By Martin Smith | 25 March 2015
A few weeks ago I was wandering around a disused pub yard off east London’s Brick Lane when I spotted the piece of street art above.
Two things struck me: one was the real artistry of the work – it was like a polished diamond in a bed of flint. The second was the artist’s signature, Lapiztola.
Lapiztola are a Mexican street art collective that came to international fame during the uprising in Oaxaca.
On 22 May 2006, tens of thousands of teachers and administrative workers belonging to the National Union of Education Workers went on strike in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The teachers’ demands included increased pay, school uniforms and shoes for all students, more scholarships, and an increased budget for school buildings and equipment.
It was a militant strike. Workers and students occupied the colonial cities square, shut off highways, blocked government buildings and marked their territory with graffiti and street art. The most popular slogan was:
The movement has no leaders; it is from the grassroots!
On 14 June 2006 the local government sent riot police into the town square before dawn to demolish the teachers’ occupation. The police fired tear gas grenades from helicopters while more than 1,000 officers attacked the camp forcing the teachers and their supporters out of the square. Shortly after dawn the teachers regrouped, gathered 3,000 reinforcements, and retook the square.
The events that day saw the end of the teachers’ movement and the birth of a new social movement, a movement of the people. A movement that now called for the removal of the state governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. The struggle went on for four more months.
But the bitter struggle ended in a stalemate and brutal repression. International human rights monitors have accused the Mexican government of using death squads, summary executions and even violating Geneva Conventions standards that prohibit attacking and shooting at unarmed medics attending to the wounded.
One of the cultural legacies of the struggle was the political street art that it inspired – a defiant fist clutching a pencil, hooded figures throwing a Molotov cocktail, rioters carrying ghetto blasters. There were more subtle images of books, pencils and children carrying corn all of which the authorities deemed subversive.
The creators of this radical street art were the Lapiztola collective. Lapiztola is a pun on the Spanish words for pencil and pistol. The two key artists in the collective are Rosario Martínez and Roberto Vega.
In recent years, Lapiztola has used artworks to highlight state violence, the violence of Mexico’s drug barons, and the plight of the “disappeared” and of migrants.
So how has a Lapiztola mural found its way onto a wall in east London?
Last month they were invited to put up an exhibition in the area. It was not very well publicised and not very well attended – I only caught it on the last day and purely by chance. But true to their roots the collective left a beautiful mural for all to see.
Below are a couple of works (the first was on display at the Rich Mix and the second was a poster put up on a wall in Bacon Street):
This picture is called El pastel (The cake). It is made of dozens of paper doilies decorated with limbless torsos and severed heads. The artists are protesting at the way the drug cartels murder the innocents.
This picture was painted in Tijuana, on Mexico’s border with the US. It features a man with a brush scrubbing the stripes off what appears to be a zebra. However, as Vega explains to the Guardian’s Sam Jones, the animal is in fact a donkey painted to look like a zebra – a “zonkey”.
The “zonkey” was developed during the time when US tourists would flock to Tijuana to drink, gamble and party. One popular tourist pastime was to have your photo taken sitting on a donkey. Some of the donkeys they’d posed with for photos were too pale to show up well on film, so some budding entrepreneur painted their donkey to resemble a zebra. This caught on and dozens of “zonkeys” and their owners wandered the streets looking for trade.
The violence of recent years, however, has scared most of the tourists away from Tijuana. Now the city has no tourists, people are trying to reclaim their identities and their city: “So that’s why he’s washing the stripes off the donkey,” Vega says. “He’s saying, ‘You’re a donkey and not a zebra.’”