Painting Against Repression

Vibrant as the Paint on the Walls

by John Ross

The walls of this city of painters have been freshly whitewashed on orders from a much-lampooned governor, the whiteout financed by transnational tourist moguls to promote the illusion that peace has returned to Oaxaca.  Neat squares of blankness cancel out the visual rebellion that exploded on the streets of this colonial city, once declared the patrimony of humanity by the United Nations. There were seven months of dramatic confrontations between striking teachers and their allies in the Oaxaca Peoples Popular Assembly (APPO) and security forces backing the despotic governor Ulisis Ruiz whose removal from office the insurgents demand. Over 200 prisoners were taken during the skirmishing and another 60 are listed as disappeared. 19 dissidents have been gunned down by Ruiz’s death squads.

But despite the savage repression, if one keeps an ear to the ground and an eye to the whitewashed walls once plastered with revolutionary slogans, tags, full-length murals, throw-ups, and ingenious stencils, it doesn’t much sound or look like the Oaxaca Intifada is done with yet….

Oaxaca is a city of painters, the cradle of the late master colorist Rufino Tamayo and the very much-alive Francisco Toledo who stands with the resistance movement, and during the long struggle the walls of the city were transformed into a dizzying open-air gallery of popular art.  Despite the thousands of gallons that have been expended to blot out the rebellion in a doomed campaign to assure tourists that “no pasa nada aqui”, that nothing is happening here and it is safe to return, the images, like the anger, endure just beneath the surface.  “The white paint cannot erase the blood of our comrades” defiantly advertises a spray-painted wall scrawl.  A remarkable archive of over a thousand images of the struggle for the walls of Oaxaca offers poignant witness to the ongoing resistance.

Some of the works were spray painted freehand, others stenciled onto every available space, still others printed out on paper and fastened to the walls with a wheat glue tough as steel so that to remove the offending art requires dismantling the buildings to which they were affixed brick by brick.  Although Ulisis’s obliteration teams stalk the streets, new art goes up every day right under the noses of the police.

Indeed, Ulisis is everywhere on these walls – as a burro, as a rat, a raccoon, a chimpanzee, a skull and crossbones, with shit on his head.  A mammoth Mayan head was painted to scale by an apparently well-coordinated team of throw-up artists, a Playboy nude appeared curled up on the wall of the Cathedral rectory and tagged as “The Pope’s Girlfriend” – the Church played an equivocal role in the Oaxaca uprising. 

Some murals are left unfinished, the work of the artists disrupted when Ulisis’s goons – mostly off-duty police – swung around the corner in the deep of the night spraying automatic weapon fire at the barricades.  Some, in fact, were painted from the ashes of the tire fires the protestors burned all night on the thousand or so barricades piled up in and around the city. 

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