Over to You
A trip to South America gave Nuala Mahon the chance to capture Chile’s vibrant (and illegal!) street art for posterity
Three photo stories packed with brilliant shots, plus all your rants and raves
In the early 1990s my husband and I worked in West Africa as volunteers. I worked mainly with women, many of whom could neither read nor write, and I used images and picture stories, where possible, to communicate with them. I took up photography seriously when I returned to Europe, and I now divide my time between an island in the southwest of Ireland and the Luberon Mountains in Provence, France. I’m a member of several artists’ groups, and exhibit my work in both countries.
I love travel photography, and I always backpack around, as it’s cheap and allows for more contact with locals. Chile is one country that had long been on my wishlist. I wanted to document my whole trip, but I was blown away by the aesthetic quality of the street art.
Technically street art is illegal, in Chile, but it’s ubiquitous from the northernmost city of Arica to Punta Arenas in the far south. Chileans have always used street art as a means of spreading messages, and after the fall of the Pinochet regime the ‘graffiteros’ were out spraying everywhere they could find a blank space.
Santiago and Valparaiso are the street art capitals of Chile.
Valparaiso is the official port of Santiago, although it lies 120 kilometres east of the capital. The flat area around the port runs inland for two kilometres and then ascends sharply up to the ‘cerros’. The first settlers built their houses on these hills, and the merchants of Santiago built substantial dwellings there, but in the second half of the 20th century many rich residents abandoned Chile, and gradually the grand houses fell into disrepair. The streets of Valparaiso became the graffiteros’ canvases.
Bright heights of Valparaiso
One way to reach the cerros is to take an ‘ascensor’ or funicular railway. These rattling iron boxes were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to transport people up to the cerros. Eight of the original ascensors are still operating; the gradient is about 70 per cent, and for a few pesos you’re moved at a stately pace up the hillside. Exiting from Ascensor Concepcion feels like walking onto a surreal film set. Even the houses that are not canvases for imaginative works of art are brightly painted.
Another option is to walk or climb the thousands of steps up into the hills, and even these form part of the graffiteros’ tableaux. Flowers have seeded themselves in a mad patchwork of colour in the cobbled streets, complementing the buildings. Houses are often painted from top to bottom and from side to side, and sometimes the themes spill out onto the pavement or from under a garage door. Hostels vie with each other to attract customers by painting their facades with intricate, eye-catching murals. Shops, restaurants, and even dog kennels and bus shelters form part of the crazy kaleidoscope.
Colours are always vibrant, and the designs are sometimes cartoonish, sometimes serious and very often satirical. A whole industry has developed around Chilean street art. Agencies supply artists, bloggers blog about it and ‘street art’ tour operators have also cashed in on the deal. Valparaiso is a must-visit for anyone who enjoys street photography.
01 View ov er th e cerros Nikon D800, Nikon AF-S 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G IF ED VR, 1/200 sec, f/10, ISO100
02 blow ing dragon fire Nikon D800, Nikon AF-S 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G ED IF VR, 1/125 sec, f/7.1, -1EV, ISO100