The topic came up yesterday as we were heading toward the freeway to visit friends out-of-town. We were passing through one of those grey, seedy neighborhoods. You know the kind surrounding freeway on- and -off ramps. My husband pointed to a long graffiti-covered wall depicting a large, brightly-colored hummingbird sampling a flower as well as a red-headed giant woodpecker, like those found in southern forests here. The artist wasn’t a simple street gang kid. Hubby asked if I’d seen the giant rat painted on a retention wall of the Río Mapocho. He thought it was pretty cool and well-done. From there the conversation turned into a discussion – me defending the artistic value of some graffiti, he claiming all graffiti defaces public and private property, except the rat. I reminded him of the wall murals of Valparaíso, which decorate the stairs climbing the city’s hills – outdoor galleries depicting history, traditions and artists’ rants and loves.

A couple years ago, walking along the edge of a park with a friend, we saw two young women painting lush tropical flowers and bright swirls on a low cement wall bordering the park. We stopped to talk. An internationally-known designer brand was paying them for the work. “Aren’t you worried that “grafiteros” will scribble over it?” we asked. No, they were not concerned. The mural remains untouched to this day. Months later they painted an overpass in the center of town in pastel colors – a great improvement over concrete grey.

I support these artistic endeavors – the paid ones and the volunteers – if they are done in a spirit of embellishing rather than defacing. They can put a smile on the faces of stressed-out city-goers – at least those who slow down enough to notice them. Perhaps the most effective way to discourage the defacers is to encourage the embellishers, not just grafiteros but other public artistic expressions. What fun to encounter park trees wrapped in wool sweaters and scarves, product of knit attackers!

Mapocho River wall graffiti