You could be forgiven, considering all the hype surrounding Banksy and his Oscar-nominated Exit Through the Gift Shop, that all the good street art in the word was coming out of Europe and the US. You could be forgiven this, but you’d still be wrong.
While Banksy may have taken the world by storm, there are a bunch of other phenomenal artists making waves in their own cities. Talk a walk through the right part of Sao Paulo or Mexico City and you’ll find enough art to make Banksy weep tears of irreverent joy. And then there is Valparaiso…
The first time I visited Chile, I bypassed Valpo without giving it a thought. I wanted to see volcanoes, damn it, not some port down the road from Santiago. It wasn’t until after I left the country and began to hear stories that I had some inkling of what I had missed. So I went back. Twice.
Valpo is a port town, built into a tiny thumbnail of coastline and creeping up from there into the surrounding hills. The coastal strip is a crooked yet navigable grid, but the moment you begin to ascend its hills, the city breaks up into a demented labyrinth of twisting streets and alleys. When it rains the streets become torrents of muddy water, and the street dogs and cats howl their mournful souls out from whatever dryish island they can find.
These twisting, fractured streets and alleys happen to be an excellent place to practice your mad stencil and spraycan skills in relative peace and quiet. They also provide a unique environment; nothing in Valpo is straight or flat. Painting Valpo means painting nooks, crannies and corners. It means playing with the city’s architecture; every piece has to be adapted to its specific setting.
Like a lot of famous Chilean art, the street art of Valpo has a strong political thread, but that doesn’t mean you’ll see images of the workers rising up against the machines of capitalism. Much of Valpo’s art is whimsical or magical. It is often humorous or melancholy. There is a strong sense of play about the streets of Valpo. The artists collaborate with each other as well as with local residents; given that most of the walls in Valpo are attached to houses, this is obviously important.
On my first wander through the Valpo labyrinth, one thing that stood out from the patchwork streets were all the cats. Skin-and-bone street cats and yowling house cats, cats hungry for affection and others that didn’t even register the presence of lesser mortals. And then there were Charquipunk’s cats. Charqui, a part of the Valpo street art scene, had made a name for himself by painting cartoon cats everywhere. They peered out of work by other artists, or occupied walls segments too small for much else. Some wore clothes. Some could fly.
I left Valpo and Chile and moved on to Bolivia. Charqui’s cats followed me there. Or I followed them. On the main street of Cochabamba a couple of cats lurked on a corner, wearing their hippie/indigenous threads and a looking a little worse-for-wear after the journey.
When I told people that these were actually Valpo cats, they shrugged and told me there were a bunch more down around the markets. I took every opportunity to go searching for these, through the shifting market streets, full of fresh fruit, bowler hats and dried llama foetuses. Something big was afoot, I could sense it. Charqui had taken his art on the road. The immense, unadorned Bolivians walls must have seemed unlike any canvas he’d ever known before. Eventually I did find his other cats, neglected, often painted over or fading into the dusty streets. These couldn’t be the only ones; I was determined to find more. Thus began the International Kitty Hunt.
For months I feared this hunt had amounted to nothing. I’d found nothing in La Paz, Sucre or Potosí. Time was ticking; I left on a quick visa run to Peru and back. Finally in Copacabana, having dodged past the endless waves of hippies selling artesanía and brownies, I found myself brooding on the shore of Lake Titicaca. And there I found another Valpo cat. It was tied up in reeds, like the floating islands that cluster on the Peruvian side of the lake, and it was in the company of a couple of dainty llamas. I was ecstatic.
I found no cats in Peru, but was by this time convinced my hunt was a righteous one. Towards the end of my time in Bolivia I was drifting about Coroico, aka the town at the end of the world’s most dangerous road. The town was, to be honest, pretty boring, but then I didn’t have the money to join an adrenaline-charged downhill bicycle farce. None the less, it was redeemed for me when, on the fringes of the market, I found more of Charqui’s work. This one had only one little Siamese kitty; the majority of the work captured the colour and probably monotony of life in a small town market.
This was as far as the International Kitty Hunt ever got. With money running low, I had to get back to Chile and gainful employment. There was no time to investigate the rumours I’d heard of Charqui’s cats making it as far as Colombia. I scoured Bolivia and Paraguay for more cats, found none, and so ended up back in Valpo. I wandered the streets again, got lost in the same alleys and new ones, and ran for shelter when storms swept overhead. There were more cats than ever. They welcomed me back as a fellow wanderer; they welcomed me back with yowls and toothy grins.