One of the first things we noticed about La Paz, Bolivia was the endless amount of graffiti painted on the walls of every building. House, apartment, government building, church, you name it – it has graffiti.
But it’s not your standard teenager scribbles or gang-related tags. It’s not artsy or hipster. What’s interesting is that a lot of the graffiti tells a political or social story. You can see political dialogue on the walls of the city.
At the end of the post, a map shows all the photo geotags.
For example, the neighbor city of El Alto has tremendous problems with poverty and crime. Citizens lack police services. The people sometimes resort to vigilantism. Driving through El Alto, we passed an effigy of a thief hanging from the telephone lines. The graffiti to the left says “suspected thieves will be burned.” On the right it says “a caught thief will be lynched.” I missed the shot, but we also saw graffiti threatening castration, too.
“Sí” or “no,” should I stay or should I go?
However, the single biggest “conversation” you can discern from the walls is the February 2016 referendum on whether President Evo Morales could amend the constitution to allow himself another term in office. He narrowly lost, but walking around the city you can get a feel for how divided the people were.
We pass “sí” art in El Alto. El Alto is poor and the people are mostly of indigenous origin. They were inclined to support Bolivia’s “first indigenous president.”
By our casual observations, the fairly well-off Sopocachi neighborhood seemed to have more “no” graffiti. In the nearby Parque Urbano Central, we saw this message:
It says: “reelection + corruption = Venezuela.” It’s a reference to the anti-democratic maneuverings of the late President Hugo Chavez and current President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. This is one for the “no” camp.
But you can’t oversimplify. Here’s a “no” in the middle of the countryside north of El Alto:
I like this “no” tag, below. “Evo” and “no” are overlaid. Someone from the “sí” camp countertagged it.
“Sí” supporters often mentioned popular policies in their graffiti. Here someone linked a “sí” vote to the nationalization of the energy sector.
Another interesting message we kept seeing was “no soy cara conocida” graffiti. (I’m not a familiar face). Before and after the referendum, a sex scandal hounded Evo Morales. Years ago he had an affair with a teenager that resulted in a baby, which didn’t survive. (Or did. Or never existed). The woman went on to become a lawyer and an alleged influence peddler, linking a Chinese company to the government.
Trying to distance himself and explain away a photo supposedly showing a continued relationship that he had denied, he said “Yo vi a una mujer que no recordaba bien, cara conocida que se me acercó y era Gabriela (Zapata) [the mother of his illegitimate child].” (I saw a woman who I didn’t remember well, a familiar face that came closer and it was Gabriela).
The “no” campaign used the scandal to its advantage and you can find “no soy cara conocida, mi vota is no” graffiti around La Paz (I’m not a familiar face, my vote is no).
It’s also a popular internet meme.
The scandal may have tipped the balance against Morales.
If by sea
I’ll end with another theme we saw time to time. In the late 19th century, Bolivia lost its access to the ocean when Chile defeated it in the War of the Pacific. Landlocked Bolivia has mounted a campaign to regain sovereign access to the sea and recently took the case to the International Court of Justice.
On a little street in La Paz, someone wrote “queremos mar.” We want the sea.
Crime and victimhood, political power, international affairs. These are just a few of the conversations written on the walls of La Paz.
If you want to see where all the graffiti is, check out the map: