Graffiti, Guns, Globalization and Ganas
If you ask somebody to define exactly what "subculture" means, they will probably look at you askance for proffering such a banal question, then promptly fail to give you anything like a substantial and well-defined answer. If you look it up online, you will come across a lot of waffle that ties itself up in knots by relying excessively on the word "culture". You will find words like subversion, Punks, ambivalent, non-domestic, Goths, negative, and tribes; and you will be a much better man than I if, from it all, you can derive any real meaning or significance.
When it's too difficult to decipher the meanings of words, it is often easier to take solace in images. As I walk through the streets of the city, I notice colours jumping out at me and dragging my attention away from the grey. The walls of the city are screaming out, looking for answers that I'm not sure I have. The walls are talking, and I think we ought to listen.
The images on the page opposite are all brought to you by Los Martinez, a group that lives and breathes on the same streets you traverse. But the identity of the group is less important than engaging with its discourse. If you look closely, you will see that their work has real content, something you won't find in "subcultures" defined largely by fads and pouty posturing. Interacting with Los Martinez, you are moved uncomfortably from your previous position of impassive alienation. The sharp nip of recognition you feel when you look at their work, particularly their hearts, makes you an active part of a systematic and structured opposition to the dominant culture you were ineffectually loving to hate. You have become a true outsider. You have moved away from subculture and joined the ranks of a counterculture.
One hundred years ago, the city of Barcelona and its people passed through a period of great poverty. A poor population struggled to live and, in extreme cases, starved to death. The ratio of food spending against housing spending was around 5:1. People lived in times of economic hardship and misery, but for the most part they could afford to pay for the roofs over their heads. In modern day Barcelona, the situation has been completely reversed. A normal person, earning 1000€ a month, could survive spending only 200€ a month on food, but would be very hard pushed to cover the cost of owning an apartment in the city with the remaining 800€. Most people won't starve in La Millor Botiga del Mon, but if you're not rich, you had better look for another place to rest your head at night. It is in the reality of this environment that Los Martinez are attempting to offer an alternative message to the people of the city.
Los Martinez are a group of like-minded individuals who found each other by chance as they worked individually on the streets, and who then joined together to produce work in which we find a seamless fusion of art and social commentary. They are social warriors, committed to reclaiming public space as our own by turning it into a free gallery. But the artistic beauty of their message should not fool you into taking their work lightly. This collective group of creative friends is not only fighting to reclaim the city's public spaces. In the barrios where speculation and big business are displacing residents, tearing down buildings, and trying to negate the rich history of the places they wish to reinvent in their own selfish image, Los Martinez are also out on the front lines alongside real people.
In Bon Pastor, Los Martinez painted walls alongside niños gitanos del barrio, in protest of the forceful eviction of families from the "casas baratas". In Barceloneta, they worked with the vecinos del barrio in their fight against the Ayuntamiento's Plan de Ascensores, a scheme that would see elderly people and families evicted from their homes. But it is perhaps in Los Martinez's old home of Poblenou where their fight has been the most intense, and it is this place that best highlights the unrelenting determination of their struggle and their continued belief in it. Nevertheless, it is here, too, where the odds against the success of their movement can seem largest.
In Can Ricart and Poblenou, Los Martinez were part of the group of 3,500 vecinos and friends of the neighbourhood that protested against the monster that is 22@. This privately-funded, local-government-supported venture has displaced the majority of Poblenou's artistic community, as well as many families who had lived for generations in what was tradit ional ly one of Barcelona's few authentic working-class neighbourhoods. It's an ugly thing in itself, and a pattern that's becoming all too familiar, but 22@ is made even uglier because many of the companies that operate out of this new state-of-the-art business park are ones that deal directly in, or have links to, the manufacture of arms. Indra, whose president heads the committee of 22@, is the world's biggest non-US supplier of military equipment to the world's largest military machine, the Army of the United States of America.
The protests in Poblenou, like so many others, were to no avail, and the pain felt in this particular defeat has been worsened recently by the attempted validation of 22@ and its presence in the neighbourhood through the three-day Inside22@ festival, run under the artistic direction of Niu and in direct collaboration with the 22@ committee. How is it possible that Niu, one of the groups that originally fought alongside residents and other artists against 22@, are now actively encouraging the presence of their conquerors in a celebration that is such an incredibly frivolous and insensitive rewriting of history?
But wait. It is too easy to point fingers at the speculators, propagators of war, and those who are completely consumed by the capitalist ethos of "More". If we look closely at the hands we point with, we might note, uncomfortably, that they too have a red tinge. As literate people living in a powerful Western democracy, we are all complicit in the ills of the world, and in one way or another there is undoubtedly blood spilled in our name every day. Maybe Niu, in the wake of 22@'s successful establishment, decided, as so many of us do, that this is the way things work in the world and there's nothing they can do about it.
Perhaps this elephant in the corner has allowed an overriding sense of apathy to fester within all of us; an apathy and a complacency that seem to have become the most prominent and bitter cultural capital of the day. We have been tricked into thinking that we are redundant and unable to offer any resistance to the forces of the world that shape and control our shadow lives. We have accepted our defeat and fallen out of love with the unfamiliar faces that stare back at us blankly from the other side of the mirror. Politicians don't listen to us. Wars are fought despite our Saturday afternoon marches against them. Nothing we do makes a difference, so why should we care? In discussions with members of Los Martinez, I saw that even they feel the weight of capitalism's demand for conformity. Though they fight for others selflessly, seeking no personal promotion through their acts, their lifestyle choice comes with the cost of being reminded every day that they don't own a house, or have 2.5 children, or a job that they can put on a resume. That they have chosen an "unconventional" life.
From what I see, Los Martinez keep doing what they do because they care, not only about making a stand against the violation of the city in which we live, but also about us. They could just as easily be called Los Rodriguez, or Los Smith. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Yet as we walk forward into what may be new times of hope, it was a member of Los Martinez who told me that, "We can't do everything". It is true: the wars won't stop overnight. The mobile phones in our pockets will still signal violence in Africa. The speculators and the greedy politicians won't desist from trying to fuck us over at every turn just because we ask them not to. In spite of this knowledge, or maybe because of it, the core message of Los Martinez is to look a little longer at ourselves in the mirror each day.
The feeling we are meant to experience when we look at the bright colours of their art, standing out against the backdrop of grey and greed that surrounds it, is that those colours are inside us. If we want to pay anything other than lip service to change, then it must start here: at home, in ourselves. The hearts on the wall are our own. It is up to us to rediscover them. And it is then our responsibility to let them sing, write, paint, shout or cry out in any way that affirms our collective struggle to remain part of the original and only truly abiding culture: humanity.
Que seamos más despiertos. Que seamos más conscientes.
Que seamos más vivos.
Que seamos más vivos.