In 1969, an American couple came to visit Oaxaca on their honeymoon only to find the place deserted.
Wandering around, they finally came across a blind musician singing in el Zócalo, the main square. When they asked him where everyone was, he told them that the whole town had gone up to the hill to hear a local poet recite his verse.
So it was in Oaxaca, and so it is today. Nestled between the mountains of Mexico’s rugged southwest, the area has been a center of art and culture for centuries, an utterly cosmopolitan city that preserves tradition while breaking new ground.
In Oaxaca City alone, which has a population of some 265,000, public art institutions abound, among them the Museum of Oaxacan Painters, the Institute of Graphic Arts, and the Museum of Contemporary Art—many of which are completely free. Vital in creating these institutions has been the world-renowned Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo.
A native Zapotec from the town of Juchitán, Toledo has put immense energy and funds towards making art available to everyone. One of his more recent projects is the Center for the Arts in San Augustín Etla, a museum, art school and ecologic paper factory all housed on the grounds of a beautifully restored textile mill. The paper factory, which we were lucky enough to visit, produces paper jewelry, boxes and Toledo’s signature kites.
But Oaxacan art doesn’t only exist hidden away behind walls; in fact, much of it adorns the walls themselves. Home to a large cohort of irrepressibly creative characters, Oaxaca has a thriving street art scene, and gorgeous pieces like this one, seen near Abastos Market on Calle Zaragoza, are sprinkled throughout the city.
Stencils: we found these on the same wall along Calle Macedonio. The guy in the glasses is Ricardo Flores Magón, a Oaxacan anarchist and social reform activist, who played an important part in precipitating the Mexican Revolution.
So we’ve got inside art and outside art—a lot of big cities do—but what makes Oaxaca really special is the crossover between the two, and numerous Oaxacan street artists have had their work featured at one of the city’s museums. For example, this dragon lady on Porfirio Díaz was painted by Dr. Lakra, who was one of the artists included in a street art exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art last year.
The exhibition, called Hecho en Oaxaca (Made in Oaxaca), also featured the group Lapiztola. Known for their stencils throughout the city, Lapiztola’s MACO contribution went 3D.
Hecho en Oaxaca even attracted internationally renowned street artists like the American Swoon, who left her mark on the streets themselves with this piece on the corner of Ignacio Allende and Calle de M. Garcia.
There’s just one thing we should warn you about: on the street, pieces are often here today and gone tomorrow. Some walls get painted over by the municipal government; others are simply overhauled by the artists themselves. Just recently, the Sanez mural outside Espacio Zapata (left) was painted over with an image of social realist painter David Alfaro Siqueiros holding the head of President Pena Nieto (right). Transient, dynamic, and subversive, there’s always something new to see on the Oaxacan street art scene.
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