It’s no secret that Mexico is dealing with more than its fair share of issues these days. Home to an ongoing war with its numerous drug cartels that has claimed somewhere in the vicinity of 100,000 lives, it’s a country that is living the Narcos nightmare in real time.
But desperate times call for radical measures. In a bid to eradicate youth violence in Las Palmitas, a downtrodden barrio in the city of Pachuca, the local government brought in activist street art outfit Germen Nuevo – literally New Germ – to, well, paint the town rainbow.
For more than a decade, the Germen crew have been undertaking large-scale urban rehabilitation projects as a means of bolstering local communities and engaging impoverished Mexican youth – a group particularly vulnerable to the lures of cartel life. They’re hoping to re-establish Mexico as the spiritual home of the mural, an artistic tradition that Mexican culture can trace back to the time of the Olmecs. (Seriously, Google “Mexico murals”. You won’t be disappointed).
For the Las Palmitas project, Germen Nuevo took on their biggest canvas yet: an entire suburb, or roughly 20 000 square metres of mural. The work spanned 209 houses, each joined together in a huge, hyper-colour homage to the wind, a reference to Pachuca’s nickname, La Bella Airosa – the beautiful breezy city. It took more than 14 months of work and involved almost every single one of Las Palmitas’ 1800 residents. Not content to rest on their laurels, they’re now filling in the barrio’s alleyways with another 1500 square metres of art. By the end, Las Palmitas could well lay claim to being the largest painted artwork on Earth.
The effect has been profound. Youth violence has all but vanished and the streets are safe to walk at night again. Eradicating street level violence through an enormous, visionary art project is really quite extraordinary. According to Germen director Enrique Gomez, himself a former gang member, “I never thought we would have such a big impact. People are really changing, they are growing. There is more community spirit. People are taking the security of their neighbourhood into their own hands.”
In a country where large-scale corporate billboards are more prolific than immersive public art, Las Palmitas has created a powerful statement not only about the reclamation of our public spaces, but also the thrilling power and potential of a neighbourhood to reinvent itself when given a collective purpose. Community organisers take note.