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Graffiti City: Oaxaca

January 13, 2011

On a first walk through the city of Oaxaca, the graffiti is striking. It’s more fun and creative than mere vandalism. The graffiti ranges from crude spray painted scribbles to elaborate stencils, posters and paintings using many techniques. There’s a huge variety of styles and layers of graffiti upon paint upon graffiti.

Some of the graffiti is in illegal locations. Others are in legal spaces – more like murals than graffiti.

There is a book on the subject: Protest Graffiti Mexico . From the Amazon product description:

“On October 27 2006, when Mexican police opened fire on a crowd of protesters in the city of Oaxaca, killing three people, including American journalist Brad Roland Will, the world became aware of a social conflict that at its core was about the right to an education. Within hours of these shootings, graffiti calling the region’s governor a murderer was sprayed throughout the city. Unlike in other cities where graffiti is recognized as a form of public art, in Oaxaca, graffiti became a way of achieving social justice through community organization. And because teachers in Mexico are primarily women, the graffiti is very much inspired and made by women. Shot by Elaine Sendyk in 2007, the photographs in this book depict oppression, empowerment and the messages of struggle and revolt.”

I haven’t seen the book yet, but plan to get a copy when I get home. My photos shot in December 2010 re:

I  Current Events, Politics and Criticism of the Government

The most popular graffiti subject is Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (URO), former governor of Oaxaca. “Carcel a URO” means “put URO in jail”, and “Ulises regresa lo que te llevaste” means “return what you took (money)”. I’ve been told that in the election of 2004 that URO’s people stole votes from his rival Gabino. In the recent election in 2010, Gabino won with a coalition.

typical URO graffiti with dollar sign and clown-like ears


URO hangman


Ulises sucks Gabino tambien (also)


I believe that this drawing of a boy in a cart is meant to be a criticism of poverty, but nobody I asked was sure what the artist intended.

boy in cart


Anarchy symbols are everywhere. This one inside a flower is my favorite because it says a lot in just a few lines.

flowering anarchy


“Copola aguanta el pueblo se levanta” means “the people of Copola (a village in Oaxaca State) endure and rise up”


The next 3 photos are from one long elaborate mural with faces of political figures. Chuckie (pronounced hilariously as Chew-key in Spanish), or the muñeca diabolica (diabolic doll) was a figure in URO’s government. Apparently he’s short and has other physical attributes and a personality to warrant the nickname.



actor and singer (ranchero/mariachi) Pedro Infante (maybe)


far left: unknown politician (may be losing candidate in the election of 2010); center left: Filipe Calderon, president of Mexico; center: unknown; Right: URO


II  The Revolution

Emiliano Zapata was the founder of the revolutionary group the Zapatistas. He fought along with Pancho Villas to bring about the revolution in Mexico starting in 1910. A famous quotation from Zapata is “la tierra es de quien la trabaja”, meaning “the land belongs to those who work it”. In the opinion of a local I talked with, today some people and groups use images and names of revolutionaries for power and promotion without exactly fighting for or understanding the same causes.

Emiliano Zapata


This graffiti defacing a fountain was particularly horrifying to a local that I showed it to – she said the fountains are the traditional architecture of Oaxaca and what a shame to see graffiti on it.

head of revolutionary figure above fountain – nobody I asked was able to ID him


III  Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll

Maria Sabina is a sacerdota (priestess) famous for the use of magic mushrooms. She’s a popular figure on t-shirts of the Che and Bob Marley type. Apparently many famous people, including Mick Jagger
in his private jet, have come to consult with her.

above: Maria Sabina center: my classmate the lovely Kathrin; right: revolutionary of sorts with rifle and heart


Jimi Hendrix’s head partially obscures many street signs.

Jimi Hendrix sticker defacing a “5 de Mayo” street sign


IV  Other Stuff





Finally, my favorite mural in Oaxaca, celebrating one of the Mexico’s most important holidays, The Day of the Dead.

day of the dead mural


I showed my graffiti pictures to several locals in order to try to understand what they all meant. One commented to me that she never really noticed the graffiti, and that I had shown her her own city. Every day walking to and from Spanish class I saw something new – either because I took a new route, or because some new graffiti appeared, or because some had been painted over by a building owner. It was a great pleasure to observe all the color and life of Oaxaca, even though I only scratched the surface in understanding what the graffiti artists are trying to say.

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