Valparaiso is the best street art city in the world. That’s a bold claim from someone who isn’t in the art world in any shape or form, nor have I gone to all the cities in the world that graffiti artists mark with their work.
Perhaps I should merely say, my favourite street art city is Valparaiso.
Indeed, I was in Melbourne later on in my journey, my first visit to the city likewise famous for its graffiti laneways. Jason almost stopped speaking to me when I spoke admiringly of Valparaiso’s street art, and ranked it higher than Melbourne’s street art. I think you have to have been to Valparaiso, to understand.
Maybe it’s partly also because of the type of art that appeals to me personally. But even so, Valparaiso is a totally different league. I’m sorry, Australian friends. I did like Melbourne’s too. I mean, I left one there, after all.
- Why Valparaiso wasn’t part of my travel plans
- Where is Valparaiso’s street art?
- Museo a Cielo Abierto @ Open Sky Museum
- Valparaiso’s Free Walking Tour – Street Art version
- “Do you like Valparaiso?”
- Carbon offset information to Valparaiso, Chile
Why Valparaiso wasn’t part of my travel plans
Even though I knew Valparaiso is a UNESCO Heritage Site, I assumed it was because of Pablo Neruda. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to appreciate a Spanish literature laureate, since I don’t read Spanish. Faced with a limited number of days on mainland Chile, it was not too difficult for me to sacrifice it.(Luckily since I went after all, I learned how wrong I was!)
I also knew that Valparaiso was famous for street art. But all I had seen online of the Valparaiso street art were the vibrant and happy murals, which was why the seaside city hadn’t seemed to be a must-see for me. Don’t get me wrong. I do enjoy pretty street art, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with whimsy and positivity – I enjoy visiting Penang precisely because its street art has this vibe.
But is peppy street art enough to topple other things I could choose to see, during my last days in Chile?
Why Valparaiso came back on the table
I ended up coming to Valparaiso mainly because I felt stifled by the bustle of Santiago. It came back up as a potential destination when a Spanish girl in my dorm told me that she was going to Valparaiso later in her trip. She was going to visit a friend of hers, who had already been once. An artist, she fell so deeply in love with Valparaiso that she went back to the city and simply never left.
Now, nobody abandons their home country and re-settles halfway around the world for touristy street art. Hmm…
Another day of suffering through city noise and a highly extroverted hostel was my limit. I decided, no way was I going to be able to truly explore Santiago, so I might as well go to Valparaiso. Even if I could only spend a couple days, it should be more explorable than Santiago.
I checked out early and took a bus to Chile’s famous seaport city.
Is Valparaiso safe?
My mother first asked me this, when I told her about my change of plans. But she always asks this, so I didn’t really think about it too much. After all, it seemed like hordes of Instagrammers have been to this place before me. Surely it’s fine.
That said, when I first checked into my hostel, the reception guy gave me a map. He then proceeded to mark for me the usual things.
The two tourist hills, Cerros Concepción and Alegre, and where the hostel was within the zone. The nearest funicular, Ascensor Reine Victoria, for a quick way up and down the hill, and how much it would cost. The attractions – the downtown heritage area, where to wait for the free walking tours, the nearby former prison-turned-cultural park, the open air street art museum.
But then, he marked a few more areas, with emphasis.
A row of crosses, up the street that ran directly down to the docks. Big crosses on the cerros adjacent to it. “This place, not safe,” he said. “You don’t walk around there.” He said I could walk around the other hills, but it’s probably best to stick to the tourist zones.
I suppose most cities have such no-go areas. What more a seaport city, which are traditionally grittier due to the transient sailors and dangerous dock work. Many such cities have certainly gentrified since, but I knew enough history to know this about harbour cities.
But, as a visitor, I found that Valparaiso was generally safe.
Where is Valparaiso’s street art?
Usually, when I go to a city that has street art, I would look up how to find them. It’s not necessary for Valparaiso. The street art is, literally, everywhere. Perhaps not across the entire city that counts as Valparaiso, but certainly in the historic quarter where you will likely be, as well as the residential hills nearby.
