by Guisela Latorre. The Ohio State University Press, July 2019. 256 p. ill. ISBN 9780814255377 (pbk.), $29.95.
Reviewed July 2020
Jerrold Shiroma, Digital Scholarship Librarian, University of California, Merced Library, firstname.lastname@example.org
In Democracy on the Wall: Street Art of the Post-Dictatorship Era in Chile, Guisela Latorre offers a fascinating analysis of Chilean street art as it has manifested itself in the years since the end of the Augusto Pinochet era in 1990. This study centers on the idea that graffiterx (as Latorre dubs them) enact in their work a "visual democracy," which aspires to "communicate ideas and expose realities that the state, and other social institutions fail to address." We could also read this "democracy" as the invigoration of a social and artistic practice looking to center the creative power of the people as a vehicle for social and political transformation.
Latorre begins this book with a history of Chilean muralism from the 1960s, paying particular attention to the "muralist brigades" who promoted public political art throughout the country. This public art making, as in numerous other traditions worldwide, looked to inscribe upon the environment a visual language born out of the convergence of localized politics and artistic expression. The centering of this kind of art in the local - in neighborhoods - gives birth to what Latorre calls museos a cielo abiertos, or "Open Sky Museums." These museos, populated by graffiti and street art, and concentrated in neighborhood environments, Latorre notes, "function as a symbolic and physical reclamation of urban spaces commonly controlled by the state and corporate sector."
From here, Latorre shifts to focus on graffiti proper, and its emergence in 1990s Chile. Latorre pairs the rise of graffiti with a renewed political hope following the end of the Pinochet era. Additionally, the influx of hip-hop culture gave graffiterx the opportunity to blend local traditions and aesthetics with the transnational impulses of hip-hop culture. Latorre also addresses the supposed contradiction between the fundamentally communal impulse of graffiti with the individualism inherent in its actual practice. Latorre reconciles these dynamics through an examination of Chilean graffiti crews and the potential for artistic and political collectivity. However, as has traditionally been the case in graffiti culture worldwide, Chilean graffiterx is predominately male. To counter this, Latorre provides a very interesting chapter discussing how graffiteras in Chile have attempted to rewrite urban visual culture as a feminist space.
Democracy on the Wall offers a lively foray into the spaces where the work of "visual democracy" is taking place; as most works on graffiti center graffiti's US origins, it is refreshing to see a book where this doesn't happen. As a scholarly title, this book is recommended for academic libraries serving undergraduate and graduate students. It is also recommended for collections dedicated to Latin American art and history, as well as collections dedicated to urban and visual studies.