5. Iconography


Many styles of symbols and pictorial systems clash on the edge of the city. One of the most interesting aspects to the edge of the city is that it reflects contemporary culture and contemporary cultural conflicts. It is after all being built now. Though there is an enormous amount of imagery there are not really that many different symbolic traditions on the edge of the city of one does not include the enormous wealth of different symbologies present in the religious sphere.

Cholo gang iconography- Cuautepec Barrio Bajo 

Cholo gangs find their origins in the culture of Mexican migrants to the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, specifically Southern California which is known as Sur 13, seen in graffiti as Sur XIII or Sur 3c. Another inheritance of these times is the over-sized clothing, sizes of Caucasian factory workers on much smaller Mexicans. The over-sized clothing became a sign of pride and respect for those came before. The cholo influence on the edge of Mexico City is due to gang-members who have been deported to Mexico.

The concept of pride is strong in cholo culture. It is reflected in the Gothic letters adapted for their graffiti, the spidery gothic being associated with all that is old and respectable, like court documents and banners of newspapers. The trademark of this style of writing is the “E” written as “3” known as the gangster e. Pride is reflected in monumental graffiti’s commemorating fallen or jailed gang-members. And what are cholo’s proud of?

They are proud of their neighborhood, of their capacity for violence, of time served in jail, of their loyalty to their gang, of the hardships they have passed through. They are proud of their Aztec heritage, as a symbol of their Mexican heritage and proud of having crossed the border. They are proud of being the same in both the good and the bad moments in life – la vida loca, the crazy life – a life that due to its contradictions and demands can never be harmonious or peaceful.

And this is the symbolism you see in their graffiti. Gang-membership personified as an idealized gangbanger, strong fearsome and fearless with an old-school moustache and fedora. The image of the happy and sad clown represents the tragedy and comedy of life. The virgin gives succor. A stepped pyramid can represent the Mexican origins of la raza. The pick-up truck can represent crossing of the border.

It is not surprising that a sub-culture with such a strong mythology and ethos spreads so rapidly, linked to the United States, appealing to pride and individual dignity accompanied a complete contempt for mainstream authority and a high degree of violence.

The iconography of malls – El Sendero Iztapaluca

Malls are alien environments on the periphery, vast and disconnected from local culture. This is one of their first symbolic appeals, that of novelty. Their sheer size is already something ne, the fact that they are closed off from the outside world is another. The translation of global to local culture leaves odd gaps.

Many stores have names which might seem cozy and neighborly, often with the English possessive, Dominoes, Appleby´s, Chili´s, Sam´s Club, as if there were a friendly Italian uncle Dominic, a waspish hardworking Mr. Appleby, Chili a hardworking Latino with a flair for hot sauces and, of course, Sam known and loved by all. Who would not want to go to friendly sounding tech place named RadioShack. On paper it sounds like a little village where everybody knows each other. Since advertising is about what people don’t have it is not strange to find this photonegative effect in malls. Only in the periphery of Mexico it translates differently. On the periphery people do tend to know each other’s names.

On the periphery of Mexico City these foreign names seem exotic, foreign and imbued with the superiority of first world tastes and processes. The arrival of a mall in a poor neighborhood feels like progress for the neighborhood. Buying something in that mall feels like personal progress. Though the merchandise is the same as can be found in the street markets of the Historical Center, the mere fact of buying it in a mall makes one part of progress.

Practically all lettering and images within malls are logos and advertising. Nor is it odd that it is precisely these symbols of identity that dominate the mall’s iconographic landscape. The mall on the edge of the city is a site for the construction of identity, the creation of an urban persona.

Pre-Hispanic iconographic elements-Iztapalapa

The historian Toynbee, who documented the lifecycles of civilizations, wrote that sometimes civilization submerges awhile, appearing to disappear, only to return once more centuries later. Sometimes this seems the case with pre-Hispanic indigenous culture in Mexico, where suddenly on some wall next to a highway or behind a sports field pre-Hispanic iconography will appear out of the blue.

The most common pre-Hispanic imagery in graffiti seems to be the stepped pyramid and the eagle warrior, not as part of a continuous tradition but rather as the evocation of the past. The warrior resonates as a symbol of the pride and the pyramid reflects accomplishment, the ability to build as part of a mythical origin.

