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Vandalism with a Conscience

News & Features | April 27, 2010

Graffiti has long been considered an underground art. Artists take advantage of night to paint colorful and often controversial images on buildings,  walls, and pavement. In a sense, it’s vandalism. Graffiti artists don’t pay fees to use these walls as canvases, nor is there a thank-you note for building tenants the morning after. Rather, graffiti undermines institutional art to create a message for the public.

But what if there was someone who OK’d this art and even paid for it? What if the sponsor was the government? In an attempt to exert his influence, Hugo Chavez’ government in Venezuela partnered with brigades of Caracas’ graffiti artists. Their duty is to embellish Caracas with images that praise Chavez’ Bolivarian regime. Images range from Caravaggio’s David holding the severed head of Hillary Clinton to a depiction of Simon Bolivar crushing a suited demon bearing a grenade and chains.

With its  vivid color and crude messages, this political graffiti has caught the attention of Caracas’ inhabitants and international media alike. But why did the government choose graffiti as its medium? Does the Chavez administration regard graffiti as effective media? Does this communication tool expose the shortcomings of other government attempts of expression?

“Graffiti is an inescapable medium,” said Tufts Political Science Professor Conseulo Cruz. “Urbanites are confronted and surrounded by it. Graffiti is an effective and inexpensive way of creating an enveloping public environment in which the government appears to be pervasive, with a strong and assertive political message.” The government may have chosen a very wise approach to reach the public. But how much do these images of the Bolivarian revolution resonate with the Venezuelan people?

The concept of the revolution was born out of the new constitution Hugo Chavez introduced when he became President in 1998. Replacing the old constitution, Chavez revived the ideas of historic revolutionary, Simón Bolivar, who mobilized the public against an imperialist enemy.

Currently, the imperial enemy is the US. One of Hugo Chavez’ redeeming qualities is his desire to unite Latin America around a strong regional identity. However, the problem is that he plans to appeal to anti-American sentiment to achieve it.

“In the case of Venezuela, government-sponsored graffiti is intended to bolster Chavez’ image as an anti-imperialist and patriotic leader,” said Professor Cruz. “Equally important, it is intended to foster a sense of ‘us versus them’—an existential dichotomy pitting Venezuelans against the US government.” Because the US remains the economic powerhouse in the Americas, this has proved difficult.

So he decides to establish this “anti-US” club in his own city—Caracas. What would it be like if this political graffiti decorated the streets of New York City or Washington, DC—and was sponsored by the cities themselves? While it might be hard to picture this in the context of an American city, the reality is that the graffiti phenomenon has already begun on our campus. Exhibited outside JumboMart is an anti-war mural by Shepard Fairey, a street artist who gained recognition for his famous Obama poster during the 2008 election. Fairey does not come with a clean record. He was arrested for vandalism when he postered two Boston buildings with graffiti in Feburary 2009, the month that Tufts’ Institute for Global Leadership hired Fairey to decorate the JumboMart wall.

So we see the power of underground art to speak to the public outweigh its illegality. While Fairey got arrested a few days prior to arriving on the Hill, he’s now commemorated by a silver plaque next to his art, sealing the bond between our institution and anti-war, anti-government graffiti. The words on his mural sarcastically read, “Never trust your own eyes, believe what you are told.”

It’s clear that our media reports with shock and almost awe what Chavez is doing but fails to see that this institutionally funded artwork is emerging around us. Whether used to educate the public, campaign for America’s president, or endorse a socialist movement, political graffiti is becoming a strong communication tool in America, and we do not need government funding to notice it. Just a walk across campus will do.