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Constructing a

creative identity

Street experiments in Barcelona, 2014

In 2014, while pursuing my design studies, I started a series of street interventions on the walls of Barcelona. During that year, my creative identity as a young and passionate activist was shaped by street dynamics, long meditative walks, and the continuous willingness to experiment outdoors within the city.

The transformation of urban walls

In the shadows of a still night, countless urban walls are silently transformed into street art canvases without anyone noticing them. On December 23rd, 2013—night of my twentieth birthday—I sought to become one of these night walkers, letting aside a growing feeling of powerlessness as student, by displaying my own messages in Barcelona’s streets, hometown since my five years old. With visual compositions made at home, I ventured out to paste them onto walls, mostly using the wheatpaste technique, a homemade mixture of wheat flour and water famously elaborated worldwide to fix posters.

Inspired by JR, the French photographer who empowers individuals to display their own portraits in the open, and a high school friend who, in 2011, introduced me to the concept of democratising art by pasting masterpiece copies on city walls, I embraced this approach to reclaim urban space for self-expression. I was, at that time, clearly led by an emotional and unconscious ideological impulse devoid of any rationality. Without this impulse, nothing would have been done, or at least, not with the same instinctive conviction. I transformed walls in more than eight interventions over 2014, with most being documented while others were little more than failed experiments, yet each reflecting a persistent urge to act creatively within Barcelona’s urban theatre.

 

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Snapshots of my wheatpaste interventions on Barcelona's walls.

Location, surface, time and visibility

The confusing streets full of graffiti may intrigue the curious eye on the dynamics that exist beyond the walls. While some actions are improvised, others are planned by their authors, who carefully choose their spots before exposing their visual messages to the city. Walls are thus interrogated by the rebellious mind, the one eager to cover them with spray, paint, or glue, to conceive a physical and ideological change in the street’s genuine everydayness. There may be a quick unwittingly exchange of questions and answers or a much slower process based on deep observation, in which the chosen wall will be repetitively examined in all its details before action should be taken.

As wall interviewer, this methodology was adopted prior every of my interventions, facilitating their selection as potential interviewees. Questions on a wall’s location were the first to emerge, as the characteristics of a street could either encourage or discourage me to experiment as imagined. A wall abandoned in the middle of nowhere was not the wall of a busy street nor the entrance wall of a building, and the reactions or consequences to face could undoubtedly vary. Then, a concrete wall was not a wooden wall, nor a brick wall, old or new, in a rainy or dry city, in which the material’s roughness, textures, holes and fissures were to be analysed before choosing it as a surface. I mainly decided to work at night to stay calm and unnoticed, but although a darkened wall by a lack of streetlights indicated lower probabilities to be caught by police officers, street cleaners or neighbours, it did not necessarily mean that the work done was to remain untouched.

The project’s visibility was another aspect to examine when considering the street wall as a viable spot of attention to the human eye. Densely populated areas seemed ideal for attracting a large audience, but the narrowness of some streets often deterred passers-by from stopping to appreciate the artwork, fearing they may obstruct others following behind. Further, well-located city centre walls can be ignored as much as tagged walls in the highway, in train or subway stations, given the abundance of visual marks overwhelming the eye, leading to a diminished interest in any new stimuli. With all these variables observed, although street art does not seem a planned action, it actually needs some aspects to take notice of, which could vary from one person to another, from a spray can to a glue brush. Street walls differ in location, surface, time, and visibility, affecting their selection and the results of the undertaken action.

The message

If people don’t like it, they can pee on it, scratch it, take it down. But if what you do creates reactions and even if people hate it, I’m happy because it raises conversation. JR, Paper & Glue, 2021, min.33

 

Besides street conditions, the result may vary whether the message transcending the artwork or the medium used to emphasize the message concur successfully with any reaction from the audience, somehow related to the individual’s psychology, time and interest as well as the neighbourhood’s sociology and the city’s cultural identity. It would be easier to say that only the quality of the artwork determines its appreciation, as murals are different from tags, but it is not always true. The outnumbered artists and the mass of amateurs simply coexist in this chaotic scenery, and all are senders of messages, whether successfully understood or not by their audience. In this communication process, when the sender wishes to make the artwork visible, receivers’ total indifference towards its presence seem an even more unnerving reaction than its progressive deterioration or reluctant destruction, which are at least the effects of determinant behaviours.

