Bookmark and Share

July 24, 2014

Madrid’s Street Art: Vandalism or civic good?

The city’s public spaces have become surfaces for expression on issues such as public policy, the economic crisis and everyday life in Spain.

By Brittany Strickland and Bailey Powers

MADRID – If you want to know a city, look at its walls and read its public surfaces. Here, you will encounter what local artists call the Madrid Street Art Project, a coordinated effort to turn public space into exhibitions of street art.

Based in the city’s working-class Lavapiés neighborhood, the Madrid Street Art Project is a non-profit organization that supports, highlights and promotes urban artwork by offering the public guided tours and workshops with local artists, among other activities.

Guillermo de la Madrid Heitzmann, co-founder of the
Madrid Street Art Project, on a graffiti tour through the
Lavapiés neighborhood. (Photograph by Bailey Powers)

Co-founder Guillermo de la Madrid Heitzmann said he and fellow local graffiti art enthusiast Diana Prieto Martín established the Project in 2012 in order to “encourage citizens to enjoy and support the creation of urban arts, as well to contribute to the discussion of artistic expression in public spaces around the city.”

The Madrid Street Art Project’s motto makes it clear that its artists take the term “public space” seriously, as space to be used by the public. The Project’s motto, translated from Spanish: “The truth is that the streets are common space for everyone to express ideas and convey beauty. They are vehicles for artistic creation and appreciation.”

A widely shared belief in Lavapiés is that “the art in the neighborhood is a welcome addition,” because otherwise the area could reasonably be judged to be “non-aesthetically pleasing,” Heitzmann said, politely.

Long-time Lavapiés resident Victor Gonzalez agreed, saying that “people in the local neighborhoods by and large view street art as a wonderful way to make beautiful what would otherwise be abandoned or unused space.”

Patrice Olivar, a new resident of Lavapiés, described the street art as “beautiful,” both aesthetically and functionally. She said the art gives the neighborhood color and makes it “different.”

For Lavapiés gelato shop owner Maria Rodriguez, the street art is much preferred over what is more common in urban areas – profane-laced graffiti.

“I prefer that the artists create pretty colorful work, because it brightens the neighborhood,” she said. 

Meeting opposition

In the face of resistance from the city, it has not been easy for Heitzmann and Martín to organize and sustain such a civic project, Heitzmann said.

“Madrid can be quite hostile to the art on the street,” he said. “There are not many city-driven initiatives that support street art aside from projects such as La Tabacalera Promoción Del Arte and The Madrid Street Art Project.”

The Madrid Street Art Project works with La Tabacalera, a former abandoned tobacco factory-turned-artspace, to promote street art in the local community through organizing various activities such as urban safaris (tours) and workshops with local artists.

Madrid’s street artists turn the city’s
public spaces and surfaces into
canvases for their work. These
lampposts are in Lavapiés. (
Photograph by Bailey Powers)

La Tabacalera, which is also located in Lavapiés, is primarily an art gallery, but not as most might think of that term. For the past four years street artists have filled the government-funded building with their art, transforming a building that stood vacant for ten years (see related story). These artists have transformed its walls, both inside and out, into works of art for the public to enjoy.

Madrid controls what artists can and cannot do in public spaces, but without input from the artists or from those who appreciate what they are trying to do, Heitzmann said.

“The artists find the laws to be hypocritical,” he said. “The city council is essentially saying that while the streets are a public place for the public to use freely, there are still restrictions on how the spaces can be utilized.”

The tug-of-war over how and where artists can express themselves underlines the importance of La Tabacalera, which is sanctioned and even subsidized by the city. There is also a “legal” graffiti wall in the Atocha neighborhood of the city, site of the commuter train bombings by Al-Qaeda a decade ago.

 See their work

The slide show, “Filling the gap: Madrid Street Art”, features the work of several of La Tabacalera’s affiliated artists.

Here is some background on a few of the artists, whose work you can see in the accompanying slideshow. To protect themselves against reprisal from “official” powers, they use pseudonyms.


“Before and After,” a collage
by the pseudonymously
named artist Nemo’s, involves
first painting a human skeleton,
then covering it with newspapers
that over time flake away to
again reveal the skeletal bones
(Photograph by Bailey Powers).

Nemo’s, whose name translates from Latin as “No one’s,” said he began spray-painting 10 years ago in Milan, Italy. Because such spray painting is illegal, he said he found it difficult to express himself until he found refuge at La Tabacalera.

Because it is effectively sanctioned by the Madrid’s city government, La Tabacalera provides street artists spaces and surfaces for artists to safely spend as much time as they want to complete their pieces; they don’t have to run from the law or surreptitiously paint at night or on the move.

His most recent piece at La Tabacalera, a “before and after” collage, took him about a week to complete before it was posted to his personal website for the public to view.

Most of the Milanese artist’s work centers on images of a distorted body.

“I am trying to give a voice to the negative aspects of the human race through my work,” Nemo’s said.

