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.
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."

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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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