Iztapalapa Mural program transforms gray into bursts of color

Most sources in English about Mexican art say that Mexican muralism ended in the mid-20th century with the passing of great masters like Diego Rivera. But creative forces, most notably government art programs and street artists, took over to conserve socially-themed mural painting and to help it evolve.

There has been no shortage of mural programs in Mexico’s cities in recent decades, but the working-class Iztapalapa borough is taking it to the next level, with its “largest muralism project in the world.”

Iztapalapa Mural was conceived in 2018 by the borough’s Executive Department of Culture (Dirección Ejecutiva de Cultura) to “…recover and dignify public spaces through art.” The project runs jointly with other social programs such as the Free and Safe Roads for Women Program (Programa Caminos Mujeres Libres y Seguras), a borough-wide initiative to install lampposts along dark corridors. Perhaps more importantly, Iztapalapa Mural works intimately with the residents of the borough to get their input on what ultimately appears on the walls of their neighborhoods. 

Themes include local histories, traditions and people from the area’s Mesoamerican past, recent migrations from Oaxaca and other states, and notable Iztapalapa figures, from boxer Lupita Bautista to Doña Imelda and Don Reyes of Colonia Xalpa, two long-time lovers who were frequently seen walking hand-in-hand around the barrio.

Over the past five years, the mural project has involved almost 150 artists throughout 245 neighborhoods in creating 10,120 murals with a wide range of themes and styles. Not only do the murals appear on public buildings and separation walls, but they also appear on private businesses and homes, even on rooftops.

The murals make an impact on residents as well as those who commute to the borough. “We are particularly impressed by the murals depicting Day of the Dead on the walls of the San Lorenzo Tezonco cemetery,” says Margarite M. of the Miguel Hidalgo borough, referring to a part of her and her husband’s daily drive to their jobs.

In addition, Iztapalapa provides travelers a unique way of appreciating the murals with its elevated public transportation system. “Flying” over homes and city blocks, passengers of the ski gondola-like Cablebus can observe murals on the sides of buildings and artworks painted atop roofs. About 10% of the project’s murals are visible this way, making the gondola now something of a tourist attraction.

The former mayor of Iztapalapa, Clara Brugada Molina, states “Iztapalapa Mural is a project devised to vindicate the right of residents to have beautiful public spaces, recover a sense of community and [recover] spaces where abandonment has generated insecurity.” Maria Antonieta Pérez Orozco, Cultural Director at Iztapalapa adds, “You no longer have to see just a gray view [of unfinished cinder block construction], but one of color…as various artists [paint] on the largest open-air canvas in the world.”

But the mural program is more than just about beautification. 

“Iztapalapa Mural is also an opportunity to create artistic environments in our communities…(where) young people imagine a future filled with art, memory and participation, so that Iztapalapa can keep producing great artists, great sportspeople and women and men who are proud of [the borough]” says Pérez Orozco.

Working with programs to enhance women’s prominence and safety, female faces appear very frequently in over 10,000 murals. (courtesy Iztapalapa borough via Facebook)

Local resident Elizabeth Miranda Cedillo agrees. “This kind of mural work … has allowed young people I know in my neighborhood to change from doing graffiti to making real art [that is] well-structured in every way, demonstrating skill in depicting the real world,” Cedillo says. “These projects have allowed young artists to express dissent, painting something that refers to something that is happening at that moment in their lives, such as violence and aspects of local culture, using large, public spaces to acknowledge what these young people are feeling.”

From the start, Iztapalapa Mural took a page from similar projects that discovered that the more organizers and artists work with the local community to develop murals, the more successful these projects are, especially in the long run.

At first, it was somewhat difficult to convince residents to work in their neighborhoods, especially on the walls of private buildings, but those fears soon vanished. Pleased with what they were seeing, more residents started wanting murals, and the demand has not stopped since.

Large urban centers like Mexico City are awash in graffiti and other vandalism; but one thing you immediately notice while observing the murals is an utter lack of such.

Borough spokesperson Martín Favila Delgado confirms this is the case because “…the community participates in the creation of the murals, [the] themes… and even in the design.” Instead of imposing public art on them, residents become partners in the project and have a vested interest in the conservation of murals. This partnership is reinforced by programs for young people interested in art who become creators or artists of future murals.

By 2022, the Iztapalapa borough had become one of the largest open-air galleries in the world. The government has sponsored photographic exhibitions of the murals and in 2020, published the book “Iztapalapa Mural,” to extend the reach of the project and improve the borough’s image in Mexico City and beyond. 

Today, the project is far from finished. The goal is to have works in all of the nearly 300 colonias (neighborhoods) of the borough and bring the mural total to 15,000. Then there is the constant work of maintaining this gallery for years to come.

Although not originally conceived for tourism, the Cablebus is the best introduction to the murals, especially for those unfamiliar with the borough. The gondolas’ leisurely pace gives ample time to appreciate the artwork below and the neighborhoods these murals represent. The Cablebus is easily accessible from the center of Mexico City, starting at Metro Constitución 1917 on one end or Metro Santa Marta on the other.

With reports from Cultura Iztapalapa, El País, La Jornada, Televisa and Aristegui Noticias

Leigh Thelmadatter arrived in Mexico over 20 years ago and fell in love with the land and the culture in particular its handcrafts and art. She is the author of Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta (Schiffer 2019). Her culture column appears regularly on Mexico News Daily.

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