The Streets of San Jose: Interview with Costa Rica en la pared

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Before moving to Costa Rica, my knowledge of what the art scene here was going to be like was limited. I knew little beyond a few successful local artists, like contemporary abstract painter Federico Hererro, or the sculptor, Jimenez Deredia. However, one of the most exciting aspects of San Jose I have discovered so far is the vast amount of incredible street art. With architecture as likely to be white as it is to be a soft pastel yellow, burnt orange, or a saturated blue, the tags and murals blend in with the colorful structures but also stand out individually as high caliber works. Especially in hip neighborhoods like Barrio Escalante, the artworks painted on exterior walls seemingly equal or outnumber the ever growing amount of trendy restaurants, bars, and cafes. This led me to the questions: how, why, and most importantly, who are these artists? 

On Instagram, I found a virtual hub of the street art scene in the area, aptly named Costa Rica en la pared (Costa Rica on the wall). Founded and run by a charismatic young Tico (local slang for ‘a native Costa Rican’) named Mario Molina, the organization currently coordinates tours and events that showcase the city’s great talent in street art. I sat down with him recently to discuss his interest in urban art, the history of graffiti in the city, and what he aims to achieve by continuing to grow Costa Rica en la pared.

First, a bit of history. He explains that street art began in earnest in Costa Rica around the late 90’s. The roots of the artists working today can be traced back to two major graffiti writers from the US and one from Nicaragua who became integrated with skate culture here during this time. For many years, however, the style of the work being produced was restricted by the kinds of paints and materials that were available. Fast forward about ten to fifteen years and once better quality spray paints arrived, there was a noticeable shift in the color palette and in the complexity of the art being produced. Rather than just graffiti, more murals began popping up after 2010. Additionally, the new generation of urban artists have access to digital tools that help them create their works and that many also have backgrounds in graphic design or related fields. The combination of better tools and more experienced talent caused a proliferation of quality street art in the past several years - this was a significant part of the impetus for launching Costa Rica en la pared. 

Mario has always been interested in art and has a genuine love for the nature and street culture of the area where he grew up. Though he began in a different field of study, he eventually pivoted to pursue a degree in tourism at the Universidad Internacional de las Américas, which he will soon be completing. After working at a restaurant for some time as a barista, while developing an interest in photography on the side, he left to pursue his interest in urban art. He does create tags periodically that focus on themes of social justice, but the motivation behind starting Costa Rica en la pared wasn’t about promoting his own work. Instead, he wants to act as a medium through which the local community can connect with street art.

One would assume that such a strong presence of street art and graffiti must be funded, organized, or supported in other ways as is the case with Miami’s Wynwood Walls or Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Project. According to Mario, however, besides a few murals that were commissioned by brands, artists are largely producing these works by themselves. Even without explicit permission, most artists don’t encounter issues with the authorities and often tag their work with their social media handles. Nevertheless, passively accepting that urban art is being created in your neighborhood is not the same as actively supporting it. This is where Costa Rica en la pared comes in. 

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Mario founded his organization around three years ago and initially began reaching out to the artist names he would repeatedly see around the city. Recognizing their distinctive codes and tags, he would find them on Instagram and ask to hear about their stories. Most were open and very willing to speak with him. Based on these interactions, he started to share what he had learned via series of posts on his Instagram page (@costaricaenlapared). These stories shared alongside strong visuals and a catchy hashtag has drawn a lot of interest over the past few years and his handle has now reached over fourteen thousand followers. While an interest in marketing and an eye for photography have surely helped grow his audience, what is unique about Costa Rica en la pared is its well-honed voice. He places a clear emphasis on social impact and supporting local artists in a way that nobody else is at the moment, with the ultimate goal being to have tourists and locals alike better understand and appreciate the urban art all around them. 

His other main source of engagement in addition to social media are walking tours that he calls urban art safaris. As he and the tour participants navigate various neighborhoods throughout the city, Mario leads the group in a discussion that is equal parts art, history, and sociology. His love for what he does is evident as he lights up when I ask him who are a few of his favorite local street artists. He considers the question carefully and ultimately settles on three that he pulls up on Instagram to show me. The first is @ulillo, an abstract muralist who promises one public art project for every private one he completes. Then there’s MUSH @mushongo, who Mario respects for his “purist”, old school style of lettering done with spray cans and praises as one of the influential pioneers of the graffiti movement in Costa Rica. Finally, he tells me about @negus_artevida, a talented tattoo artist in addition to mural and graffiti artist, who Mario describes as someone who creates big productions with significance and is a supporter of the old school style like MUSH.

As our conversation winds down, I ask him to tell me about what else he has planned for the rest of the year. He will keep hosting tours and planning events and he recently began selling t-shirts to help raise funds to support more street art projects. The talent is there, but what’s missing is someone to manage the logistics of connecting potential sponsors with artists. With his passion, it’s clear that he’s the right person for this job. He will be adding additional members to his team shortly so that they can continue to expand their reach, build partnerships with local hotels and hostels, and complete their first fully funded mural in barrio Aranjuez. From there, he hopes to eventually move beyond the city to other towns across the country. After all, he says, it’s not San Jose en la pared, it’s Costa Rica en la pared. 

Article by Alicia Puig
Featured in Issue 15!