No Blank Walls in Quito, Ecuador

There is a saying in Ecuador: “No wall is blank in Quito.” This can mean two different things. One is that a wall that appears to be blank is actually a canvas that was created to be painted. Sooner or later – and likely sooner – it will be blank no more. The other, more literal meaning is that it really is difficult to find a blank wall in Quito. Graffiti is omnipresent in this ancient city, but it’s not obtrusive in the way American urban or gang graffiti can be.

In Quito, it’s the message that’s important, not the graphic display. Often poetic, always thoughtful, Quito’s graffiti artists use city walls to comment about the city, the country, and the state of life and living in Ecuador and the world at large. Quito’s graffiti has become a means of public discourse and discussion, similar in many respects to the political posters that were displayed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in the days before the 1989 government crackdown. Indeed, these publicly inscribed messages have become part of the vernacular of society, often quoted by journalists, commentators and politicians who seek to speak with the voice of the people.

Quito is an old town, founded in the early 16th century by the newly arrived conquistadors and built on the site of an even older Inca settlement. As such, the city has an abundance of beautiful colonial churches, plazas and other structures. Thankfully, the graffiti artists have for the most part left these cultural relics alone, concentrating on the modern buildings and structures that Quito, as Ecuador’s capitol city, contains. As opposed to the older structures, modern factory walls and highway viaducts do not suffer from being used as blank slates for graffiti artists, though perhaps this statement may be debated by those who deplore graffiti in any form.

There are signs that Quito’s omnipresent graffiti is spreading to other cities in Ecuador. Like it or hate it, you have to admit that some of the more thoughtful messages succeed in their purpose: provoking thought. Consider this message: “Es mas facil descibir lo que no es amor”, which translates from Spanish as: “It’s easier to describe what isn’t love.”