and trendy neighborhoods. His masterpiece rises from the sidewalk outside the thriving Mercado Jamaica, an all-hours, year-round flower market.
With hues evoking a deep-water fantasyland, the graffiti mural renders the era when this mega-city was navigable by canoe and known as Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec empire. Harvest scenes flow into images of deities worshipped for centuries by native peoples.
At the market's entrance stands a representation of Tlaloc, the rain god, who carries a bolt of lightening with a serpent's head, symbolizing the rain that fertilizes the land. From ene's brush has emerged a portrait of merchants gliding across rivers toward the island city. Vibrant sunflowers and a string of dreamy pink roses have blossomed from his touch. The cycle of life is completed with an interpretation of Tonantzin Coatlicue,"our venerated earth mother," who rests on a bushel of corn and carries the baby that is at the center of ene's attention.
Two years ago, ene and Luis Enrique Gómez Guzmán, aka Mybe (me-bey), co-founders of the graffiti collective Germen, convinced the flower market managers and private funders to grant them the rights to the wall. Nothing along the faded corridor of small shops and peeling paint suggested the rich colors and smells contained within a market or its deep history.
"They do nothing to protect the beauty in the community," said Mybe, also 33, referring to the local political leaders. "And so we decided to carry out a project so that no one could escape the color."
The mural not only honors the past, it is also part of a legacy established by their cultural ancestors, who used "art" to make a statement to the government in the time of conquest. Drawn by the hands of young men raised in the city's toughest neighborhoods, the mural is both an homage to and defense of a working class area, resembling the visual manuscripts used by the indigenous to defend their rights.
Before the first sketches were complete, Germen crew member Uriel del Rio Prianti, 33, who studied social anthropology, began researching the social history of the market, part of the project's "social intervention." The research "makes the graffiti more relevant by explaining the symbols," he said. "It creates a justification to the public."
Through words and images, they are constructing a new vision of the neighborhood, a new way of relating to the environment that they know can have deep personal effects. They took the name Germen to reflect their effort to "germinate" in others a particular state of mind and outlook.
"Graffiti, art and its history have transformed us and allowed us to avoid falling in perdition and make bad decisions," said del Rio. "From of our experience, we propose it can change the lives of others."
Del Rio reached into official archives to locate the community within history. He hit bedrock in the year 1323, when a nearby boulevard was a river known as Hueyatl ("the big canal of water") or Apatlaco ("wide canal") in Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Aztecs.
It flowed from the southeast, carrying merchants and their wares into the city center. Del Rio found that other native people traveled the river to deliver their tribute to Aztec rulers. Three centuries later, in 1604, Spanish rulers established garitas, manned city gates and began imposing a tax to enter. In protest, merchants began gathering on islotes, small islands, outside the entrance. The following century, in 1776, the restrictions were tightened in the name of raising revenue and controlling contraband. More merchants congregated and, over the centuries, created an an open-air market. The structured Jamaica market was eventually built in the 1950s as part of the government's modernization effort and a move to exert control over the informal market.
With the sketches complete, the Germen crew began work on the mural two years ago, occasionally inviting other graffiti artists to collaborate, many from Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, also known as Neza, the nearby city where they grew up and the cradle Mexico City's graffiti culture.
"When we invite someone we're inviting them on a spiritual retreat, because that's what it means to make a mural of this type," said ene, after climbing down from the scaffolding.
Little did the artists know that their impulse to create a visual narrative also dated to the colonial era, when indigenous tribes presented land claims before the Spanish court and grievances to the viceroy in the form of pictorials and enormous tapestries.
"Art forged in the pre-Colonial period was later used to position themselves politically and economically," said Eduardo de Jesús Douglas, an art history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied the period.
Certain privileges denied to native people were granted to the indigenous elite, he said, such as the right to ride horses or carry a sword — and gaining those rights depended on proving lineage. They presented their cases to the courts, said Douglas, by arguing: "Our family has been here for generations, we have the documents and the documents are our pictures."
Collectively, visual narratives have been used to protect and reclaim communal land rights, he said, "like the graffiti artists are doing, to exercise political rights and economic rights."
Today the struggle has extended from land rights to access to public space for young men and women, many of whom who have lived through the recent years of violence. Graffitiarte, a collective of graffiti artists based in Mexico City, has formed a budding movement that links the visual with the political, advising on the Jamaica market project and others.
In April 2008, Emmanuel Audelo Enríquez and Victor Mendoza, co—founders of Graffitiarte, traveled from Mexico City to the state of Guerrero to mount a graffiti conference after a young tagger, Carlos Edmundo López, aka Dilerk, was killed, apparently by the police, according to his family and friends. The 16-year-old graffiti artist with a taste for baggy pants and a hoodie was painting under a bridge at night when police arrived, with their headlights turned off, to chase away the kids.
In Guerrero, the Graffitiarte crew discovered plenty of cantinas but no cultural or public spaces for young people. Enriquez and Mendoza negotiated with leaders to win a location for the local artists, but what they got was the literal gutter.
"We knew that people were getting the spaces without permission," said Mendoza. "But it gave us such indignation that they responded by giving them a place where the shit runs."
With that, their mission shifted to winning access to respectable public spaces where the public gathers and socializes. They began working in six cities, including Ciudad Juárez, to foster a dialogue between artists and leaders in the business and political worlds.
Yucari Millán Horita, part of the collective, said they've learned through graffiti what it means to exercise their rights.
What comes from the space, Mybe said, is opportunity and power.
"We are making the world we want to live in, a world where you work and offer talents for the benefit of the common good," he said, walking along the mural.
ene patted the wall with a sponge, creating a shadow that surrounds the Tonantzin Coalticue. He lifted his brush and after a few brush strokes, the explosion of rocks representing the birthing womb became visible. Inside, the baby holds a plant. From the rocks come plants, said ene, and from the plants is the baby, and with that, we return to our beginnings.