It is a mild day in April, not quite yet warm enough to walk around without a coat, and I am on a guided tour run by my language school, titled “Underground Madrid”.
It turns out that this isn’t a literal tour of an underground attraction. The nearest to ‘underground’ we see is the short journey on the metro to our destination, which is much more exciting: some of Madrid’s most alternative attractions, the street art of the Lavapies district. Something you won’t see on most lists of things to do in Madrid.
“We couldn’t have run this tour two weeks ago,” the tour guide tells us in Spanish, grave-faced and gesturing around the Tirso de Molina square before the main tour begins. “A street vendor died in the neighbourhood a few weeks ago. He was pursued by police for the illegal selling of goods from blankets on the street, and there were protests and riots for a while afterwards.” Though there was controversy about what exactly happened to the street vendor when he died of a heart attack while being pursued by police, it is clear that the inhabitants of the district were angry. A quick google shows crowded squares, people setting fire to rubbish in the streets; anger at a system which makes it difficult for people to make a living in the only way which is available to them.
Lavapies is one of the least wealthy districts of Madrid. It is known for having been almost empty some decades ago and then reclaimed by diverse communities, particularly those of foreign origin. It is no surprise that these groups would feel the economic and social pressures of current Spain most keenly – but from that anger and that injustice comes something entirely unique. Art.
Here is something which I do not think exists in the same way in England: Graffiti appreciated as art in the streets, as a way to make a statement about the political and social conditions.
Recently, on the 8th of March 2018 (International Women’s Day), Spain saw a widespread feminist strike: a strike which protests against all of the injustices against women, trans, and non-binary people in Spain and across the world. In Spain in particular, domestic violence is an important problem, with tens of women killed each year by their partners.
It is no surprise, then, that many of the works of the graffiti in Lavapies are dedicated to feminism and equality.
Other works contained less obvious social criticism, or were simply beautiful and extremely interesting to look at:
These are only a few of the amazing pieces we saw, but they are some of my favourites. If you go, keep your eyes peeled – graffiti stretches from the floor to the top of buildings, and if you translate their slogans, you will find some very interesting messages from the artists of the neighbourhood.
What’s more, unlike most tourist attractions, it’s completely free to see this part of ‘alternative’ Madrid — though if you fancy a rest and a drink in between exploring the winding, bright-coloured streets, I’d suggest you try the nearby bar in the Teatro El Pavón, where I tried vermut for the first time (verdict: delicious). Definitely highly recommended, and reasonably priced too
Have you seen this kind of socially-aware graffiti in other parts of Europe and beyond? What do you think? Let me know in the comments!