As most of passers-by did not look at the walls that I had modified, it was worth the effort when capturing even one person’s full attention. When this happened, I could observe the scene from behind, believing to have shared values that were beyond myself with a stranger that may have felt differently in reaction to the wall’s quest for attendance. Yet most street muralists and taggers do not seek such attention. Some people only enjoy experimenting with their tools and the sensations evoked by the action, making clear that the encoding process of the message is the most satisfactory phase, with its reception becoming of little interest. This process could mean hours walking at night, sweating and breathing anxiously, listening to one’s own footsteps, focused and ready to feel a certain level of adrenalin in transgressing power, in sharing one’s own absurdness, one’s own sense of the world at that unique moment.

 

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My pseudonym for the streets was Ekún, whose meaning is “respect to the nature” in Mapudungun–a language spoken by the Mapuche natives in the South of Chile.

The city as open canvas for the pseudo-artist

I call them murals. Mural like living wall, vital wall, moral wall. Mural like talking wall, murmuring wall. Mural like one wall grumbling, the other not. But, mural like non-commercial. These walls have nothing to sell. 

Agnès Varda in "Mur murs", 1980 min.1.50

 

Once out there, the artwork ceases to be singular and is associated to a style, a meaning and an intention, to an artist’s profile and a collective of people who have different needs but nonetheless something to express. In times where anything is art and anyone is an artist, the city becomes a public workshop in which anonymous creations prevail. Pseudo-street artists not only compete with official channels in the streets of Barcelona, but also with a sea of visual stimulus from various emitters, observable on different supports, from stickers on pipes, job postings on lampposts, tags on road signs, to sprayed words and sentences on floors, walls, doors, or any urban furniture.

With the proliferation of posters, tags or graffiti, walls are progressively abandoned to a form of anarchism, seen by neighbours as sources of transgressive information and vandalism. If these walls possess a certain value, whether material or immaterial, these visual marks may be considered a deplorable rather than aesthetic result, but their persistent existence could also mean that no one really care about the wall. Some streets are completely submerged by their incessant duplication causing metamorphosis in essence, a sense of insecurity in the worst case or underground creativity in the best. In these places, the aesthetic repetitiveness of the same visual shapes may be broken by street masterpieces that may have the power to affiliate people in taste. In these cases, their authors truly deserve to be called street artists.

The public approval of these murals as artworks has allowed Barcelona’s municipality to cede some walls to art collectives to appropriate them legally, assuring some control back over them while increasing the attractiveness of the area, as if walls had the power to improve a place’s reflected image. Those areas may suddenly be defined as dynamic, diverse and inclusive, allowing people to express themselves, in opposition to those clean walls possibly seen as conservative and authoritative, where a single tag may surely be seen as a strange sign to quickly repel. Hence, cleanness opposes creativity, and street art all of a sudden means progressiveness—a claim that may amuse the suburbs. Useless to say that these visual expressions are differently perceived in bohemian, gentrified atmospheres for the middle class, than in conflictive and marginal areas. However, in all of these discrepancies, there are pseudo-artists who mainly work for themselves, at times for an audience, disregarding the legal walls, the social walls, the interests of ones or others, and who only care of a mark left to attest their presence. This is definitely what made me enter into this world, to transform walls while transforming myself and, when possible, to evoke contrasting reactions beyond my street’s monotony.

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Examples of visual street marks in the city centre of Barcelona.

The wheatpaste interventions

In most of my wheatpaste mural works, I aimed to pay homage to renowned men—Nelson Mandela, Salvador Allende and Victor Jara—charismatic icons ingrained in the collective imagery and references to follow for a young and naïve activist willing to work on universal values of tolerance and freedom. Yet, this was not always the case. The first intervention of December 2013, was an experiment on a wall of Sarria’s district, where I pasted the portraits of corrupted politicians in an attempt to denounce Spanish political system. I was never particularly proud of that initial work and never promoted it, yet it served as lesson for subsequent actions—it wasn’t long before I recognised my desire to share more hopeful messages rather than merely denounce, as I definitely lacked the authority or knowledge to judge anonymously within the public sphere.

In late January 2014, when Mandela was depicted six times on the streets of the Raval district in Barcelona, most of the pieces remained visible for a week, as a splash of colour in a lively cosmopolitan area, enabling strangers to interact with them by writing over, taking pictures and removing scraps of paper until they all faded away. Acknowledging the Raval’s multicultural dynamics, these six ephemeral windows to Mandela intended to impulse a conversation with a wider audience, almost ignoring the icon as if his apparently non-invasive presence was only a way for me, as author, to finally obtain thoughts from curious people, who did not ignore the existence of these images overpowering the walls. I would approach them, without revealing my responsibility in what they could see, to better listen to their impressions and almost silent observation.

In my continual search of higher men, the other two figures were Chilean, echoing my idealised roots from my father side. Salvador Allende’s tribute sought to accompany a specific event, the yearly commemoration of his death on September 11th, in which I offered his presence to a Chilean-Catalan audience somehow pleased to receive such image in the square bearing Allende’s name, in El Carmel’s area. This time, I had the fervent desire to belong to a community who would listen in silence to the socialist president’s last speech to the nation before death. Few days later, another wall was chosen to commemorate the musician Victor Jara, who was murdered in those darken times of Chilean history—his intervention occurred near Vila de Gracia square, with the same, unchanged passion, admiration and energy. An intervention that, for instance, failed unexpectedly was Pablo Neruda’s tribute on a wall that did not consent the action, with someone removing the enigmatic poet in the early morning shortly after my passage. One might rightfully wonder what Chilean figures were doing in Barcelona, photoshopped into collages, in these small streets far from the turmoil of the world.

My tribute to Nelson Mandela in the Raval District of Barcelona. Next to each of the six mural works, the poem Invictus could be read, which helped Mandela to overcome his imprisonment during 27 years.

Actions at night

The enjoyment of taking the glue and making the thing and going, I was, like, addict. It was like a spiral, and I just fall in it. Mr. Brainwash in “Exit through the gift shop”, Banksy, 2010, min.41

 

These series of ephemeral exhibitions soon became significant in attesting a working method that was, at my stage, under trial-and-error experimentation. Days before the intervention night, walls were carefully touched and observed several times a day before their exact locations were written on a notebook, compared and finally approved. Further, each working night, it turned to be a regular activity to walk with an Ikea bag hiding paintbrushes, paper and homemade glue, making sense of the walk as an imperative method to supervise the project, to reduce the nerves, and to feel the ground the closest as possible. Once on place, the streets were never totally deserted but whenever the occasion arose of being alone for a couple of minutes, the chance had to be taken. Often, there were sensations of failure when the glue was not sticky enough, the paper thicker than usual and the old coat of paint falling off the wall, being an obstacle to efficiency in an action that had to be immediate. As pasting large posters could take more than five minutes, there was often one or two reliable friends warning of other people’s footsteps and helping when necessary. Four different people assisted me in those quiet nights, and even now, years later, I remain eternally grateful for their reassuring presence.

In this nocturnal process, I realised that some areas like the Raval received more attention than others at short time intervals by police officers and cleaning staff, recognisable through their vehicles and blue or green uniforms. Some streets were always concurred, mingled with one another, while others remained deserted. Some streets were long while others were short, and it was easier to see someone coming from far away in the former while the latter of medieval times made any presence unpredictable. It could take only a few seconds to round a corner and find a wall being taken by a stranger. Being that stranger myself, I must confess that I took pleasure in conceiving each artwork, aspiring for quality, searching for their emplacement, preparing myself for the action, feeling the action, while later documenting the results in daylight, seeing people staring at them, seeing them disappear, feeling the urge to start again; and all these steps that could vary in order, did also vary in intensity felt for each work, with ones more valuable than others, with a story greater to remind. It is, I would say, how planned research is structured and contextualised when one has the choice to be creatively confronted to the walls of a city.

My tribute to Salvador Allende and Victor Jara in September 2014. For the latter, the two mural works were photo-collages evoking peace, equality, freedom and nature, as common inspiration sources of the musician.

Reactions in daylight

Some neighbours appeared to be quite protective of their walls and despised discovering what appears to be another artistic action in their area, while others remained indifferent to the change. Walls delineate the street, enveloping what is private against the public, yet they were transformed into a support the moment a poster was fixed on them. I was acutely aware of this. Even if ephemeral, all my actions aimed to offer meaning into the public sphere, whereas it was also taking hostage what is public, the wall, in favour of my personal impulse to destroy and create.

The mixture of glue and paper may have also caused visible damages to some of the walls depending on their resistance to alterations, but once the whole project was gone and no traces left, only memories and photographs were left as reminders of what had happened. It is in some way tragic to know in advance that a work will disappear and that it was designed for being ephemeral when it first arose from passion. Even the strangers with whom conversations were engaged will certainly never be seen again and those whom I did not see, meet or taken in picture seem to have never existed, yet they were very present as anonymous spectators of the actions.

Initially, I thought that a wall with its poster could get more attention than usual, but quantifying this was challenging. Some passers-by saw the wall for the first time and may have seen it unusual in comparison to other walls of the neighbourhood while other people see it every single day and may have compared its appearance with the day before. Those onlookers may have internalised or externalised their reaction, relating the image to other thoughts in an inner reflection apparently silent to the outside world, probably even taking a picture of the wall, while a few may have come closer to touch it or follow their impetuous lust to destroy such unwelcomed image.

