An Interview With Street Artist Malegría
You might not know this but the walls of parking garages in Buenos Aires are prime real estate. They’re big ‘n’ ugly and often their owners are happy to turn them over to an industrious street artist who can transform them into something distinctive. Hay un garaje de estacionamiento on Perú in San Telmo, near Independencia. I’ve seen it morph many times over the 5 years I’ve been giving tours in the neighborhood. After a brief period when it was turned over to a white-smocked group of school kids on a street-art field trip, a couple talentless taggers bombed the space and it stayed that way for far too long. I changed the tour route just to avoid looking at it.
Then one day, a real bomb dropped. Just as I was prepared to walk on by, I noticed that Malegría’s quick aerosol strokes and rainbow color palette now covered the righthand wall of the garage from edge-to-edge. I was bouncing with happiness as I took a photo, which I uploaded immediately to flickr once the tour was over. Less than an hour later I got a message from Malegría aka Sebastián Rodriguez saying, Wow, that was quick. I just painted that today!
Malegría has been painting in the streets for 7 years now. His exuberant improvisations adorn several kiosks in the barrio, entrances to a hostel on Bolívar, restaurant façades, street corners, doorways, the walls of crumbling San Telmo buildings and even lampposts. His style is distinctive; there’s nothing like it anywhere in Buenos Aires.
I tell my guests that, at the very least, they will be able to identify the work of Malegría wherever they go, and spot it from blocks away. Colorful and primitive, I’ve always related his style to children’s illustrations and the graphic traditions of indigenous peoples throughout Latin America. It wasn’t until I interviewed him that it dawned me that I should have spotted the influence of what artist Jean Dubuffet called l’art brut in the 20s and what later became known as outsider art in the United States. Think: Howard Finster, Martín Ramirez, Henry Darger. Self-taught, raw, spontaneous. You can find some Art Brut images here.
All street art is outsider art, at least as it stands in opposition to the distribution, commercial and exhibition patterns of contemporary art. However, now that Banksy, its highest profile practitioner, has turned himself into a brand, and a number of different artistic traditions have exerted their influence on the practice, and upon the rise of photorealistic street art with its emphasis on verisimilitude and perfectionism — an impulse that I characterize as conservative — it makes sense that someone would adopt a style in contrast to all that. That’s probably why I’m so fond of Malegría’s work, even of the unsuccessful and unbalanced pieces. Or rather I appreciate that outsider art bends the rules of composition for its own purposes. It was inevitable that we’d eventually have a conversation.
Rick: I saw your new mural in San Telmo on Pasaje Giuffra, near La Universidad del Cine where you used to go to school. I like it a lot. It looks like an illustration from a children’s book. I’ve always thought that your style would work well as illustrations for children’s books.
Do you have an interest in making books for kids or have you done some?
Sebastián Rodríguez/Malegría: I’ve always seen that style as a guide to where it was possible to go with my work. Since childhood I have been closely linked to children’s illustration. I think my first published work was a collaboration with Rodez [Sebastián’s dad, also a street artist] on the book Los Derechos del Niño [Rights of the Child], published in Colombia in the early 90s. I have always liked to illustrate, create worlds, and deploy fictions of this type and so with the passage of time, these situations and characters have gone from only being in books to also living on the walls of the different cities where I’ve lived.
Rick: I think I saw some scratchboard work on your flickr page. Do you use this method a lot? What other artistic methods do you use or enjoy?
Malegría: I like to explore different techniques that I encounter, play around with them, synthesize them and use the resulting imperfections. In this way, I can be surprised by the results. With scratchboard, it was love at first sight, I like the primitive characters and markings I can make. I have a great time with it and at the end of the day the important thing is to have fun. Right now I’m preparing an exhibition where the scratchboard technique will be the main method.
Rick: I look forward to seeing that.
I also like your work on paper. You achieve a delicate line that your street work can’t match.
Malegría: Thanks! It’s good to change up.
Rick: I know that you’re from Bogotá, Columbia and that your father [Rodez] and brother [Nómada] also paint in the street. How did that come about?
Malegría: My brother, who is also a graphic designer, is to blame for my dad, who is a painter and illustrator, and we are all currently active in the street. We will always be grateful for those experiences. Personally I enjoy every opportunity to paint with any or both of them. It’s an enriching experience, not only technically, but also on a personal and intellectual level.
Rick: We’ve already talked about how much your work resembles children’s book illustrations. What are some others visual inspirations for your style? It seems primitive and sometimes naive.
Malegría: El Arte Bruto blew my mind. So much sincerity, so much freedom and yet with so much pain and suffering. Art in its purest form, without unnecessary embellishments.
Prehispanic art and the art of indigenous cultures also help me to imagine possible worlds in which fantastic, fictional beings exist.
Rick: What’s the significance of eyes and snakes in your work? Guests often comment on that. And what about those totem poles?
Malegría: The eyes catch people’s attention, many people find them, so many of them, unnerving. I just paint what springs to mind: eyes, snakes, animals with human features, plants with occult powers.
I have a good relationship with snakes, they’ve always interested me. I respect and admire them in a strange way — they shed their skin, dress in bright colors. They’re agile and have a silent language and they can split into two. Images of snakes are found throughout sacred texts or myths of indigenous cultures.
There’s a myth from the indigenous peoples of Vaupes, a region in Colombia: A large snake was used as a canoe to escape the flooding caused by a god who was angry with the humans. The people plied the flowing rivers with the serpent and had adventures. This myth has stayed in my mind and so I’ve always liked to draw snakes.
Sometimes when I sleep a dream comes to me: I’m sleeping under a Borrachero tree. Sleeping under its bell-shaped flowers produces visions. I’m somewhere on the eastern plains of Colombia, when suddenly a huge, beautifully colored snake comes and devours me while I am under the influence of that delicious narcotic sleep. When I wake up, I am merged with that reptile — I’m not a man, but I’m not a serpent, either; I am a strange creature that slithers through the forest at will.
With regard to the totems, something similar happens. I like to recreate and play with them, because I have great respect for these divine objects. I feel that inside them countless secrets are saved and that they have powers that humans can’t perceive. I feel that these figures live inside me and I feel very grateful when they come to me and let me translate them into figures on paper or a wall.
Rick: What’s your favorite mural in Buenos Aires that isn’t yours?
Malegría: I really like the one by Aryz in San Telmo, because it’s very near my house and I always see it when I ride by on my bike. I identify strongly with that beast on a bike.
Rick: What’s your favorite mural painted by you?
Malegría: The one that I liked the most was near Independencia and Balcarce, but it didn’t last very long.
Rick: I saw that one. I liked it, too. But I didn’t have my camera the first time I saw it and when I went back, it was gone.
Malegría: That’s too bad. But I also like the one near San Juan and Bolívar, next to Café San Juan.
Rick: I like that one, too. It’s hard to get a good picture though because it’s so wide and there are always cars passing!
Finally, I even like the murals of yours that have started to decay, like the ones you’ve painted on metal architectural elements. They’re like ancient images imprinted on modern life, painted up and through the past.
Malegría: Hahaha. Yes! I never thought of that.
Photos courtesy of Sebastián Rodríguez and Rick Powell.
Want more Malegria? Join Rick for a tour of San Telmo and its vibrant street art on the San Telmo Art & History Walk given every day of the week.