I’d never seen anything like it, and have never seen anything like it since. The old city is very much a street art city.
I think if you were to take any random photo of Valparaiso’s old city, there would be at least graffiti art in it, if not actual murals. It doesn’t matter what kind of building it is, or whether it’s a main street or a back street. It doesn’t matter which wall, or whether it’s a wall at all.
The other thing is, they’re mostly all good. Even the small ones, and simpler ones, are visually effective. So I was not surprised to find quite a number of art schools.
After wandering about for two days, and one street art walking tour later, I realised that the images that people most often show in blog posts about Valparaiso are mostly all from the immediate tourist areas. Specifically, the area between Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción. Literally, Urriola street itself, and the streets branching out from it. And maybe also down Almirante Montt street.
Indeed, there is enough social media tourism in Valparaiso, that there is actually a sushi cafe whose menu groupings are named after various social media and content sharing platforms!
But there’s so much more street art in Valparaiso. So I’ve decided to focus on the murals which are less Instagrammed. This is for three reasons:
- I think the other murals are more interesting.
- The popular photo op spots are choked with people waiting in turn for the ‘iconic’ Valparaiso image, even though the artwork isn’t better than many other murals in the city, for which there are no lines whatsoever to take photos.
- Because the popular murals are so popular, there are already enough photos of them online. Why be redundant?
You can widen the range of mood even just within this touristy zone. This zone has the highest concentration of bright-coloured, happy-looking murals, cute cats and other cuteness, in the city. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any murals which are more abstract, and use symbolism with more depth.
Museo a Cielo Abierto @ Open Sky Museum
But the tourist areas around Calle Urriola were not where I had gone first to look for street art. I had decided to first explore the ‘Open Sky Museum’, a sort of outdoor gallery for street art on Cerro Bellavista, southwest of the Historic Quarter.
To be honest, I’m not sure what made this street art area any different from the rest of the city. Perhaps these were commissioned officially, like the Zacharovic pieces in Ipoh and Penang, since there’s actually a map of the artwork.
The street art are found on walls of buildings along the main streets and alleyways, just the same as the rest of the city. What was different, were the lamp posts and telephone poles cladded with mosaic, which reminded me of the porcelain-clad street lights in Delft.
A mural opposite of the gallery’s titular archway fascinated me. Partly because it was clearly ocean-themed, so it made me look longer.
And I continued looking, because the purple-haired girl looked so sad. On her hair were the words, Nuestro mar liberar. Something about the sea.
Later, as I wandered around the area, I found one or two other sea-themed artwork, all of which seemed to allude to something being amiss. I returned to the purple-haired girl upon the coral. Something is going on here, but what?
Patterns in Valparaiso street art
All art, I suppose, is expressing something. But there’s a difference between artwork that’s just expressing a concept or a feeling, of the artist expressing me! , vs artwork that carries a message.
The second one has a method to its image composition, a pattern to the symbolism. Even if I can’t read the message, my structural-analytical brain can detect that there is a pattern.
So, this article may not have enough information about the world of street artists or specific artists. (However, I point you to this article that does go into more detail on Valparaiso street artists). But it will have quite a bit on the patterns I noticed across all of them.
It was my first inkling of the reason I acquired such an appreciation of Valparaiso’s street art, despite not being an arts-savvy person.
A lot of the art in Valparaiso is not superficial. There are deep things being said in the code of its chosen symbols, and therefore these are people of depth. And what kind of puzzle-lover could resist coded messages?
I could have stayed in Valparaiso for weeks, documenting the recurring symbols.
Common street art motifs in Valparaiso
Aside from the sea and fish themes, which I was convinced were referring to a specific issue in the city, I began to notice something else about the Valparaiso street art. It was a common theme, irrespective of the art style.
There was a lot of focus on eyes. Often, multiple pairs of eyes. There were even eyes, where they definitely don’t go! Once or twice, I’d have chalked it up to the artistic stylings of a particular artist or two. But across the city and across the many different styles?
What could it mean? Do eyes have a symbolic meaning in South America? Was it a critique on surveillance? Was it to say, the people are watching?
Aside from the eyes fixation and something going on about fish, there was also a very particular humanoid figure, repeated across the city. A ghostly human figure with a nondescript face, always striped with orange.
There were definite patterns in the street art. But I lacked the knowledge to tease them apart, let alone guess their meaning.
The grittiness of Valparaiso
I found Valparaiso more layered than I expected. I did not realise that Valparaiso is a city much bigger than its present-day street art fame. Walking about, I had almost the same feeling I had in Varanasi. Not the same, but the same kind. It felt like an older city which had been mighty, but has declined for some time. And indeed that’s exactly what it is.
The signs are more obvious when you wander outside of the tourist hills. It’s there in the spiked grilles and balcony railings. The broken bottles of alcohol by the sides of the long steps up and down the southern hills, and the smell of urine as you pass along them. The youths loitering at its landings. The lack of children-centric conveniences and supplies. The ubiquity of tagged walls and graffiti across shop signs.
The map of artwork in the open sky museum – defaced. Some of the beautifully crafted street lamp mosaics – chipped off.
I could see an edge in eyes of local residents going about their business downtown. The downtown areas, dense with discotheques, a gritty edge all over the city closer to the waterfront. A curio shop displayed an unusual map – Valparaiso, but with all the sites of grievances mapped and annotated.
I read these as markers of marginalisation and pressured lives.
Overtourism in Valparaiso
Downtown, the residents who look employed walk by without smiling, holding themselves in. The body language of elderly couples walking by what some people would consider edgy-trendy downtown zones, were apprehensive.
So I wondered, when did Valparaiso become cool? And in fact, do the locals actually like that it became cool? The body language seemed similar to places where the tourism is locally felt as having grown beyond what they wished, but they do not feel like they could say.
As if to confirm it, I came across a sign, posted on a street where the nightlife seemed the thickest. It pleaded for visitors to bear in mind that not everyone there is on vacation, and that the area is not just hostels and fun.
Valparaiso’s Free Walking Tour – Street Art version
I won’t do a review of the walking tour, which was excellent. You have to do it yourself; I won’t give away the experience. Suffice to say that our guide, a young man named Daniel, was a local activist. Proud of his city, he considered it appropriate to cultivate familiarity with at least the major figures in Valparaiso’s street art collective.
I cannot possibly reproduce his street art lectures, but he did leave us with the ability to tell apart the different prolific artists of Valparaiso. For example, a very distinctive style that even I could remember to this day, is the vibrant abstract style of Un Kolor Distinto (I suppose the name is apt). A street art couple, their murals tend to feature two faces – a man and a woman – and have a vibrant, colourful look.
Along the way, Daniel told us about the background of many of the artwork, including the people they were dedicated to, if the street art was commemorating someone in the neighbourhood.
Someone in our tour group asked if the street art was legal, and apparently in Valparaiso it is, except for specific privately-owned properties. Even so, many properties grant permission, or commission them specifically.
He showed us one that’s very popular one on the internet – the piano keyboard stairs. It was one of the ones that were not legal. But it was so good, that it kinda ‘became’ legal.
The street art tour with a dash of history
But the street art walking tour was not just about art. Daniel took us through the main history of Valparaiso as well, as we passed by landmarks of the city.
Up in the residential hills, where the streets were narrow and wound around the slopes, the vibe of neglect could be felt. At the remains of a burned building, he told us about the fire of 2014. The volunteer firemen valiantly responded to it, but they were hampered by the narrow lanes. Someone in the group asked if there were infrastructure, such as hydrants and other fire-fighting tools. But the cerros did not have them.
And I had a similar thought as I had in Varanasi. It’s not just the firefighting, but little odds and ends that someone who was technically trained as a civil engineer would notice. Are all of the people here artists? Can some of them be swapped for an engineer? We need some survey work done, and signage, and a pressurised fire-water system and maybe proper building codes… So little can do so much!
Fishy street art mystery solved!
He also showed us examples from a particular artist, Marceli. His was one of the ‘fish themed murals’ I’d seen while wandering about the previous day. It’s a very distinctive image – a man with a fish head, with oil seeping from his scales, and leaking out from holes on his feet. Sometimes, money overflows from the fishy man’s pockets.
