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July 23, 2014

La Tabacalera: Madrid's home for legal graffiti

Once-vacant building in Lavapiés neighborhood gives city's street art a home.

By Brittany Strickland

MADRID — La Tabacalera is not your average art gallery, and its collection of “street art” does not fit conventional or orthodox categories for artistic expression.

Located in the Lavapiés neighborhood of south Madrid, La Tabacalera is the “result of grass root organizations and the interest of average citizens to offer self-sufficient alternatives to government or big corporation sponsorship of the arts,” said Victor Gonzalez, a Madrid resident. “One of many concerns of those who have made La Tabacalera a reality is the threat of gentrification as experienced by other neighborhoods in Madrid.” 

Many of the interior walls of
La Tabacalera are de fact art
exhibition spaces and canvases
for art that outside its walls would
be considered by the city to be
(Photograph by Brittany Strickland)

Since opening in June 2010, a spacious building that stood vacant for more than 10 years has had its walls transformed, both inside and out, to become exhibition spaces for works of art. 

The artists affiliated with La Tabacalera sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of the law, so they prefer to be referred to by their pseudonyms, aliases that reflect some aspect of their personalities and interests, according to Ciril23, one of La Tabacalera’s founding artists.

Ambiguous Definitions

The artists of La Tabacalera consider their work to be more complex inside the building than their art you might find out on the streets, because as a legal context for their work, La Tabacalera gives them more time and control over their work, according to Nemo’s, another of the pseudonymous artists whose work you can find in Lavapiés. He is a visiting artist from Milan who has been granted a wall at La Tabacalera to exhibit his art.

“The legal part is very important,” Nemo’s said, in reference to the freedom of expression La Tabacalera provides for the artist. “It is one of the best places for this [legal graffiti] in Madrid, for this in [in all of] Europe.”

Murals on display on the outer walls of La Tabacalera
in the Lavapiés neighborhood of Madrid include one by
Ruina, left, and Sabek.
(Photograph by Brittany Strickland)

Out on the streets, the art must be done quickly, before the artist is stopped or even arrested. Artists’ tags or names can commonly be found spray-painted on the walls and public surfaces of Lavapiés. (A tag is the name or symbol an artist uses to self-identify. Some tags are simply names, while others are elaborate graphical depictions.)

The art at La Tabacalera, in contrast to a tag or the type of graffiti common out on the streets, has more fully formed artistic ideas and imagery because the legal sanction the complex enjoys allows the artists both time and artistic freedom. 

Meanings on the walls

For his part, Nemo’s said he tries to portray the human experience, especially the wear and tear of everyday life.

He calls his technique “before and after” collage. His process follows several steps:

1. He paints the skeleton of the body he will be depicting.
2. He uses recycled newspaper from France, newspapers that lend the artworks a flesh-colored hue.
3. He then covers the skeleton with the paper to create a distorted human figure.
4. Once the newspaper is in place, he paints details of the body and finishes out the image.

Once he has completed his work, the passage of time and changes in weather take over. The elements slowly wear the paper off to expose the skeleton underneath. Thus, his technique he calls “before and after.”

During a recent visit to La Tabacalera, Nemo’s was working on an image he said depicts a man dying in a cage, a piece emblematic of the artist’s view and approach to his art. Life, he says, is a gradual wearing and tearing of the body and mind. His objective, therefore, is to evoke sadness, “because we live in a sad and negative world,” he said.

Other artists take a more political approach.

Ze Carrion paints “what people don’t want to see,” he said. “I paint about hunger and hard images, police violence and killers. I paint about the control of the telephone and the control of the networking.”

He said he hopes that people will see his art as a sort of revolution.

Both murals shown in this photo taken inside La Tabacalera are by
Chilean street artist Ciril23. (Photograph by Brittany Strickland)

Ciril23, one of the oldest artists at 46, said he tries to “find a way to get all those experiences that the human being had a long time ago and bring it back to the present day. I try to understand things about our nature, far from religion or politics or something like that.”

Taking it back to the streets

Though the artists say they use La Tabacalera as a safe space for presenting their art, they still take their art to the streets, because they say that is where it all began.

“Street art gives everyone the opportunity to see art,” Ciril23 said, “especially someone who may have otherwise not had the chance to see it.

Lavapiés resident Yago Torroba said he appreciated the color that street graffiti brings to an otherwise gray cityscape.

“We live in a gray city—all concrete—and I like the colors,” said Torroba, “I think if you find one graffiti, yes it might be dirty, but if all the street is painted with it then the street is beautiful.”  

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What is La Tabacalera?

A tobacco factory as recently as the 1990s, La Tabacalera is divided into two parts: One is an exhibition space administered by the Madrid city government for display of artwork from various artists. The other is dedicated to a project called the Self-Managed Social Center of La Tabacalera, according to La Tabacalera’s website.

The social center allows artists to use its walls to display their work with the promise that they will lead art workshops once a week for aspiring artists and painters. Among these workshops is one called El Keller, a workshop offered since La Tabacalera opened in 2010, said Ciril23, one of the artists who use La Tabacalera.

A German word, “keller” translates in English as “cellar” or “basement,” according to El Keller’s website The name also refers to La Tabacalera’s gray past and its winding tunnels.

La Tabacalera is open to the public on Sundays and Mondays; visitors can stroll through its more than 9,000-square feet of illustrated walls. Workshops are held Tuesday through Saturday. The complex also hosts special exhibitions, concerts and a swing dancing club.

Everything at La Tabacalera is done by the people who run and support it, said Ciril23.

“It is kept up with no monetary gain or help from the [city] council or government, which only grant us permission to use the building,” he said. “Every year or so we must turn in a paper or document of all that we have done and ask for more time [to occupy the building], and the city council has to approve of it.”

The artists are free to use the building until and unless the city council decides the city needs it for another purpose, he said, making La Tabacalera’s as an artspace a fragile one.

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