Let’s be honest. I’m not an art guy. Many of you may know this already. I don’t get why the Mona Lisa is special, I despise “modern art” nearly as much as I despise “contemporary art” even though I can’t tell you the difference, and I still can’t believe four mothers named their sons after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But Valparaiso street art goes beyond all of that. It beautifies a city while defining its culture.
For Cassie and me, Valparaiso was a day-trip from Santiago, sandwiched between our busy itinerary of wine tours and more wine tours. We went with our great friends, hopping a 90-minute bus from Santiago. Then we grabbed a free tourist map and started wandering around. We had no particular destination. We just knew we had to find lunch, and, given how close we were to the sea, lunch had to include fish.
Valparaiso has two different terrains. The port and the hills, called cerros. These are right next to each other. There are basically two or three main streets at sea level, and then the hills stab out of the ground, forcing you to walk up stairs or hop on ascensors to get around. We would’ve gotten miserably lost, except we found a free tour, which was an awesome way to see the city and learn about its history.
I don’t want to get into a detailed history of this beautiful city here, but I do want to give you a quick overview, since Valparaiso has a pretty fascinating rise and fall and subsequent rise. Valparaiso was a fairly quiet, small city until Chile’s independence in 1818. That opened the city up for international trade and made the city the main harbor for Chile’s navy. Valparaiso was uniquely positioned to take advantage of all of the ships navigating around Cape Horn and through the Straits of Magellan.
Valparaiso flourished. The city has South America’s first stock exchange, first volunteer fire department, first public library, and a whole bunch of other firsts. The city’s Golden Age hit full stride around 1849, thanks to the California gold rush. Suddenly, everyone wanted to reach the west coast, and they had to go through Valparaiso to get there, making it one of the richest cities in South America.
All of the fun ended in 1914 with the opening of the Panama Canal. It became much easier and much faster not to go through Valparaiso. The city went into a major funk that lasted more than a hundred years. Only recently has the city begun to seriously recover, thanks to increased use of the port and increased tourism, in large part due to Valparaiso street art and the old city’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Want more info about the history of Valparaiso? Check out this page.
Wait. One more quick point. Valparaiso is one of the most earthquake-prone cities on the planet. Some of the world’s strongest earthquakes seem to have ruthlessly targeted this city.
In many ways, Valparaiso is the South American equivalent of Marseilles: a great city with a bad reputation. Marseilles is gritty and edgy, a bit raw and rough around the edges, just like Valpo. And that’s why we love both cities. We grabbed a lunch of ceviche and beer in a neighborhood just outside of the port, only to have our tour guide tell us a short time later that we should not go to that neighborhood because it was too dangerous. Spoiler alert: we survived.
Somewhere – and I don’t remember where – I saw a quote that said something to the effect of “Character is the opposite of perfection.” If no one claims that quote as their own, I consider it mine and will sue everyone who uses it without linking back to my site. On the other hand, if this is your quote, please don’t sue me. I meant no harm. But enough legal negotiations. Back to the quote that may or may not be of my own devising. “Character is the opposite of perfection.” That’s so true. The things that are imperfect about a place or person or experience define that place or person or experience.
This is particularly poignant in the case of Valparaiso, and nowhere is this more obvious than the street art. In most cities, spray painting walls and painting sidewalks are discouraged. Vienna has not a single drop of spray paint on its urban roads, instead giving the street artists an entire section of wall by the river. Valparaiso is just the opposite. Spray painting and graffiti aren’t just allowed; they’re encouraged. Of course, the more skill you have, the more encouragement you get. It’s Valparaiso street art.
A short walk in any direction in Valparaiso will reveal sprawling pictures of myriad hallucinatory imaginations. The art does the LSD for you. A giant octopus, its tentacles reaching forward and back, toward the street below and the windows above. A multicolored squid with legs, climbing the once red bricks of an antiquated wall. A scene that I’m pretty sure is straight out of Alice in Wonderland, though what part I can’t for the life of me remember. There is no order as to where these pictures are. You just pick a neighborhood, wander around, and you’ll stumble upon Valparaiso street art between your random assortment of rights and lefts, ups and downs.
The art is very different than, say, Philadelphia’s murals, which depict specific scenes or people. Though the Valparaiso street art may be symbolic of historical events, it is straight out of someone’s mind. Sometimes, it looks like it’s coming from the deepest, darkest recesses of that mind.
In some ways, art is a reflection of life here, and vice versa. The art is colorful and eccentric and creative. The people are too. Take note of that as you walk around. The art is representative of the people.
Back in 2012, Valparaiso held a graffiti street art festival on Cerro Polanco, cleverly called Polanco Graffestival, a name which probably rolls off the tongue better in Spanish than English. Some 70 graffiti artists from around South America were invited to the city to add their flourish to all of the Valparaiso street art. They turned the neighborhood into an open-air museum, creating more than 30 works of graffiti art on the streets of the city. Instead of trying to rid the city of graffiti, the locals embraced it, making Valparaiso one of the world’s capitals for street art.
Seeing street art when you’re in Valparaiso is like seeing the Great Wall when you’re in Beijing. It’s something you’re absolutely going to do. This isn’t a quick thing. You take a whole day, and you walk around casually, grabbing a coffee in the morning, a beer in the afternoon, and more beer in the evening, enjoying the array of street art in between.