“Tlacuilos”: the graffiti artists of Central America
Central America’s graffiti scene is still relatively young, but it has already produced some unique styles and artists. A new documentary follows its development over 20 years, from the very start to the present day. Read More
Central America’s graffiti scene is still relatively young, but it has already produced some unique styles and artists. A new documentary follows its development over 20 years, from the very start to the present day.
As a newly enrolled student, Federico Peixoto was a passionate skater and deeply involved in San José’s subculture. This was back in the 1990s when girls were going wild for boy groups and boys sported baggy trousers. It was also the hour the graffiti scene was born in San José and Federico was there from the first moment. “Due to the lack of public skate parks, we occupied abandoned factories and turned them into improvised skate parks in the late 1990s,” he recalls.
“Some guys started painting graffiti on the walls of those places and that was the very beginning of the movement – there was practically no other graffiti on the streets at that time.”
Federico was studying audiovisual production and watched events unfold from behind his camera. He had just come back from a year in Germany, where where hip-hop and graffiti were huge. So he had inkling that the murals going up in the makeshift skate parks in Costa Rica were just the beginning.
He incorporated many recordings from those early days into his 2019 documentary: “I think that one of the values of the documentary is precisely that it is a record of many years. There is material from 1996 to 2018; you can see the evolution even in the quality of the images.”
As the years went by, his camera would capture all the giants of the graffiti scene from Central America.
As the years went by, his camera would capture all the giants of the graffiti scene from across Central America: Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. “What impressed me during the filming process is the impact that graffiti has on communities, especially on marginalized communities,” Federico says.
He decided to call the documentary Tlacuilos: In the ancient Mayan civilization which covered all of Central America and parts of Mexico, the artists and painters who created the colorful temple paintings and engraved hieroglyphics and calligraphy were known as tlacuilos. They were highly educated and valued – and received a level of respect that is not generally given to the street artists of today.
But while the wealthy upper classes might look down their noses at these street artists, they enjoy respect and recognition in the poorer areas of town. To the marginalized people living here their role is a bit like the tlacuilos were to their forebears.
Civil wars and gang-related crime: 20 years of subculture
The film offers a unique perspective on Central America’s graffiti culture – on the artists and an art scene that is largely unknown outside the region. “You can’t appreciate a street art movement without understanding its context – doing graffiti in a slum in Central America is not the same as it is in Japan or Canada,” Federico explains. In the documentary, the graffiti artists speak for themselves against a backdrop of hip-hop music, some composed by local artists especially for the film. “The film tells the story of graffiti in Central America, but it also tells the story of Central America from the graffiti artists’ points of view. I think that’s something that the documentary contributes: a new perspective on Central American history told by graffiti artists.”
This story begins a few decades earlier with the crises and conflicts of the 1970s and 80s that marred the childhoods of today’s graffiti artists. While the Sandinistas were fighting for power in 1979 Nicaragua and the 1989 US invasion of Panama killed thousands and changed the course of politics, decades-long civil wars raged in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. From the 70s to the early 90s, thousands were on the run from violence in their homelands. “For every one of us they’ve killed a friend or more, they’ve kidnapped one, they’ve extorted loved ones, and this has had a big impact on us as a society,” DJ and graffiti artist Fla-co from Guatemala says. Costa Rica remained largely untouched by the conflicts, but Federico remembers the increasing numbers of people from neighboring countries that flooded the refugee camps his mother worked in.
While the wealthy upper classes might look down their noses at these street artists, they enjoy respect and recognition in the poorer areas of town.
Most people from these war-torn areas sought asylum in the USA, where they created enclaves of Central American refugees in cities like Los Angeles. Many returned – not always of their own free will – in the late 1990s following peace declarations. Those returning from the USA had two things in their luggage that would soon spread through the poorer communities in particular: a criminal gang culture and the peaceful graffiti art scene.
Screens from Tlacuilos: Street art in Central America
Graffiti with an indigenous style
In the beginning, graffiti spread slowly through Central America. In the capital cities in particular, only a few artists tried their hand at it, choosing isolated spaces, coming together and creating small murals. Back then, they report, there was little artistic inspiration. The internet was not widely accessible and they rarely got their hands on a magazine, often from the USA, which was then passed around. At this stage, the murals were strongly influenced by the US West Coast style, though artists increasingly began incorporating their own cultures and traditional Mayan symbols; rainforest landscapes and indigenous painting styles began appearing on the walls.
As their art began to spread, graffiti artists have had to come to terms with the second US export: the violent youth gangs. They have infiltrated many Central American countries, only Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua have remained relatively untouched. Many graffiti artists work in poorer urban areas, which are controlled by the gangs and sometimes have become no-go areas even for police. So they frequently have to ask a gang leader for permission to create art in their sector.
“In El Salvador, I think the biggest danger for a graffiti artist is being confused with a gang member by the police, by armed civilians and by true gang members,” Federico says. “Many people started painting in the daylight instead of at night to avoid problems.” This situation also had a considerable impact on the filming. “It was a challenge. We had altercations with neighbors and with the police, we encountered risky situations, our equipment was stolen – in short, everything that goes into making a documentary in the seven countries of Central America.”
Art for the marginalized
The fact that the graffiti artists dare to enter the poorer areas, the places of political and social marginalization, contributes to their civic power. “Graffiti is very appreciated and valued in the poorer quarters, where the graffiti artists decorate the community,” Federico says. In Costa Rica, people sometimes even bring them food. “I love this transformative power, the magic of redesigning devalued spaces. Everything can change with a mural; it gives value and pride to the communities.” In Tlacuilos, the artists talk about how their murals are a distraction from the problems of everyday life. They tell how the communities have come to see their work as real art instead of as part of gang culture, as they frequently did before. And they talk about their desire to inspire young people with their graffiti.
"I love this transformative power, the magic of redesigning devalued spaces. Everything can change with a mural."
“Life in our countries is cruel,” break-dancer B-Boy Milo, who offers courses for young people in San Salvador, says. “In this world, hip-hop culture [graffiti, breaking, DJing, MCing] can be a means of violence prevention.” His courses give young people a space that is free of violence where they can cultivate their self-confidence and creativity, and gives them something to do. The situation in Panama is similar: “El Chorrillo is a poor neighborhood,” a social worker from Panama City says. “There are currently 42 gangs in this small place. The children can’t leave – they don’t even have the financial means to travel to the city center and go to an art exhibition, for instance.”
When graffiti artists offered to work with the residents to paint their drab apartment buildings, it was eagerly accepted. "People came out at 8 a.m. to wait for the artists to arrive." This dedication and enthusiasm by the street artists for doing something for marginalized youth is something that most people wouldn't even dare to think of - and that can be dangerous: B-boy Milo from El Salvador disappeared in 2016.
Bringing courageous artists like B-boy Milo, their art and activism to the silver screen, has been one of Federico's objectives with Tlacuilos: "The documentation was screened in the cinemas next to the big Hollywood movies. It brought great street artists from Central America to the screens. Artists unknown to the people outside Central America, but well known to us - the anonymous heroes of our cities. And of course, presenting the documentary in New York, in the cradle of graffiti, was a big highlight."
Since July 2020, “Tlacuilos” has been available online at Vimeo On Demand.