Remnants of Revolution: Writing on the Wall in Barcelona

Cities are filled with innumerable details and a foreign land can be barrage of data. In Barcelona, on a walk, I drift from details of leafy building ornamentation to blank walls of flaking stucco, submerged in texture of all kinds. Man’s signs are everywhere, waiting to be decoded. Though I know nothing of graffiti, I am captivated by the drawing, the view of a flat space, and the obscured messages.

Places layer upon each other when moving through an unknown city. I think of Brooklyn one evening, looking for a friend’s house, walking on an empty shuttered street, but here it is mid-afternoon in the neighborhood of Gràcia and the shops are closed. As it was, I became enamored with murals and I had George Orwell‘s Homage to Catalonia in my hands.

“More shots rang out. The bullets from the tower were flying across the street and a crowd of panic-stricken people were rushing down the Ramblas, away from the firing; up and down the street you could hear snap – snap – snap as the shop-keepers slammed the steel shutters over their windows.”

A need to protect property has endowed Barcelona with a kind of blank canvas, the shutters that guard the glass windows of shops. Doors roll down over the whole storefront, blocking the ability to window-shop while the store is closed. Then, there is art that comes to fill the void.

Diverse and striking murals line the streets of Gràcia. With tight streets that give the feeling the old village it once was, Gràcia is located inland from the touristic Ramblas promenade and nightclubs, and outside of wide, octagonal grid of Eixample. The feeling is that graffiti is allowed here; it is tolerated and it is loved.

Within the graffiti world, the opponents of the status quo are often in dialogue and in opposition with each other–murals are painted over, tags are obliterated, layers of messages cake the neighborhood walls.

“For under the surface-aspect of the town, under the luxury and growing poverty, under the seeming gaiety of the streets, with their flower-stalls, their many-colored flags, their propaganda-posters, and thronging crowds, there was an unmistakable and horrible feeling of political rivalry and hartred.”

Graffiti, viewed as vandalism shows a deteriorated neighborhood, but the same image viewed as art endows the neighborhood with a sense of place and identity. Being there is a more valuable experience for some.

The Guardian reported in their December 2010 article “Barcelona shopkeepers face fines over graffiti decoration” that city officials having been cracking down the street art, from graffiti tags to commissioned works, calling it “antisocial behavior” that “degrades urban fabric.” Sometimes the murals are decorative or creative works but often the paintings seems associated with the stores themselves, working as signs. The quality of the murals varies from door to door and even if not great art, they add to the city’s character.

“They had hauled down their red flag and hoisted the Catalan national flag. On the Telephone Exchange, the starting-point of all the trouble, the Catalan national flag and the Anarchist flag were flying side by side.”

In the most revolutionary of times that Orwell witnessed, the anarchist and the Catalan flag were flying together; a duality was persevered. When the anarchists were quelled, their flag came down. In Orwell’s time, the city was thriving with propaganda posters and messages carved in walls. Spain was being torn apart into conflicting groups struggling for control. Civilians were thrust into the midst, and on the anti-Franco side, opposition groups splintered apart.

“Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine. In the barbers’ shops were Anarchist notices (the barbers were mostly Anarchists) solemnly explaining that barbers were no longer slaves. In the streets coloured posters appealing to prostitutes to stop being prostitutes.”

Graffiti shows current situations and trends. It responds first, and because its creation happens in public, it is seen immediately. Its goal is often to ignite social change. In the mural above, it is the message to preserve the neighborhood-community-vila, though the idea of finding a Catalan identity in art began around the turn of the century. The mural speaks of a dichotomy, resist and create popular culture, with references to “Block bloc” and fiery collapsing cityscape. Outsiders should not dictate identity it seems to say.

Seeing the flames, the Eurozone firewall comes to mind, recently raised again to protect Europe from Spain’s economic problems. High rates of unemployment plague the country and its youth. Vibrancy is on the streets but shops and restaurants are dull and expensive. Predominant culture feels worn out.

Imitations of traditional culture are propagated for the sake of tourism. On a windy late winter day, I walk through the village of Barceloneta where seafood restaurants serving paella all along its oceanfront have mostly empty expansive seating, but a few blocks into the interior and there is a crowded bar serving hot battered seafood and beer. The tourists are not here to fill up the tourist joints.

The spirit of revolution persists in home-made posters instructing social action. A stenciled sign tells me that I am welcome here but that the rental of a holiday apartment is destroying the local socio-culutral fabric.

