“Oh that’s pretty. What a nice combination of colors.”
That is Yescka, a prominent Oaxaca City graffiti artist, dismissing street art he considers divorced from the political and/or social context in which it’s made.
It’s a judgment that neatly sums up the aesthetic stance of this state capital’s cadre of sprayers, stencilers and splatterers, one that can be traced back – at least in part – to a watershed moment: the popular protests that broke out throughout Oaxaca on June 14, 2006 and, more importantly, the state’s response, the reported brutality of which galvanized a generation of activists and artists.
And while on the face of it there is nothing wrong with, say, a painting of delicate water lilies floating on a limpid pond, it is easy to imagine you might turn your paint brush and palette away from the purely decorative and point them toward the club-wielding thugs you watch through stinging, teary eyes beat your friends and relatives to a mushy pulp.
According to Yeska, whose studio I visited while in town for a gastronomic vacation, that is precisely what happened to him after the federal government came down on protests mounted by Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) on June 14, 2006.
“The [government’s] reaction was severe,” recalled the stalky, bearded Yescka, reclining with a tall beer and surrounded by tubes, spray cans and several large finished and unfinished canvases. “Gas, beatings, big smoke bombs lobbed from helicopters. It was brutal.”
Yescka – whose real name he declined to give – remembers how at one point reports reached him that his aunt, a teacher and union member involved in the protests, had gone missing.
“It was absolute chaos. I went out into the streets to look for her … and throw rocks,” said the artist. “That’s how I became involved in the movement.”
Leading the charge against, primarily, the state of Oaxaca and Governor Ulises Ruiz was the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), a coalition of the SNTE and dozens of other organizations that joined forces following the outbreak of unrest that June. Yescka subsequently formed – along with 30 other angry, politicized artists – the Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca (ASARO).
To this day, ASARO exists (as does APPO), operating chiefly from art gallery Espacio Zapata, a warren of rooms across the street from Yescka’s studio. Exhibited inside are, as you might expect, the works of various collective members, although the bulk of the displayed pieces were authored by Yescka.
Not surprisingly, the work of one of Oaxaca’s most respected “guerrilla” artists is highly declamatory. Not for him the obfuscation of which visual artists often make use, a deliberate obscurantism that conceals a complete lack of intent or point of view.
Yescka’s skill with stencil and spray can are obvious, but the work on display in both the Espacio Zapata gallery and his nearby studio isn’t remarkably unique. Aesthetically speaking, his work harkens back to the iconoclasm of Warhol and other pop artists, who take the familiar and render it absurd by isolating it from its context or, in the case of Yescka, subverting it by adding incongruous elements for maximum irony. (Four paintings depict, respectively, Ghandi, Che Guevara, Frida Kahlo and Stanley Kubrick sporting mohawks, ripped denim jackets and other punk rock accoutrement, while another features the Indio beer logo superimposed over an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.)
Asking why a group of street artists opted to operate from a fixed location at all brought Yescka back to government repression, the lynchpin behind the organization’s founding, and in particular the way in which state lawmakers have given, according to the artist, law enforcement a key tool in stamping out visual reminders opposition to power.
“It’s a dictatorial law,” observed Yescka, referring to a recently passed initiative allowing authorities to take draconian measures against protests, strikes and blockades - and against artist expression critical of the government.
“Making art in the street has always been difficult. But the moment we became more overtly political is when the government started to crack down. We throw something up and they immediately paint over it. Then we go and paint on that, and they go over it with another layer.”
He paused to take a reflective pull on his Tecate, adding, “After a while it started to look like abstract art.”
Right next door is 10-year-old Urtarte, a separate collective with a six-person roster. Member ___Vazquez swiftly corroborated Yescka’s account of the government’s practice of painting over art featuring content critical of their actions, while leaving the rest alone.
“The government began a campaign of ‘beautification,’ during which they began painting over overtly political murals, especially ones that addressed the events of June 14,” Vazquez informed me while applying some mysterious liquid treatment to a stack of thick sheets of blank paper.
“A lot of very good, nationally famous collectives had their work covered up,” he added, working furiously with a cigarette dangling from his lips. “A lot of foreigners come looking for murals and they can’t find them.”
Neither Yescka or Vazquez seem likely to be tempted away from political engagement by lucrative commissions for decorative, apolitical murals.
“In the end, the ones that chase the easy money are forgotten, while the ones that did what they wanted, refused to compromise, are remembered,” said Yescka before emptying a last stream of sudsy beer into his upturned mouth.
“What did you do for society, for humanity? What did you say, or did you just paint for rich people?”
While government-sponsored white-washing of collectives Urtarte and ASARO’s work makes it difficult to find on the streets, it’s an easier matter to simply visit their respective studios – as well as Taller Siqueiros, Yescka’s personal space – all clustered together on the same small block two blocks east of the cathedral.
- Urtarte and Taller Siqueiros, Calle Porfirio Diaz 510.
- Espacio Zapata (ASARO), Calle Porfirio Diaz 509.
Hours are unlisted and are likely variable.