As author, I have experienced my own actions from inside, projecting my thoughts and feelings into the wall, which in turn projected them back to other people—yet all that I observed from their reactions were mere suppositions. I factually know that people’s attention faded after few seconds or, in some cases, after few minutes; the artwork disappeared after few days; but the wall will stay, unless it is decided otherwise that it shall be destroyed and rebuilt from new basements. An intimate relation was built with those spaces, an appropriation endowed with new meaning, where my hand would caress the walls as I recreate the wheatpaste route every once in a while, to commemorate the past and the images of those changemakers whose iconic figure inspired me to believe I could be one myself. All these nervous kilometres on foot, these doubts, these remains of paper and glue, all that is invisible today and, however, impressively visible in a built environment that remains equal to what the mind reminds.

Poetry experiment to show the process of realising a project with wheatpaste.

Collaborations beyond wheatpaste

During the summer of 2014, long after Mandela, and slightly before Allende and Jara’s murals, I shared with two close friends my homemade glue recipe to display three poems onto a wall of Consell de Cent. This collaboration led us to make a short video documenting a process I had previously undertaken alone. Later, this also motivated us to explore alternatives techniques, including working with vinyl, as we re-designed Barcelona’s TMB subway message, famously warning passengers about the 100€ penalty for travelling without a valid ticket. Instead, we produced four messages by dozens, replacing this official warning on the main public transport lines, critiquing in turn the growing lack of interpersonal interaction in the subway. In this guerrilla design action, messages were smaller than the murals, satirical, placed on wagon corners, neither in plain sight not entirely hidden either, yet the adrenalin rush remained as intense as ever.

Graphic Activism through hidden messages, made in late July 2014.

Another street intervention that transcended the wheatpaste technique involved a film screening on a street in Gracia’s district, aiming to visualise the experience of listening to an opera fragment—La Voix Humaine by Francis Poulenc. Initially, I filmed the faces of twenty-five young people as they listened to the desperate voice of a lonely woman abandoned by her lover, to then project the video onto a street wall, where passers-by were recorded watching it and listening to that same voice through headphones. This exercise sought to draw people together, almost facing each other, in their responses to a voice. To make this possible, not only did a friend lend me his studio to connect the cables projecting the film, but many others volunteered to assist me in recording the listening activity and inviting passers-by to participate in the project. This action, with its moving images and sound in the right time and place, had the power to engage more people than printed posters, allowing communication and interaction. I also stepped forward as author, no longer hidden behind a pseudonym, directing it all while seeing that collaboration in the urban space could lead me somewhere different, leaving aside my pseudo-artist suit to explore what a socially engaged designer could do.

Voz y Rostro film screening in late June 2014

Settling down as visual communicator

The goal is the power of imagination. That means, JR and I give ourselves the right to imagine things and ask people: Can we make our imagination at your place? However, our idea has always been to be with the people who work, so that's why we took group photos. So, there’s at the same time a desire to share with you, and also to make our little ideas, our little follies. That makes us happy, hoping it also brings joy to others. Agnès Varda in “Faces Places”, 2017, min.77

 

These urban interventions in Barcelona’s walls used different forms of communication, being the result of careful planning and skill learnt over a year. Ephemerality was a condition to all these projects and, today, how absurd might some of them feel, when the traces of any action only count when shown in pictures or videos, if there is indeed any viewer at all. This exploration was introspective and rather transformative, but for someone who is not completely settled in a place due to his cross-cultural identity, using mundane walls to tell one’s story was a way to settle down, to treasure experiences and establish a lasting relation with the immediate environment of the city.

What this reflection on the project could also show is that the walls we know and cherish today may be the ruins of tomorrow, the decay of an expression, of a time, and that is why emotion in concrete blocks, stones, bricks, must be built to protect the experience people may have with their city. Building a small wall in a yard could be similar to the feeling of planting a tree, to then admire a result that is going to be greater than oneself, literally and symbolically, in our ceaseless search for transcendence. It is important to award consciousness on the established ties people may have with existing walls—the ones containing childhood memories, one’s first kiss or the first wheatpaste work the night of someone’s twentieth birthday. Eventually, I believe there isn’t a need to use them as supports for self-expression to get the attention they deserve; most cities won’t allow it and most messages won’t be seen nor understood. It is, in a sense, paradoxical to now write that I had to take over dozens of walls to realise that they did not necessarily need to be taken over. Walls already create atmospheres with their textures and colours, as well as meaning when carrying a city’s past or, as I said, personal experiences.

Last ephemeral appropriation of public walls in May 2016 when the visual artist, Chunyao Fang, then my girlfriend and now my wife, decided to improvise an abstract art exhibition in Gracia's district.

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