12/05/2010 12:04 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dia De Los Vivos at Artillery Mag

By Josh Herman

Mordita refers to the small bribes required by Tijuanian police officers, but walking through this border town, the back door of the U.S. and front door of Mexico, there are examples of "little deaths" everywhere. Among these half-finished houses of discarded garage doors and skeletal dogs are the lesser known, what I'll call, vidita - spots where graffiti and folk artists infuse "little life" into their city. Combining Chicano culture with the perfume that pollutes the city - illegal border crossings, corrupt police, drugs - and a subtle melody of Catholicism, urban art is sprinkled throughout Tijuana. The following are merely the main hubs of populist expression, revealing that the city is like its piñatas - smack anything hard enough and something delicious falls out.

(Original article at Artillery Mag.)



Via de La Juventud Oriente

Banksy's stencils on the wall separating Israel from the West Bank may be more popular, but this unsigned art, hanging on the steel border like some perverse, countrywide Navidad tree, is more chilling because of its group anonymity.

Heading north toward the fence on Cuahtemox, you'll see a mural from Tijuana's other major graffiti group, the Border Brothers, where a cerdo in a cop uniform stands between the two Chicano artists.

Various pieces and types of art sift along the fence, all with a unifying theme: This wall doesn't just separate Mexico from the U.S., it separates life from death. Painter Primin Breu's faded Keith Haring "Good or Bad Guys" (with red crosses on their backs signaling their deaths) sit under "Ni Una Muerte Mas Reforma Ya!" (No More Deaths, Reform Now!) Close to the intersection where Cuahtemox turns into Via de La Juventud Oriente, there's the Rauschenberg-esque collage "Migrant Jesus," a refugee affixed facedown on a cross, with a water jug, hoodie and satchel. Nearby, two paintings hang as if the fence were the collective walls of the house of Mexico - a flipped view of the horizon, where the mountains become dripping stalactites - as if hell were descending - the words "La Llaga" (the sore) hand-drawn above. Though it may not be considered art, the most striking fixtures on the fence are the hundreds of white crosses with the names of those who lost their lives attempting to flee Mexico. It is when both artist and migrant are unknown that the pieces become most striking - "No Identificado" across the arms - with the hope that art from the street, however anonymous, can bring down walls.


Calle Chapo Márquez 133

La Casa del Tunel was a drug cartel nucleus, beneath which a tunnel ferried illegal substances to America. Reclaimed by artists of all disciplines, the outside and nearby houses are decorated with diverse species of street art.

As you approach the bow-of-a-ship structure from the border, keep your eyes raised as the upper stories of nearby houses contain exquisite stencil work, including images of a homeless man, his dog and a shopping cart full of tires, and a blue-tinted boy flying a kite over a clothesline silhouette.

Bypass the exhibition space and instead walk to the back of The House where there's a cornucopia of folk art - a painting of Hitler requests that you don't urinate; a wooden Jesus hangs on the cross, which hangs on a piece of driftwood, which hangs on a chain-link fence; and, on the nearby security wall, a middle finger rises into the air above the words "Arizona - Aqui esta tu voto" (Arizona - Here is your vote).


Skip the hookers, cheap prescription drugs and Jesuses in Coke bottles of Tijuana's central street and ... okay, bring the hooker one block east of Revolucion to Bosco, a darkened alley lit with colors. There is no better place in North America to sample the distinct graffiti than this half block: There are tags and the equally puerile - in execution and topic - topless mermaid assaulting a donkey under "Zonkey-Show"; stenciled smokers and graffiti cans ("Pangea 1"); expertly sprayed and realistically rendered faces (including the unique use of a hole in the wall for a missing tooth); a doodled mural by one of Tijuana's two major graffiti groups, HEM (signed with their full name "Hecho En Mexico") and the exquisite Aztec-Hindu-Jewish amalgamation of goddess and hamesh, lifted to transcendence with the shafts of light and shadow that cut through the narrow walls above.


La Casa del Tunel should have kept its basement as artists, too, want to burrow across the border for better pay in America. For a major city, Tijuana has few galleries (La Caja, H&H, Arte 256), and many have found it easier - and more lucrative - to sell from home or find homes for their art abroad. The Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT) is the core outlet for creativity in the city; its tumescent brown sphere symbolizes Tijuana as much as the silver arch. But the sphere contains an IMAX, and CECUT provides little access to urban art, or at least, much less than the States (the largest and best known gathering of Tijuanian artists was "Strange New World: Art and Design From Tijuana." It took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.)

La Casa del Tunel and a number of art-themed cafes have attempted to remedy this creative inequity, most notably Casa de la 9, which has impressive freehand and stencil graffiti on its outside walls. A stunning Latina - hibiscus-red lips, iguana-green eyes - smiles beside the front door, the nostalgic figure of Mexico most would like to have. Around the corner, the side wall betrays her. A child begs for food and a señorita - perhaps the same one - cries streaking tears, guns multiplying nearby, reminding us that as long as the salaries in Baja California are so abysmal, residents are willing to risk their lives for the more lucrative careers of picking berries in Oxnard. Thankfully, the rent for public walls is cheaper than immigrant labor.

Photographs of all the art discussed, along with captions and details, are available to view at