TThe visual landscape of Mexico City is instantly recognizable by its streets lined with colorful food stalls advertising tortas, tacos and more in bold letters with even bolder claims. Often these signs are hand painted, or tags, feature clever illustrations, made-up mascots, subtle puns, and even out-of-copyright renditions of popular cartoon characters. Each sign is designed and hand painted and tailored specifically to the booth niche. They are a living testimony of the ingenuity and aesthetics of Mexican artists.
At the end of April, 61 years old shooting player Artist Martin Hernández Robles saw more than a thousand of these colorful and humorous paintings, including his own works, erased overnight throughout the municipality of Cuauhtémoc as part of the urban beautification efforts of the mayoress Sandra Cuevas. Not for the first time, Robles felt the crushing weight of helplessness and humiliation.
A native of Mexico City who learned the trade from his father, Robles—also known as Don Rótulos on Instagram—has more than four decades of experience. He’s been in the game long enough to have his shop in Cuauhtémoc forcibly shut down earlier this year by the municipality’s local government and has been thrown in jail twice, for allegedly disturbing traffic while painting and not being able to pay the associated fines. The authorities can – and do – push out graffiti artists and street vendors, he says, but this kind of erasure of a neighborhood is very different.
Cuevas’ edict threatens to completely remove iconic designs from the city center. As part of Cuevas’ “Urban Landscape Improvement Campaign”, launched at the end of April, the colors that once flowed through the streets have been replaced by monochromatic shades of gray metal or bland paint.
For Robles, seeing all that painstaking art erased and replaced with the local government emblem, which includes the slightly condescending phrase “It’s your house” (“It’s your house”), is akin to burying a long-standing expression of cultural identity.
“It was atrocious because they didn’t give anybody a chance to do anything,” Robles said. “[Cuevas] wiped the foreheads of the sellers and their businesses.”
Beautification, for whom?
OOn April 25, Cuevas’ office issued a press release calling for the “improvement of the urban environment.” Vendors saw their booths painted a dull white and a faded blue with the municipality’s logo, a move that, according to local reports, cost the vendors themselves 200 to 300 pesos ($9.80 to $14.80 ). The spending is significant in a city where more than 9 million people work in the informal sector and the minimum wage is just over $8 a day.
Cuevas, a member of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) elected mayor in June 2021, is no stranger to controversy. As the leading authority in one of Mexico City’s most influential districts—home to the Mexican Stock Exchange, the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the famous Zócalo—he has previously made local and national media headlines for comments such as “No I like the poor.” ” and to throw plastic balls with cash attached to them from the balcony of Cuauhtémoc City Hall.
Cuevas’ attack on artists and street vendors, however, has left many art historians and defenders perplexed by its contradictory nature. In theory, the effort to “clean up” the neighborhood is for the benefit of tourists, but many tourists and artists are drawn to Mexico City precisely because of its rich visual culture and graphic art traditions.
“This action is part of the municipal government’s own incompetence,” said Aldo Solano Rojas, a folk art expert and member of Rechida, The Chilango. [Mexico City resident’s] Network in Defense of Popular Art and Design. The group was formed in response to Cuevas’ measures. “His government has such a low approval rating and a bad relationship with other political agents that it chose to make cosmetic changes, aimed at the most vulnerable and the easiest to humiliate,” said Rojas.
Graffiti as an art form has prevailed in Mexico, and most of Latin America and the Global South, for more than a century, especially in more modern cities, according to renowned Mexican art curator Cuauhtémoc Medina . Although graffiti as a profession has been endangered by the advent of digital signage and the mass production of synthetic posters and banners in recent years, it is still an essential art form in cities across the country
“In Mexico City, the importance of street commerce…helps maintain rotulism as a [livable] profession,” said Medina, former associate curator of the Tate Modern. “Many of the signs for shops, tailors, workshops, and especially those in the Center Zone [in Cuauhtémoc] and even pubs and canteens, many still make them signboards”.
Graffiti artists and similar artists have felt the pressure of the government’s thumb before. Medina and Rojas explained that local governments in the 1940s had once tried to ban murals in rubbish, or bars dedicated to pulque, the fermented sap of agave. Similarly, in the 1970s, the authorities replaced the painted signage in the Historic Center with more standardized black and white elements.
In the past five years, Robles said that artists from districts such as Gustavo Madero in the northernmost part of the metropolis and Xochimilco in the south have been harassed by the authorities. Patrols or police officers often ask for non-existent permits or refer to arbitrary laws to hand out fines or obtain bribes.
Although the signs are under commercial threat in all 16 districts of Mexico City, the erasure has been most evident and visible in Cuauhtémoc. The neighborhood has experienced rapid gentrification in recent years due, in large part, to the large number of digital nomads immigrating to Mexico City from the United States, Canada, and Europe. These newcomers are looking to take advantage of the lower cost of living, while more and more businesses are catering to dollar-earning, card-swiping customers.
