Last December, Jorge Muñoz, the new mayor of Lima, Peru, announced that street art would make a comeback in the downtown core of the city, “as long as it respects the values of the historical center.” His predecessor, Luis Castañeda, shocked the local art scene when he started his third term in 2015 by ordering the removal of dozens of murals. The move was seen by many as a strategic jab at his nemesis, former mayor Susana Villarán, who had just left office.
Castañeda’s anti-mural wrath dates back to 2013. That year, Lima was host to the 3rd LatidoAmericano (a Spanish play on words, meaning “Latin-American heartbeat”) street art festival created by renowned graffiti artists Entes and Pésimo. The festival was part of a large cultural program designed by Villarán’s administration, intended to boost the economy at the heart of the capital.
JADE’s Facebook page
In mid-March 2015, at least 45 murals disappeared under thick layers of white, red and yellow paint over the course of two nights. People posted pictures online showing municipality workers painting over murals in different parts of the historical center. The hashtag #SalvemosLosMurales (#LetsSaveTheMurals) trended on Twitter in Peru. World famous Peruvian mural and typography artist, Elliot Tupac, appeared on TV, saying that “interactions between people and murals are powerful, it makes streets a place of thinking. [This is an act of] political revenge.”
Elliot Tupac’s Facebook page
Mayor Castañeda argued that the Municipality of Lima risked sanctions from UNESCO, which declared the historical center of Lima a World Heritage Center in 1998. The area consists of around 600 buildings dating from the 16thto the 19thcentury, most of them derelict. Yet none of the murals were painted on walls of buildings protected by UNESCO. And some of the owners of those buildings showed letters from the municipality warning them of fines. In any event, the murals “didn’t fit in downtown Lima”, asserted Castañeda. “What do we want? Dirty walls or street art?” fustigated Villarán.
The Minister of Culture at the time, Diana Alvarez-Calderón, tried to cool down the outcry by stating, “It is not the Sistine Chapel, it’s street art: it’s marginal in its origin, it’s protest. It is not a national treasure.” The backlash was fierce. Memes and cartoons depicting the Minister as an arrogant upper-class woman contemptuous of a young, popular art form were shared virally. She eventually presented her mea culpa by announcing a street art contest, stating “since pre-Hispanic times, mural art has been an important medium of identity expression and perspective of the world.”
Underlying the destruction of the murals are two visions of Lima, politics and society represented by Castañeda and Villarán. Lima, a city of almost 10 million people, is roiled by a catastrophic transport system, criminality (it is one of the most dangerous cities in the world for women) and corruption.
Luis Castañeda, who served three terms as mayor, was first elected in 2003. He had a pragmatic, all-asphalt approach: he widened roads, dug tunnels and built bridges, making the popular Peruvian saying “he steals, but he builds” ring particularly true. His style exemplifies the traditional praise of slyness, machismo and homophobia. Culture was irrelevant. After his second term, he avoided corruption charges thanks to a group of judges whose wrongdoings have recently started to become public. At the end of his third term, he calmly assured citizens that he was leaving a “healthy municipality.”
Susana Villarán was elected in a close election against a conservative female candidate. Villarán, a progressive leftist, showed her support for the decriminalization of abortion, legalization of marijuana and marriage equality during her campaign. She promised to fight corruption. Citizens couldn’t see new roads and bridges being built under her administration, so she was attributed the unflattering moniker of “Lady Vaga” (a play on words and phonetics, combining “Lady Gaga” and the Spanish word “vaga”, meaning lazy). She is currently being investigated on corruption charges and cannot leave the country.