“This book reminds us that beneath sufficiency and logos there are still human beings,” wrote David Byrne for the prologue to Sensacional de Diseño Mexicano, one of the most in-depth visual surveys of graphic imagery and popular design in Mexico, authored by Juan Carlos Mena. Byrne’s observation echoes the role that popular design and graphics play in Mexican culture: through them we are free to shape or channel our identity, always in conflict and always in constant change.
But this fundamental aspect of our nation’s heritage was threatened this year when the iconic ball joints of Mexico City – the name of hand-painted signs, murals or commercial graphics featuring distinctive images and lettering – have been whitewashed and replaced with generic visuals. The work of rotulists has been part of the urban and rural landscape of Mexico since the beginning of the 20th century, visible on the facades of shops offering cakes, tacos, keys, smoothies and coffee or services such as dentists, electricians and activities endless trade. In a way, you could say that a rótulo is a proto-meme, but instead of existing on our computer screens, it lives on our streets.
It’s no secret that Mexico has long suffered from deficient or near-zero cultural policies; this time, the sign painters are the victims of these shortcomings. Earlier this year, the district of Cuauhtémoc, one of Mexico City’s most important and touristic demarcations, launched what Mayor Sandra Cuevas called an “integrated journey to improve the urban environment” (“Jornada Integral of Improvement of the Entorno Urbano”). . The campaign consisted of homogenizing each of the neighborhood stalls. All of these self-run businesses have been forced to forego the creative graphics they use to advertise their products, paint them white and put the mayor’s logo on top – a kind of citizen-funded political brand. without prior consultation.
Although the campaign started in January, it wasn’t until designer Hugo Mendoza posted a video on his Instagram account in May, captioned “What happened to the billboards in the Cuauhtémoc district? » — that a wider public has become aware of it. The video went viral on social media and countless voices from citizens and writers, architects, designers, artists and curators began speaking out in support of Mexican’s work. rotulistsfreedom of expression and the preservation of cultural rights in the country.
It is paradoxical that in Mexico, on the one hand, there are programs to preserve cultural rights, those essential freedoms linked to individual and collective expression and identity; on the other hand, efforts are being made to erase them. In light of the uproar, the mayor held a hearing in the Nation’s Congress where she managed to expand the wound by declaring that rótulos, while being part of the “ways and customs” of the nation (“usos y costumbres”)are not art.
In her eagerness to complete the task she defined as “Order and Cleanliness”, Cuevas turned out to be unaware that popular graphics are an important part of Mexico’s visual heritage, neglecting all the work that has been done by curators. of museums and independent researchers who have specialized in graphic design and visual grammar.
When the subject went viral, groups such as Red Chilanga en Defensa del Arte y la Gráfica Popular began organizing archival projects in an effort to rescue and protect painted signs in Mexico. While this task may be too ambitious, past efforts illustrate the importance of creating a visual memory that can be accessed by future generations. In 2017, for example, the Museum of Contemporary Art of the University of Mexico (MUAC) launched an archive collection focusing on the graphics and images employed by the main social movements in the last 10 years in the country. . The collection includes anonymous and authored posters, journals, brochures, photographs, installations, graphics, digital files and other visual records contributed by artists, designers, activists and activists who have took part in social protests such as those related to the 2014 Ayotzinapa. disappearances, among others.
Other important exhibits or projects related to rótulos in Mexico and abroad include ABCDF, an exhibition and editorial project organized in the early 2000s by Cristina Faesler for the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City; and Rotulos de Mexicoa residency program that invited six rotulists from different neighborhoods in Mexico City to share their knowledge.
Cuevas also seems to have forgotten the pivotal essays by Martín Checa-Artasu and Pilar Castro Rodríguez “Deje que la barda hable” (2009) and “El rótulo popular, común denominador del paisaje urbano en México”, an article published in 2015 by José María Luis Mora Research Institute, the National Council of Science and Technology and the College of Michoacán.
It is sad to see the new landscape of the Cuauhtémoc district of Mexico City without its colorful, charming and distinctive rótulos. However, it has been heartening to see how strangely citizens and the media have coincided in their approach to the issue. The galleries of art historian Aldo Solano and journalist Tamara de Anda, and the installation “Rotular la ciudad es servilaby El Rey del Pincel for the Machete Galería showcase, are examples of how this controversy, like few others, has reached consensus among Mexican citizens. Using the hashtags #ConLosRótulosNo, #RótulosMexico, #RótulosMexicanos and others, social media users have shared previously deleted signs or new works inspired by them.
It has become clear that public space in a city as irregular, unpredictable and creative as Mexico City cannot be standardized. Byrne’s quote recalls the naivety and radicality of the Situationists, who valued the decentralization of creation and avoided the notion of authorship, proposing a city that can be experienced poetically and creatively.