POR EL SUELO : PACHAMAMA

February 13 2008 . 08:31pm


photo by eq23

Street Gospels: Deliver the Word
by James W. Riley

There stands a wall draped in black, scripted with antique-gold lettering. Manu Chao’s song lyrics read:

Por el suelo hay una compadrita
Que ya nadie se para a mirar
Por el suelo hay una mamacita
Que se muere de no respetar
Pachamama te veo tan triste
Pachamama me pongo a llorar

Translated into English it means:

Dirt cheap, here’s a female companion
That nobody bothers to see
Dirt cheap, here’s a mamacita
whos dying, she has no respect
Pachamama, I see you so sad
Pachamama, I’m going to cry

Play Song

The mother goddess, Pachamama, presided over the indigenous peoples of the Andes for centuries. In parts of Bolivia, Chile, and Peru, she was venerated as the Virgin Mary—a legacy of Spanish colonialism. Today, on a street corner in Hollywood, California, a mural in her honor sanctifies the City of Angels. Three native Angelino scribes, Retna, Dame, and Werc, use the concrete canvasses of Los Angeles as a gallery to display their reverence.���

In graffiti terms, a mural is referred to as a “production,” which is made up of smaller “pieces.” This particular production’s religious iconography exalts the genre into a sacred place, into the realm of deities.

A floating crown signifies the majesty of this production. To the right of the crown, Retna’s piece, a skeleton of vibrant greens electrifies the wall, imagery of feathered letters with bird-of-prey claws clutch the wall, and hint of Mayan undertones. A copper braided cross stands erect, flames spiral from its ends spill out of a halo encompassing it. To the left of the crown, pulsating colors embrace a sacred heart. The barbed-wired heart pumps love for the community. Four letters, “INRI” (shorthand for “eye-in-our-eye” or “inner-eye”), inscribed in Dame’s piece denotes a quest for identity in chaotic anonymity that is Los Angeles. Towering over the two pieces, Werc’s black Madonna, a beautiful bronze portrait of a mother watching over her child, radiates with holiness. From behind her elegant turquoise headdress, brushstrokes of deep rich red rays create an aura of grace.�

In the background, Retna’s distinct style of calligraphy is a mixture of Egyptian hieroglyphs, Arabic, and Old English. All cultural influences become one. Nothing is taboo. Much like the music of Manu Chao, who sings about love, living in ghettos, immigration, and social equality in a plethora of laguanges including French, Spanish, Arabic, and English, often mixing them in his songs.

The production, like the lyrics that inspired it, tells the history of the devastating effects of colonization on indigenous cultures. The production aims to rectify this through mixed media, using both brush and spray paint. Inherently, graffiti art, as an urban sub-culture, is the anti-thesis to cultural hegemony. Despite negative perceptions of graffiti art, the genre implicitly comments on social issues, especially the social ills of misunderstood youth in Los Angeles.

In fact, the artists hope youngsters headed to the liquor store think twice about the handicapping effects of alcohol, which also plagued their ancestors. Ironically, in honor of Pachamama, believers spilled a small amount of their drink onto the floor after toasting. Yet coincidentally, it is also custom among gangsters to pour out a little liquor before drinking in memory of the dead. In light of this, the artists burn candles at the foot of the production in memory of fallen friends, and in prayer that no one else will lose their life on this street corner.

The artists even risk life and limb delivering their street gospel. In the shadows, neighborhood thugs hang back and watch on. These characters may actually view it as a blessing on their so-called protectorate. As the artist paint, local kids pass by to visit. Some even ask to become apprentices. In some cases, kids escape the fate of joining a gang by becoming graffiti artists. In this regard, the artists experience positive feedback.

Ultimately, these artists are products of their environments. And while art is left to interpretation, this production is an attempt to beautify a city’s streets with a genre that is misunderstood and underappreciated, much like social issues affecting their communities. Productions like these adorns the corridor of Los Angeles and remind us that artists cannot retreat to the comfort of isolated studios, but must respect, embrace, and cherish the urban landscape.

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