The Writing on Mexican Walls Isn't Graffiti—It's 'Vernacular Branding'

A new book documents the tradition, commerce, and politics of colorful bardas de baile.
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Ghost & Co.

In central Mexico, walls are invitations to party. Since 1960, bardas de baile (loosely translated as "music walls") have illuminated exurban and rural areas with colorful, hand-painted advertisements for music, dances, and carnivals. Although these work of homemade graphic design share some of the characteristics of graffiti, they are not tags - and they are tolerated by the authorities. The new book Mexican Wall Painting: Bardas De Baile (Ghost & Co., New York) by Patricia Cué, a designer and design teacher at San Diego State University, examines these expressive painted letterings and the subcultures that have developed around them.

While going on car trips as a child from her hometown of Puebla (central Mexico), Cué was fascinated by the colors and the raw aesthetics of the painted wall signs that contrasted with the slick advertisements on actual billboards. Later, as an academic, she studied vernacular and traditional forms of design, deciding "to dig deep into how [the walls] were painted and by whom," she told me in an email. The project took five years to complete.   

These signs emerged in the 1960s with the rise of the popular music styles, like Tropical, Cumbia, and Merengue. The phenomenon also coincided with new urban sprawl, at which time laws prohibiting political and social murals on roadsides went unenforced. Nonetheless, photographic documentation of these signs was rare. "Until my book Bardas de Baile," Cué said, "this form of design and advertising hardly got any attention due to its ephemeral and informal nature and the fact that these signs and the events they advertise are considered low-brow culture in Mexico." Today, she added, "the popularity of the music coincides with the music from the north, 'El Norte,' the music of unrequited love, immigration, and drug dealers: Norteño, Duranguense, Sinaloense, and Narcocorridos."

Throughout Mexico (and for that matter, America), huge professional billboards advertise products and services from large, national or international corporations. Conversely, bardas are used mainly for advertising local concerts and dances, as well as political and social campaigns for health and education, all aimed at the lowest-income population. Bardas constitute a cheap and immediate form of marketing ($2 per foot as compared to $42 for a billboard) that speaks through scale, repetition, bright colors, and type communicating catchy slogans or the Americanized names of popular bands. And there are no restrictions on what they say or look like. 

"The sign painters or rotulistas never get special permits or pay any rent for the walls they paint on," Cué said. "The authorities tolerate and turn a blind eye to these signs when they are painted on public property such as underpasses, cemetery walls, and roadsides due to the social value of the events that they advertise and to the tradition behind these painted walls as part of Mexico's visual culture." In fact, she added, in this country known for political corruption, "Many of the rotulistas benefit from the protection of politicians for whom they paint political campaign walls." When private property is involved, sign painters pay the home owners with free dance tickets: "People prefer to have the local dance advertised on their outside wall than graffiti or simple decay."

The design "formula" for these signs was the same in all 12 states in central Mexico that Cué visited for her research. For rorulistas, she learned that creative authorship is not important. Their goal is produce works that looks like everybody else's so that it can be directly linked to a particular type of music event. "It is a type of vernacular branding," Cué writes in the book. "More than originality, craft and speed are most important." Change did occur in 1980s when a new style emerged for the Sonideros or DJs. Dimension and symmetry become newly important elements of the type arrangements, and visual effects such as metal and sparks -- in the style of heavy-metal band trademarks - started showing up.

"Today, the innovators are the children from the older generation of rotulistas or masters who often have very hard-earned degrees in graphic arts, graphic design, or even architecture," she said. In fact, these days rotulistas are likely to make a modest living "if they have a territory with enough walls that is, informally, theirs. They also need a van or pick-up truck to transport themselves and their equipment (paint, air compressor, and lyme) swiftly from one wall to the next, and a politician, impresario, or community leader who gives them work constantly." Most barda painters, though, have other jobs working as factory workers, car mechanics, farmers, or even in their own bands. What's more, there is frequent turnover. Bardas are usually painted two weeks before an event. For that period, other painters don't cover over the message; afterward those spaces are free to use.

Cué explained that tradition drives this craft: "The sense of belonging to a group that knows how to do something very well and being part of the events that bind a community together are the strongest motivations behind this work. Mexicans are formalists by nature, it in the beauty and comfort of repetition, pattern, and intricacy that we find ourselves most at home."

Cué did the book design, which is a tad deceptive; at first glance it resembles contemporary graffiti collections, part of a tired genre. Yet her approach is more documentary, peppered with informational graphics with critical explanations for what the painters themselves may not even think about when doing the work. It adds up to a chronicle of cultural vitality and raw design that, at least north of the border, is little known. "I have gotten to know my own country geographically and spiritually in ways I never imagined," Cué said of her research. "The work of the barda painters and their role as an informal yet traditional craft reveal many essential aspects from the Mexicans' culture and way of life that I would like readers to feel and understand. After all, we are neighbors."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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