Textura: Valencia Street Art
by Luz A. Martin
Reviewed by Mason Riddle
There are, of course, endless reasons to go to Valencia. After all, it is in Spain, a country seared through with extraordinary food, wine, art, architecture, and humanity. But a center for street art? Who knew? Apparently, Valencia native and photographer Luz A. Martin knew. Her handsome, substantial book, Textura, builds an airtight case that Spain's third largest city is the mother lode of some of the most provocative street art anywhere.
Martin first encountered graffiti art more than a decade ago while working in London. But when she returned home, she discovered an entirely different graffiti aesthetic, one informed by a vibrancy of color and energy, which she attributed to Valencia's sharp contrasts of bright sunlight and deep shadows. Textura's text, offered in both Spanish and English, is supported by a rich archive of accurately toned and detailed images on matte paper, revealing that Valencia is an addictive place and its drug of choice the wall.
To make her point, Martin quotes the French photographer Brassai in an epigraph: "Wall, a refuge for so much that is forbidden, gives voice to those who otherwise would be condemned to silence. Eroticism and violence, elsewhere stigmatized as evil, find on walls a blank canvas." So walls are key. A Roman city that gained traction in 138 B.C. and was later occupied by the Visigoths, the Moors, and the Catalans, Valencia is resplendent with walls. Old, blistering, uneven, stuccoed, gouged, and marked by heavy doors and gated balconies, Valencia's walls are an indigenous and virgin resource for artists. Not surprisingly, the architecture of Valencia's historic center, Barrio del Carmen, has attracted the most provocative.
Martin also attributes Valencia's unique but eclectic graffiti aesthetic to the annual Las Fallas, a centuries-old festival held on the spring equinox, where people burn huge puppets and furniture in an act of purification to embrace the coming of spring. Fireworks are a mandatory finish to the festival. Says Martin, "It's not for nothing that Valencia is known as the city of light and color . . ."
Textura begins with a short essay by Martin and another penned by Nacho Magro, who also connects Valencia's street art to Las Fallas, but places its origins in late 1980s hip hop and break dancing as well. "The first tags came from the hands of young breakers who were influenced by images that they had discovered in books and documentaries," says Magro, citing New York graffiti style and "a blind admiration of African American culture" as influential. He traces the evolution of Valencia's street art scene through the 1990s, discussing its largely hybrid style. Magro also addresses the ephemeral nature of some of the art sheathing abandoned buildings and crumbling tenements. Interestingly, he identifies the political themes undergirding much of Valencia's most recent street art, noting the embedded sarcasm directed toward consumerism and politics.
Seven well-illustrated chapters feature interviews with seven graffiti artists whose tags are END, ESCIF, GRAFFILIA, JULIETA, NERO, ON_LY, and SAM3. Each is asked the same five questions and their answers reveal individualistic ideas on style, artistic authority, and the relationship of their art to the city of Valencia. With regard to the issue of tagging, NERO claims, "I demand recognition as an artist, and remain faithful to the authority of the work since I consider myself more a creator than an artisan. The individual stands above his creation." Such a position certainly flies in the face of 1980s art theory and politics of appropriation.
A 34-page chapter of compelling images, titled "Streets of Valencia," follows the artist interviews, leaving no question about the depth, breadth, innovation, and vision of street art in this cosmopolitan city of over 800,000 people. Martin's photographs are so dynamic that the reader feels the scumbled texture of the walls and sees the curling wisps of peeling paint.
In the closing essay, Gil-Manuel Hernandez i Marti addresses the scope of images produced in Valencia, from intimate to massive, from ancient religious to secular contemporary: "old Christian icons live next to new symbols of multiculturalism and alternative culture, all creating a sinuous and enticing web, a surreal and baroque scene that imprints, definitively, the particular character of the city." The English translation by the book's editor, Jake Davis, is pedestrian at points, although good enough to construct a useful context in which to place and understand Valencia's dynamic street art.
The true theatrical protagonist in this book, however, is not found in the writing but in the works of art themselves. Well produced and amply illustrated, Textura is a requirement for anyone interested in graffiti art, public space, artist's motivations, and, for that matter, Valencia. "The city's abandoned walls will continue to be painted and erased," writes Magro, "offering up new scenes through which a city that maintains itself through flames recreates its imagination . . . as long as there is wood to burn." Yes indeed.