There were several, along the same theme, all around the city. Apparently it was a critique of a law that was passed. The law effectively enabled fishing rights to be available only to big industrial fishing companies, rendering the small fishermen in the Valparaiso region suddenly illegal.
I asked Daniel, whether the purple-haired girl mural at the open sky museum was commenting on the same issue. He confirmed it.
Many artists paint in Valparaiso
Instead of telling you, I will show you a selection of my favourites from the street art tour, as well as from later wanderings downtown. Some are famous, some I’ve not seen before online.
But I do have to add a note for the first one, done by a street artist who is apparently super famous to those in the know – INTI.
Even without being told, you can tell that the long mural that can only be seen from a vantage point, is special. It exudes South American meaning. But just how much, I learned from the tour. Every single item worn by the figure in the mural, is a symbol of a different South American culture. All of them are represented on the same figure. And there, on its feet, are stripes.
Stripes again? Hmm…
Are there Muslim/Arab artists in Valparaiso?
One particular mural caught my attention during the street art tour. I happened to look back as the group moved on, and saw another pair of eyes. But this pair of eyes was looking out from a veiled face. It was signed ZAFA, and below it was written, Palestina Libre.
Are there friends of Palestine in Valparaiso? Daniel had told us that Chile absorbs a lot of refugees, lately mainly from Venezuela. The refugees have access to Chilean social services; for example, university education, which is free in Chile. Classes are so full due to the addition of refugees, that it’s common for students to have to sit on the floor.
But, despite being a university city, and clearly a graffiti-friendly city, I did not find xenophobic signs, bills, graffiti, or leaflets, telling refugees to ‘go home’, or refer to them in derogatory terms. Perhaps Chileans have a sensitivity towards the oppressed and destitute.
Perhaps, I told my friends back home, we have been holidaying to, and admiring, the wrong continent all this while.
Back in the tourist hills, I spied a mural. It was blue, had a woman in it, and fishes. So, of course, I would look more closely. Oddly, the woman’s face was not native American as you might expect. It was an African face, and the sea seemed to flow within her. I read the name of the artist. A woman painted it – her name, Zeinab.
Random graffiti art
I went wandering for more street art after the tour, passing by some of the locations more than once. This is worth doing, because there are just so much art, that you are bound to miss something each time. Did I mention yet that you can find street art everywhere?
By a railing, or on a step. On a kerb. On a wood panel. Some of them are little gems.
For instance, I found a little map. It took me a long while to work out what the chaotic jumble of curving lines and rectangles were. But I figured that the lines with white dashes were the steps connecting parts of the hill together. So, this is a map? Sin cabeza. Is it criticising the lack of planning, lack of leadership?
And what about this tiny piece, which I happened to see just because I was tired hiking up yet another steep slope. It was incredibly simple, but beautifully located. A man, looking like a frog, climbing up as I was climbing up, his ankle shackled to a briefcase like a prisoner.
It reminded me of the shackle of a typical full-time job, trapping you in a structure that forces you to keep climbing, while the uninspiring work weighs you down always.
An artist explains the prolific appearance of eyes
Walking down yet another lane sloping down towards the waterfront, I saw a long mural. A fox-like creature, with three eyes. That’s one more than is typical.
But this time, I realised I was standing in front of an artist’s studio. A man was within it, and he turned to look at me, waving a greeting. I waved back.
Then I paused, considering. I didn’t have a chance to ask Daniel about the eyes during the tour. Here was someone who probably painted the 3-eyed fox. But how could I ask this artist? I could not possibly explain what I wanted to know, with my meagre Spanish. Oh but, do you suppose…?
I guess I had nothing to lose.
Hesitantly, I asked, “Habla Inglés?” To my gratification, he replied in the affirmative! The artist invited me in, and I saw his artwork contained a lot of eyes. Clearly the one outside was his own work. So I asked him – what’s up with the eyes?
He was slightly taken aback. He hadn’t seemed to notice how prevalent the symbol is used throughout Valparaiso. Thinking a little while, he told me that speaking for himself, the many eyes meant having many different points of view.
