Street artists transform, defy and reinvigorate a historic city

Story by Jessica Mendoza

SALAMANCA — On a busy street within sight of the city’s celebrated cathedral, a man in dirty jeans draws on a broken wall. With a practiced stroke, he colors the concrete blue, green, red and yellow; whirls and swirls appear wherever his markers touch.


Iñaki works on his street piece on Salamanca’s Rua Mayor. Photo by Jessica Mendoza.

Behind him, tourists stroll by. Some stop to take photos.

The man, who uses the pseudonym Iñaki, is one of a growing number of artists whose works are transforming the streets of Salamanca. They use the city’s walls and buildings as their canvas, framing their art opposite the Romanesque churches and Gothic structures that characterize Spain’s oldest university town.

“I like my work. It makes the city beautiful,” Iñaki, 47, said through a translator. “[It’s] free and for everyone to see. I love it.”

But it’s more than aesthetics: Street art is a growing part of Salamanca’s urban landscape. In this staunchly conservative city, more artists are using public space as a platform for their work. Some use it to express their political and religious opinions. Others see it as a mark of defiance and daring. It’s also becoming an avenue for attracting visitors and revitalizing businesses in the city’s less affluent neighborhoods.

Street art can be anything from graffiti and posters to stickers, scratchings and objects added to a city’s landscape, said Bastian Heinsohn, a specialist in urban art and film and a professor of German at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

“It is about using an urban space as a playground to change how we see that space,” he said.

Graffiti has been used as a form of protest since the second half of the 20th century. In the last 40 years, the medium became an outlet for voicing dissent against issues such as gentrification, marginalization and war. As a result, graffiti became more prevalent in urban areas experiencing rapid change or growing unrest, Heinsohn said.

Salamanca is no different. Scrawled on the walls between the city’s ancient edifices and famed cathedrals are statements such as, “Don’t let them eat you,” and “Stop repression of the libertarian movement.”

“Don’t let them eat you.” Photo by Dylan Lewis.

“Don’t let them eat you.” Photo by Dylan Lewis.

“Stop repression of the libertarian movement.” Photo by Maria Amasanti.

“Stop repression of the libertarian movement.” Photo by Maria Amasanti.









In such cases, Heinsohn said, graffiti serves as a kind of marquee – a way by which an underrepresented group communicates with the public.

But he also noted that graffiti can be just as much about the act of creating it as it is about the content.

For instance, the artists, who call themselves “writers,” look to put their names, symbols or tags on the most visible and hard-to-reach places, such as the tops of walls or along main streets.

Around  the University of Salamanca’s College of Fine Arts, the walls are crammed with murals, drawings and scribbles. Yet only a few are political or religious in nature; most of the art is created either for fun, for others’ appreciation or for the rush associated with dodging authority, said students.

“The main point . . . is to let people know you have the balls to do it,” Marcos Abella, 25, a third-year fine arts student, said through a translator. “The style is the message.”

Still, street art can be useful, particularly in revitalizing working-class neighborhoods. In Salamanca’s Barrio del Oeste, or west district, garage doors, construction sites and even apartment buildings have become the venue for an array of murals and paintings. The art ranges from underwater scenes to abstract patterns, with materials varying from oils to spray paint to photographs.

The pieces are part of a contest first held last summer by the Asociación de Vecinos ZÖES, a local organization dedicated to reviving the neighborhood. Home to working-class residents, the district has been trying to encourage tourism and reinvigorate its businesses.

Unlike in the city center, where most buildings are made from Salamanca’s renowned gold-colored stone, the west district is made up of concrete structures that have accumulated layers of grime over the years.

“We [held the contest] because we want this to be a nicer place for people to visit and live in,” Inma Cid, the president of ZÖES, said through a translator.

It was a homegrown effort, she added. Residents themselves granted artists permission to paint on their buildings, and local art collectives such as Lemarte and Galería Urbana helped promote and organize the event.

In January of this year, ZÖES also began commissioning professionals to work on designated structures. At the Plaza del Oeste – the neighborhood center – large black-and-white portraits peer out from the windows of an abandoned building. The piece is called “El Mirador,” which means “someone who gazes.”

Portraits of locals smile down at pedestrians at the Plaza del Oeste. Photo by Maria Amasanti.

Portraits of locals smile down at pedestrians at the Plaza del Oeste. Photo by Maria Amasanti.

Leopoldo Garcia Castellanos, 33, the photographer behind the work, said each of the 22 portraits is of a west district resident. They represent the diversity within the neighborhood, he said – young and old, male and female, liberal and conservative.

The piece was launched in March, and Garcia Castellanos admitted that he had, at first, worried about vandalism, disapproval and outright rejection. But he was proved wrong one afternoon, when he went to make repairs to one of the photos.

“A little old lady came and said, ‘What are you doing? That’s ours!’” Garcia Castellanos recalled. When he explained that he was the artist, the woman left and came back with a group of friends, all of whom congratulated Garcia Castellanos on his work.

“They feel it’s their own,” he said.

And longtime residents agree: “[The art] created diversity in the neighborhood,” said Maria Angeles Pascua, 75, who has lived in the west district for 35 years. “It has provided a new look and a new life.”

A group of students sitting at a café across the plaza from “El Mirador” echoed the sentiment.

“It’s quite a big difference in the neighborhood,” said Geistiua García Gutierréz, 23. Gutierréz studies at the Pontifical University of Salamanca and has lived in the Barrio del Oeste for four years.

“It creates a sense of community,” she added.

Garcia Castellanos is glad to have contributed to the area’s revival efforts that have also included a calendar of the neighborhood’s artwork. For him, one of the most rewarding functions of any artwork is to start a movement – whether it’s social, political or emotional.

“You can have art just for the joy and the pleasure,” he said. “[But] if art brings people to a cause or inspires them to start a cause of their own, that’s better.”


Here is a gallery of some of the other pieces of street art our journalists found while reporting on the story. To view them as a slideshow, click on any of the photos.


About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.

Posted on May 14, 2014, in Reporting from Salamanca and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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