Graffiti artists have inspired his work, he said, including that of Banksy, a pseudonymous artist based out of the United Kingdom. Nemo’s does not follow Banksy’s direction in terms of style, but he said he is inspired by Banksy’s subversive imagery and his need to have his work mean something to the world.

“I hope that viewers of my work find deep meaning on a personal level,” Nemo’s said.

 Ze Carrion

In a mural by street artist Ze Carrion, Spain’s previous
king, Juan Carlos, is portrayed as the an uncaring version
of a fast food “burger king,” borrowing visual elements
of American burger chains McDonalds (Ronald McDonald)
and Burker King (a gold crown).
(Photograph by Bailey Powers).

Ze Carrion said he has been painting illegally and legally for 18 years. What started as a childhood hobby turned into lifelong work.

 All artists hope that they convey a message to the viewer through their work, he said, and for his work specifically, he said he hopes to “to shed light on governmental control of public communication, such as the government’s control of the telephone lines and the Internet.” Another topic for Ze Carrion’s work is police violence.

A range of artists inspires his work, he said, from the Spanish great Diego Velázquez to Banksy, a well-known graffiti artist, film director and activist based in the United Kingdom.

Ze Carrion said he feels that graffiti and art have grown together to become one entity, and that he hopes “to close the gap between artwork viewed as vandalism and art viewed as a masterpiece.”


Ciril23 painted this sea-themed mural inside
La Tabacalera, which gives what would be street art a
legal and controlled environment and surface.​ “Words
are not my thing,” he said. “I like to portray human
thought through images rather than use words.”
(Photograph by Bailey Powers).

Originally from Chile, Ciril23 said he has been painting for nearly 30 years. His work goes against the mainstream because he said he is “drawn towards the idea of human experiences found in nature.” In embracing nature, Ciril23 said he is avoiding politics and partisanship.

Ciril23, who helped found La Tabacalera four years ago, said he cares a lot about the context of his pieces that are painted illegally, that he likes that his work on the streets gives everyone the opportunity to see his art, “especially someone who may have otherwise not had the chance to see art.”

His viewers do not need special knowledge to enjoy his work, he said, making the streets and alleys a perfect venue for what he does.

Related links:



Back to Madrid as text home page.

Madrid as text articles.

Victimhood in Madrid: How best to remember city’s fallen

Spain’s past is full of anguish from terrorist attacks to war.

How Madrid remembers and forgets the Franco era

Almost 40 years after Franco’s death, the dictator’s legacy is still disputed.

From Gray to Green: The Madrid Rio Project

What was once a 10-lane highway is now a park that brings inner and outer Madrid into a shared green space.

Catholic Church still a cornerstone of Spanish culture

Exploring the complex relationship Madrileños have with Catholicism and religious expression.

Partying in Madrid: In the pursuit of forgetfulness and fun

Whether it's the music, the drinks or the dancing, each aspect of partying provides freedom for Madrileños

Public Expression in Madrid: 'The streets belong to us'

For Madrileños the use of public space for expression is a basic right

Famed Madrid restaurant Sobrino de Botín relies on family

The González family has owned and run Sobrino de Botín for three generations, but will the fourth generation continue the tradition?

Madrid’s Street Art: Vandalism or civic good?

The city’s public spaces have become surfaces for expression on issues such as public policy, the economic crisis and everyday life in Spain.

La Tabacalera: Madrid´s home for legal graffiti

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

Soccer in Madrid: 3 Teams, 1 Sport, 1 People

Soccer, or futbol, in Madrid is more than just a sport, it’s a lifestyle.

Madrid as text videos and photo slideshows.

Republic and Monarchy: Can They Coexist?

For the first time in decades Spain has a new king while at the same time proclaiming a democratic government.

Forgetting to Spit

Spain finds difficulty in dealing with its past.

A Day in the Life of Puerta Del Sol.

A first hand look at a day in the life of one of Madrid’s most popular and visited spaces from the perspective of the plaza itself.

Street artists add character to Madrid's center

Entertainers create a fun atmosphere in a historical setting in Madrid.

Green space as public space, the part it plays in Madrid life

Balancing the grey with the green.

Corpus Christi, a central celebration for Spanish Catholics

A look into the process and celebration of the Corpus Christi holiday.

The Night Life of Puerta de Sol

Puerta de Sol is the beating heart of Madrid’s nightlife, serving as the central hub of activity in the city.

The Art of Protesting in Madrid

Economic turmoil and a royal abdication send more Madrileños to the streets to express themselves.

People come together around food and the places it’s eaten

Food is more than a meal to Madrileños, it's intended to be enjoyed with those that they love

Madrid street art fills the neighborhood with color

Transforming Lavapiés into a work of art.

La Tabacalera: a gallery of graffiti in Madrid

Building in Lavapiés revamped for local artists from the inside out.

The 3 Faces of Madrid’s Soccer

Soccer club fandom in Madrid often follows cultural and class differences.
$bt = BlockType::getByHandle('comet_chat'); $bt->controller->usersList = 'all'; $bt->render('view'); ?>