The extinct Selk’nam people
One more mystery that was answered while I was still in Valparaiso, was the recurring motif of the orange-striped pale figures. It was answered, by another mural.
I came upon a mural that depicted the same figure, but placed it in a universal-celestial context. Next to it was a series of text, explaining that the Selk’nam were a people of South America, who had been hunted into extinction by the European colonists.
At the time, I took it with a grain of salt, considering the new-agey style of the mural. But later on, I looked it up.
It was true. The Selk’nam were completely wiped out by European ranchers, who displaced indigenous hunting grounds with their cattle farms. The Selk’nam had a habit of hunting the cattle, since their culture did not have a concept for private property ownership, and considered the free ranging cattle as ‘wild herds’. So the Europeans had a bounty on them, and killed them all.
The Selk’nam used to wear body paint, striped white and vermillion.
“Do you like Valparaiso?”
I took the funicular back up the hill to my hostel on my final evening in Valparaiso. Two men entered the car with me. They seemed local. I did not, so before long, they asked me where I was from.
Malaysia, I told them. They continued to regard me with a kind of perplexed fascination as the funicular ascended. I wondered briefly if I should worry.
Then, one of them sceptically asked me, in hesitant English, “Do you like Valparaiso?” And I knew immediately what he meant.
I’m Asian, from a once-conquered people. I know what it is to look down on your own place. As a local person, he probably sees the gritty Valparaiso, the problems, the flaws. He must find it strange that a city so long fallen from its past glory should suddenly be a magnet for international tourists.
“Yes,” I told him. “I do like Valparaiso.” He looked at his friend, shrugging away his confusion.
Why I think Valparaiso’s street art is better than other cities
I didn’t know how to tell him, that I liked it not for the touristy parts. I liked Valparaiso for the honesty expressed in their city’s street art.
It is symbolic and cryptic, but you can tell something is being said, even if you are foreign. And you can tell that they reflect a people you’d like to know.
For example, many were clearly critiques, but the mainstream residents leave them unchallenged and don’t have them painted over. That usually means, in general, the art is not just about the artist’s own personal views, but often speaks for other people. It’s commenting about something, and that something is outside of the artist him/herself. Even, outside the world of street art.
Not a single one was about idle entertainment or leisure/party activities, not even in the downtown nightclub areas, even though there’s so very much of it. It’s not that Valparaiso doesn’t have these ‘lifestyle’ amusements. It is Chile’s party city, after all. But its street art depicts things that are beyond petty concerns.
Poignant, playful, and strange. Many feel like discontent and pain, the imagery of choice often involves a confusion of eel shapes, bursting out of forms, often sliced open or with holes. There is depth that you don’t understand, but feel sinking into your soul, pulling you down to you know not where. All you know is that they are things that matter. It’s not superficial. It’s not even egotistical.
When the art is happy, it is happiness that is joyful rather than drunken. When it is angry, it comes across not as the kind of spoiled or small-minded anger of someone who doesn’t know enough of the world. Rather, it comes across as someone who knows quite enough.
Don’t get me wrong. The city itself is a canvas record of the artists’ developing their skill, and just having fun. Not all the art is commentary. But unlike some other cities, Valparaiso’s pieces do not stop at just showcasing the peak of an artist’s skills, nor his/her creativity. Often, these skills are deployed to speak something that is bigger-than-me.
Perhaps it’s due to the tradition of Valparaio’s street art, arising as a form of expression during Chile’s authoritarian rule. But whatever the reason, this is why Valparaiso’s street art resonated with me, whereas other cities’ street art only entertained me.
Its sheer prolificness, and concurrent quality in terms of its human spirit (as a non-artist I won’t speak about the quality in the technique), is why I believe Valparaiso has the best street art in the world.
I was so deeply sorry that I only gave it a weekend.
Carbon offset information to Valparaiso, Chile
I went to Valparaiso as part of a longer journey around the world. Visiting Valparaiso specifically, assuming return flights from Kuala Lumpur to Santiago via Sydney, produces carbon emissions of approximately 14,400 lbs CO2e. It costs about $72 to offset this.
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