“I turned around and saw some youths, with rifles in their hands and the red and black handkerchiefs of the Anarchists round their throats, edging up a side-street…”

Remnants of revolution are all over the city. Orwell characterizes Barcelona as “a town with a long history of street fighting.” His book gives a cross section of the Spanish Civil War, but even before that, Barcelona’s streets saw many sieges on the city through the Catalonian Civil War, Nine Years’ War, War of the Spanish Succession, and the Peninsular War, as well as the infamous Tragic Week (1909) which pitted the national army against the working class, probably still in the minds of Barcelonans during the Spanish Civil War. With the Republican government overthrown, Franco’s dictatorship ruled Spain until his death in 1978.

An election last November in the midst of economic troubles brought a change from the socialist policy of Zapatero to the conservative Popular Party headed by Rajoy. Depictions of the hammer and sickle can be found all over the city. Imposed on Spain’s flag, the symbol seem to be leftist or anti-fascist, though not clearly socialist, communist, or anarchist. Some have been defaced with spray paint, showing political factions among those who paint the streets.

“…every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties…”

Barcelona stores were used as prisons during the Spanish Civil War. Today, scenes behind those walls often remain a mystery and shop hours are often sporadic. When a location that I’ve walked by several times is suddenly awake, an open shutter radiantly changes the general street scene.

On a narrow Gràcia sidewalk, I see the depiction of human lethargy and weakness on the door of an evangelical church that holds its services behind there. I’ve seen other murals by this artist around town that show creatures vomiting in this same black and white linear style that looks like hair or scales. A different painter has picked up on this same idea of ornamental overlay on the figure-it seems right out of Barcelona and its sea of tiny detail, but lacks the grandiose design. Instead, the ornamental detail in the figures below seems to be weighed down by their repetitious form.

“…its huddle of human bodies, its lack of furniture – just the bare stone floor, one bench and a few ragged blankets – and its murky light, for the corrugated steel shutter had been drawn over the windows. On the grimy walls revolutionary slogans – ‘Visca POUM!’ ‘Viva la Revolución!’ and so forth – had been scrawled. The place had been used as a dump for political prisoners for the months past.”

Andrea Michaelsson’s Amy Winehouse appeared on the BTOY Flickr photostream on August 11, 2011 for the first time, over a month before the singer’s death. Known for her depictions of women, her paintings of Winehouse show her cultural intuition. Winehouse’s death makes her stenciled image ghost-like. Another woman I find in her stencil style is actress Ginger Rogers.

Andrea’s focus on celebrity as power embraces popular thought and shows powerful women within the existing structure. Her icons are gorgeous, but work to transform their world through their creative endeavors. She looks outside her culture for many of her inspiring figures that she displays on her hometown streets.

“The safest thing at present was to look as bourgeois as possible. We frequented the fashionable residential quarter of the town, where our faces were not known, went to expensive restaurants and were very English with the waiters. For the first time in my life I took to writing things on walls. The passageways of several smart restaurants had ‘Visca POUM!’ scrawled on them as large as I could write it.”

The problems that Spain faces are hunched on the back of its citizens. The individual, however, can do very little it seems. We are told to be confident and continue spending so that the economy can bounce back. Graffiti often evades consumer culture and their use of the rolling door might be in protest, though their art is essential decoration and contributes to the sense of place that is Barcelona.

The “aftermath of the financial crisis” according to the is “grim”: “about half the age group under 25 out of work; €600 billion, or $820 billion, in mortgages outstanding after the end of a construction boom two years ago; and an exchange rate overvalued by 10 percent according to the European Commission. Productivity and competitiveness are low.” So many of us today are young artists in a challenged economy. The young artist in a challenged economy is an archetype of our current world, and it is not just the young people of Spain that face such a fate. Concepts drive us all forward. The young struggling artist is not unique to Spain, though they certainly face a challenge in a unique heritage.

Looking outlined in chalk, on an old wooden door, a crab holds a camera whose lens is labeled luna, illustrating the meaning of the phrase “shoot the moon”.

“In such places things happen quickly, the factions are ready-made, everyone knows the local geography, and when the guns begin to shoot people take their places almost as in a fire drill.”

That impression of preparedness to fight led Orwell to remark on Barcelona’s history of street fighting. Today, graffiti artists struggle to define and speak to their own culture. Messages scrawled on the wall are not a new form of expression, but one of the most basic means of public communication, and graffiti is international in scope. Theirs is an artform that is expressive, decorative and essential to street life in Barcelona and elsewhere. They desire to contribute to a Spanish identity that is not sculpted by financial gain. It is landscape rich with ideas and idealism needed to move culture out of the old world. Graffiti is the voice of a highly fractured group, but there is a unifying message about the power of art.

All photographs by Celie Dailey.