Blogging: Lessons from the Streets of Chile

– Susan M. Croteau. When I traveled to Chile as one of the 100K Strong-Gabriela Mistral Scholars in the fall of 2015, I expected to learn a great deal about Chilean culture. What I did not expect to find, however, was that so much of it could be found plastered on their walls. Street art, both of the professional and amateur varieties, was ripe for the viewing in several of the locales we visited. Most notable among these was the kaleidoscopically-colorful city of Valparaiso. The artworks we saw there ranged from the size of a cereal box to that of a boxcar; from simple, stylized letters, to intricately complex geometric patterns, to fanciful and provocative representations of living things; from free-hand to stenciled spray-paint pieces, to tile mosaics and image collages. These works of art were entertaining, to be sure, but they represent something more: the act of Chilean society enlightening itself through the practice of public pedagogy.

Public pedagogy refers to the “learning and education happening outside of formal schooling systems” ( Sandlin, et al, 2010, p. 2), and involves the study of what occurs in popular culture, the Internet, museums, parks and other civic spaces, commercial spaces and social movements (Sandlin, et al, 2010). Hickey (2010) argues that streets are sites of “knowledges and discourses, in constant interplay and renewal, presented to us as we pass through” (p. 168). Assuming this is true, what, then are the knowledges and discourses presented to us by the street art of Chile?

First we see pieces that directly accost the status quo. Image 1, for instance, reveals in simple, straightforward terms, the artist’s feelings about Chile’s former dictator, Augusto Pinochet. Image 2, while visually more complex, portrays similar opinions about agribusiness giant Monsanto. In confronting societal and governmental injustice, these pieces meet Dentith & Brady’s assertion that public pedagogy involves sources of information that challenge hegemony and encourage activism (Sandlin, et al, 2011).

Image 1  Image 2
Image 1                                    Image 2

Next, we see pieces that present a distinctly post-structural viewpoint; pieces that present old concepts in new ways, and in so doing, invite us to rethink definitions and redraw, or even remove, borders and boundaries (see image 3 and 4)

Image 3 visually converts a staircase into a keyboard; in image 4, a woman’s hair is reimagined as octopus tentacles. In the world of street art, common items take on new guises; here, we are taught that everything is up for interpretation.

Image 3 Image 4
    Image 3                                                Image 4

Especially intriguing to me were pieces in which new images were painted over old ones, the remnants of which still peek through (see image 5). Students of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger might be tempted to apply his concept of “sous rature” (“under erasure”) to these pieces; after all, we wonder, why would the artist allow elements of the original artwork to remain? Is it an homage to the original artist, an apology, almost, for covering the work? Or is it a tacit admission that the new work is not enough to tell the whole story?

Image 5
            Image 5

Finally, these works of street art teach us a lesson about the communitarian value attached to public spaces in Chile. In many urban areas in the United States and Western Europe, cities are increasingly segregated by economic class; in Valparaiso ,however, the streets seem to belong to all. Anyone, for example, can create street art, even those with limited materials and professional skills; as long as you can afford a can of paint and a cardboard stencil, you can contribute your vision. In addition, anyone can see the art; not secreted away in galleries and museums with entrance fees, these pieces are free for the viewing. And, perhaps most importantly, everyone does see the art; unlike many upscale neighborhoods in New York City or London, where graffiti is seen as a nuisance, and is duly and rapidly removed, street art in Valparaiso is everywhere and impossible to ignore. Thus everyone, regardless of economic status, is exposed to the ideas of the street artist.

It is obvious that Chile’s street art performs a public pedagogy function, transforming its avenues and alleyways into de facto classrooms for residents and visitors, alike. This is not to say that city streets in the United States serve no instructional purpose; the money forked over for billboards, bus stop ads and marquees negates this notion. The question is who is doing the teaching. On your typical American city street, the teachers are Madison Avenue advertising execu