Cuevas may be trying to capitalize on the influx of foreign cash, standardizing the look of Cuauhtémoc’s mobile stands and, ironically, removing the signature art that has been part of Mexican culture for decades and attracts visitors from around the world . The mayor has said that the whitewashing of the stands in the street is simply “cleanliness” and “order”.
In mid-May, Cuevas doubled down on his position, stating that the signs “are not art” and adding that they were about reducing “visual pollution”. The action and rationalization of Cuevas raise important questions, especially at a time when foreigners are approaching the municipality.
Medina has stressed that the erasure of the signs is the result of a bureaucracy led by individuals “with values that respect urban whitewashing”, calling the measure classist because it targets sectors of the working class.
“It’s very strange that they don’t take into account the longstanding appreciation for this kind of art,” Medina said. “It’s very difficult to understand the mayor’s decision and why they think this kind of uniformity is beneficial.”
Attempts to reach Cuevas’ office were unsuccessful and requests for comment went unanswered.
The community fights back
meIt only took a few days after Cuevas’ edict transformed the look of Cuauhtémoc for artists and citizens to respond. Rechida and other organizations were created in a matter of days and their efforts were reported in stories by prominent international media.
Rojas admits that support has been so vocal in Cuauhtémoc in large part because of the town’s middle-class status and its appeal to foreigners. “[Cuauhtémoc] it has much more cultural and political capital and our grievances have become more widespread; it’s also a class problem,” said Rojas, a doctoral student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
While the government has previously attempted to censor art or certain types of expression in other neighborhoods, the pushback in Cuauhtémoc became the focus of the news, something rarely seen in poorer and marginalized areas.
Rechida, artists and activists are asking the Secretary of Culture to recognize rotulismo as cultural heritage of Mexico City, and they are asking Cuevas’ office to retract the measures it considers “gentrifying”.
On a practical level, the organization wants the municipality to compensate the graffiti artists whose artwork was erased. The group is also working to prevent the mayor’s office from harassing artists and vendors who tend to be among the neighborhood’s lower-middle-class income earners and who often commute from poorer neighborhoods to set up shop during the day.
Abigail Navalos Hernández, 30, is part of a younger generation of graffiti artists. Growing up, Hernández accompanied his family to Central de Abastos, one of the largest supply markets in Mexico City and the world. Exposure to a world of colors, advertisements, art and sardonic caricatures ignited Hernández’s artistic passion.
“With the Covid-19 pandemic, I started designing cards. I started with small signs and then bigger ones and soon after I started painting much bigger exteriors,” said Hernández, who is a member of Morras Chidas Rotulando. [Cool Girls Sign Painting].
Although he only became a professional graffiti artist in recent years, Hernandez has also seen authorities harass vendors and other graffiti artists. While painting a sign at a food stand earlier this year in Gustavo Madero, Hernandez said local police intimidated vendors into paying fines for not having a permit to operate. While the food vendor Hernandez worked for had a permit, police pushed the vendor, threatening to arrest her.
“Many of the graffiti artists [involved in advocacy efforts] they are young people who also need it as protection to exercise their profession and I think it is positive”, said Robles.
While Cuauhtémoc’s mayor’s office has so far refused to back down on its so-called “urban improvement,” the graffiti artists have found a way to circumvent the edict. Some have made adhesive signs – quick enough to put on and take off – while others have resorted to painting text or cartoons.
These small acts of rebellion are part of a community-wide effort with tangible international appeal to preserve an art form that is, as noted Mexican writer Déborah Holtz recently wrote for El País, “synonymous with our way of being and of communicating”.
Rotulismo offers small and medium-sized companies from all over Mexico, from the most discreet stand in the Central de Abastos to some of the oldest companies in Cuauhtémoc, part of their identity. That graffiti has maintained this presence in Mexico City – despite the local government’s attempt to purge it – is proof of how emblematic this particular form of expression is inside and outside the country’s capital .
Since the spring, Rechida’s efforts and the community’s push have given the graffiti artists a spotlight they hope to use to preserve and promote their art as more than a vocation.
“What happened in Cuauhtémoc, we hope it will help us restore patellarism,” said Robles. “It’s giving us validity and legitimacy as professional signmakers, a profession that is very much alive today.”
Humberto J. Rocha is a journalist currently covering the European carbon market and a freelancer focusing on politics and culture in Latin America. A native of Mexico City and graduate of Harvard and Oxford, Humberto has written for local, national and international media.
Madeline McSherry is an ecological and visual artist who currently resides in Mexico City. A graduate of McGill, she has spent the last decade working on conservation projects around the world, and has lived and worked in Panama, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.