“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.”