By Beth U.

Earlier, walking to the subway, I saw an image of a man holding the hand of a frightened girl stenciled on a brick wall. Riveting in its simplicity, the stencil reminded me of similar ones I photographed this summer in Mexico City.

IMG_0734Unmistakably violent in their prettiness, the stencils punctuate public space with a concise visual commentary.  I found them everywhere: Roma, the Plumbing District, Balderas, Coyoacan, the streets around Arena Mexico, and later in the city of Oaxaca.  I began to map them in my head: eddies in the unending flood of people and products that are Mexico; icebergs revealing a vast underworld of unrest.  My prowling to photograph stencils became a scavenger hunt obsession and the lens through which I reacquainted myself with the city.

Since my last extended stay in D.F., President Felipe Calderón, as part of his clichéd neoliberal crackdown on unregulated commerce and public space, had swept the vibrant mass of street vendors from the Zócalo.  This unabashed bid to attract foreign investment—in tandem with millions of narco-trafficking dollars from the United States via the Mérida Plan—means that where a young woman once stood vending tacos now stands a copse of cops in full riot gear.

Ironically, until Sept. 13th a mountain of reeking used shoes occupied the center of the Zócalo. In March, The Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) heaped the shoes, and set up tents, transistor radios and posters to protest the administration’s privatization of electricity and its undermining of union structure and authority.

Calderón had ordered police to seize and liquidate the Mexican Light & Power Company then terminated its 44,000 employees—most of them members of the SME.  A mass rally in August preceded a tentative agreement with the government this month.  Other labor disputes continue, including National Miners’ and Metalworkers’ Union of Mexico (Los Mineros) protesting health and safety conditions at the Cananea copper mine. In an act of solidarity and to protect U.S. jobs by relieving pressure for northern migration, the United Steelworkers (USW) union forged a merger with Los Mineros in July.

I discovered later that at least some of these seemingly random acts of stencil are the work of Asamblea de Artistas Revolucionarios de Oaxaca (ASARO) an artist collective responding to dehumanizing social policies and authoritarianism.  They have stenciled hundreds of images throughout Mexico, and brought their evocative public art into galleries from Colombia to the United States.

Thousands of migrants pass through Oaxaca each year from Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador en route to Chiapas and Tamaulipas and then the United States.  Stencils, too, vein through the Americas, united in their repudiation of NAFTA and economic “reforms” that strangle labor protection, decrease wages, and suppress means of survival.  Today, unsurprisingly, I saw one in Philadelphia.

You can see a wide selection of stencils as well as watch a video of artists stenciling here: