Painting The Town Mas: Street art and political propaganda on paceño streets

16 Nov, 2010 | Jack Brooker and Sarah Ludd

As has been discussed in previous Bolivian Express issues, the city of La Paz is not short on artistic creativity and expression. This can be witnessed first hand all over the city: every spare bit of wall, building or lamp post has been decorated. We see murals, street art, advertisements selling absolutely anything, and even banners and posters spreading political ideas.

As Bolivia’s capital, La Paz is the central hub of the country’s commerce, and this is evident in the clamour for advertising space on every available inch of the hectic streets. However, perhaps the most interesting and unusual form of advertising (from my European perspective) is the almost photographic paintings, used to advertise anything from bottled water to an electronics business.

As a European, I notice and appreciate the street art advertisements for their unique artistic value above their obvious marketing purpose. For me they provide a refreshing change from the huge billboards that jump out at me when cruising the motorway.

Do Bolivians however, feel the same way? We asked some random passers by, who were surprised that we had even given it thought.

Hector from El Alto said: I have always liked the painted advertisements more than big plastic posters or things like this, as they are more natural, and it is much cheaper for businesses to advertise in this way.

This view was echoed throughout the half a dozen people who we spoke to and generally it seemed that most people were now so used to advertising in this format that they were simply surprised we were drawing any attention to it at all.

One of the most striking characteristics of the works we find are their detail and intricacy. „Graffiti“ in Eu- rope is generally less respected and usually less meaningful, (with a few marked exceptions like Britain’s rebel "Banksy", a lauded Graffiti artist). The grandest of Bolivian mural we have come across sits along ‘El Prado’. In Europe this type of ‘art’ is more usually described as vanda- lism (which is why Britain’s „Banksy“ remains staunchly anonymous) but once again this could not be further from the outlook of most Bolivians. Ana said: ‘The street art is fantastic; it brightens up our streets and covers over some of the dirt anyway. The artists who do them are very well respected and for me they add to the beauty of La Paz. However, I think that it is always best when people ask for permission to do the murals, this is always better than art that just comes from nowhere, I still like them though!’ Finally, and perhaps the most interesting form of street art, found not only in La Paz but all over Bolivia, are the political messages shouting for votes. Usually the principle aim of the propaganda posters is to reassure people of the current government.

Classic messages such as “MAS” or “Desarrollo” or “Todo va a cambiar”, line the main traffic thoroughfares. For a European this is again a fairly alien concept. In that far off continent the vast majority of political advertising only surfaces around election time. Parties try to keep themselves out of the firing line as much as possible in a meantime. In contrast, a painting here can stay on the wall for up to 20 years. We were obviously curious as to what the Bolivian people think of these political propaganda paintings and posters, and wanted to see if they actually had any effect of the public psyche. As with all things like this, opinion was hugely divided, and this, it appears, is a reflection of the general political situation in Bolivia: “The paintings are everywhere you go so I almost never notice them anymore. Of course you see the blue paint of ‘la MAS’, but I guess to me it does not have an effect, as you see so many paintings. Maybe it has something to do with which way I vote as well.”

Keen to voice their opinions, some people were more than happy to go into depth about the Morales government:

“Evo Morales has done so much for the Bolivian people and I believe he will do a lot more in the future uniting the nation. With the blue paintings I think it is important to get the political message out to the people, as for the paintings themselves, I always notice them”.

Evo Morales has been the great hope for the poorer sections of Bolivian society since his election in 2006 when he won the presidency with a 60% majority, and became the first indigenous president. However, as Alistair Smout’s article (Bolivian Express, August issue) has commented on, not all of Bolivia is united behind some of the policies that have been introduced. The propaganda is intended to reassure those doubtful followers that the current government is fulfilling its promises. The ‘masista’ group called ‘Los Satucos’ are the group responsible for the blue ‘MAS’ propaganda around the city and one reoccurring theme is the face of el ‘Che’ Guevara, the revolutionary best known for his work in Cuba. His face recognisable all over Latin America, associated with revolution and change, and is thus the implicit message pumped to the Bolivian population through street art. Whilst the methods are different in Bolivia to those I am used to in Europe, there is no doubt that similar things do occur, simply in a different format and volume. The streets of La Paz are consequently a thriving space of activity, where no space remains silent for long. If all those painted faces could speak, it would no doubt drown out even the traffic of La Paz, and that is an achievement.

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