As a newly self-proclaimed New Yorker (honestly more for the convenience of telling people I’m from “Nueva York” rather than “Seattle”… everyone knows NYC, no one in Spain knows Seattle), I am in the habit of comparing every new place I encounter with the Big Apple. Well, in Madrid, I found my little bohemian East Village cousin: Malasaña.
Flickering, dim street lamps illuminate the women wearing black-nail-polish-repaired stiletto heels and lacy thongs that peak out from under microscopic skirts, whispering their services in husky smoker’s Castellano to passersby. Rats scurry from one dumpster to the next. Music drifts lazily out of bars on plumes of smoke–reggae, rock, hip-hop, salsa, pop–warming the lonely February night air. The smells of sweet vermouth, exotic curries, unfiltered cigarettes mingle. Drunken teenagers cavalcade as hipsters for the night. Fashions of today, tomorrow, yesterday flaunt their flamboyant colors and patterns, modeled by the skinniest bitches around.
This is a Saturday night in Malasaña. And it feels like home, almost.
Decrepit warehouses, a potpourri of garbage and cigarette butts, the occasional condom wrapper, shuttered store fronts, flickering neon signs advertising lonely bars, winding empty streets, crudely constructed corrugated fences…. no matter how the streetlights hit, all I see is grey grey grey. Then I round a corner and graffiti claims everything. Defiling storefronts, crawling up the backs of brick buildings, spiraling up air shafts in arcs and clouds; the black outlines of faces and figures and profanity mark signs, posters, garage doors. The graffiti swells and blooms in the same unwanted beauty as yellow dandelions. It comes back stronger, more voracious than before–every city implemented graffiti cleansing only challenges it to go greater heights, to more precarious mediums.
The other day, after class, I took a walk in the light of day through this majestically grungy and proud barrio; I saw something spectacular. Amidst the phone numbers, initials, and declarations of love, there was talent as well. Several men and women, dressed in white, paint-splattered outfits, were outlining fabulous primary colored abstract figures of men and women, animals, geometric shapes, landscapes, nondescript items… it was a contemporary Joan Miró tapestry. Eight collaborators spilled their talent across a blank whitewashed wall that begged for color and defilement. Combining talents of several generations, perspectives, abilities, and tastes, this was a fantastic, welcomed discovery.
While I love graffiti–perhaps a New York bias–this was a little different than the tagging I’d seen before. It was incredibly intentional, thoughtful, and consciously momentary. There is a strong possibility that the local municipal government will come by in the next month or so to wash their work away… but that’s not what mattered in these lengthening shadows of a chilly February day in Malasaña… these artists sharing wine, pigment, and philosophy on public art were there simply in order to create something admittedly transient. This group of friends and artists didn’t seem to really care if it meant that an afternoon with friends in the sun was wasted when they discover their art gone tomorrow; they really only wanted to make something brilliant to share.
The beauty of graffiti is really quite simple. Sure, there is a stigma–everything has one–but graffiti is so intentional, so simultaneously purposeful and irrelevant, loud and then silenced, beautiful but crude that viewers can’t help but stop and wonder. Who wrote “TE AMO, MARIA,” “THL WAS HERE”? Does it matter? Not really… but the point is, in the midst of the broken, used, crumbling things, the graffiti artist loves you. They want you to enjoy a little color amidst the grey grey grey and to stop and wonder, “who was here before me?”