Notably absent from graffiti are more precise pre-Hispanic figures, such as particular gods.

When however painting in the street becomes more artistically driven, the Mexican muralist tradition shows its influence. Specific pre-Hispanic motives, such as for example the gods Quetzalcoatl or Tlaloc become a much more common source of inspiration.

Where many specific pre-Hispanic images occur is in the universe of tattoos, where you see that people have very specific images of particular representation of one or another pre-Hispanic deity, particularly those associated with Mictlan or the underworld, the skull being a popular symbol in Mexico.

These images which are considered “tribal” by tattoo artists and often displayed by young people in the periphery of Mexico City. They are often accompanied by a rejection of modern occidental culture and social organization. This phenomenon is often dismissed as a form of pseudo-indigenism, because the people with the tattoos are not themselves indigenous, and there is quite a large cultural divide between conservative, rural indigenous Mexicans and progressive, mestizo, urban Mexicans. Still the use of pre-Hispanic imagery amongst the latter can be quite specific.

Finally where pre-Hispanic influence can also be seen is in the imagery of the calendars given by small businesses to their clients for the New Year. These will sometimes have images such as the sleeping lady and the giant who watches over her as an Aztec princess and a warrior with the volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl in the background. In this case it may be an indigenous shopkeeper making a playful allusion to his background to give his calendar a personal touch.

Tattoos – Ecatepec

Tattoos are an interesting outlet of local artistic talent, as well as an important indicator of social dynamics. People need to explain their tattoos to the people making them. Naturally these explanations lead to tattoo-artists being very well informed regarding peoples states of mind. The tattoo artist is a common presence on the peripheries of Mexico City, in his little parlor with a small waiting area.

Tattoos can have different functions. Only one of these is purely aesthetic body adornment.

Tattoos can also be a reminder of obligations or troubles overcome, as well as protective amulets. In prison gang cultures tattoos can be like a uniform, one you can never take off. On arrival in prison the tattoos can establish ones rank and accomplishments when there is no other form of identification. And faking such a tattoo can be dangerous if the other gang members find out, like impersonating an officer in the military. One custom is that a spider’s web is tattooed on the arm – meaning that someone has been to prison. Every new jail sentence is accompanied by a new circular thread being added to the web.

Among protective tattoos naturally religious symbols are popular. These can run from Jesus and the Virgin of Guadalupe to the Santa Muerte, though tattoos are prohibited by the Santeria, where it is considered a desecration of the body. Tattoos can also be symbols of personal commitment such as wolves, which fight for their pack, or lions that defend their cubs.

And the of course there are tattoos, which are adornments. These can be very global; the Japanese koi fish for example is popular. Fairies, butterflies, flowers and birds are also common adornments. Chinese dragons and written characters are also popular.

An interesting and very Mexican contribution to global iconography is the female clown-virgin-skull tattoo, usually the face of a sexy, young woman with stitches over the mouth and black circles around the eyes, the diamond pattern of a clown’s make-up and the cowl of the Virgin de Guadalupe. This combines various symbols with religious or gang-related connotations into one ornamental image without a clear meaning, except for vague associations with the different sources of the imagery.

A whole multicultural iconography is splashed over the skin of young people living near the edge of the city.

Hand-painted signage – Valle de Chalco

Hand-painted signage is still the norm in many parts of the edge of the city, such as Milpa Alta and Valle de Chalco, though computer designed signage is becoming increasingly prevalent. Rotulistas paint the facades of municipal buildings, schools, shops, private houses, vehicles, lettering names and addresses, products and publicity. Often the lettering is accompanied by paintings of iconic figures, such as Disney characters for a primary school or a cartoon chicken for a barbeque place. A beauty parlor could have the face of some blond model painted on the façade.

The letters of the signage varies greatly from gothic, scripts, san serifs and a whole gamut of often very old fonts. Sometimes fonts are appropriated and sometimes the painters themselves invent them. The lettering is practically always adapted to the spaces. The result is a typographically rich landscape full of curling alphabets and eccentric letters.

Often these painters themselves start as apprentices going on to start their own business once they are good enough, forming chains of masters and apprentices.

Hand painted signage is the norm in rural areas and it emanates a friendly, provincial atmosphere when it appears in the megalopolis. Misguided campaigns such as that by Pepsi Cola to provide shops with plastic signage with the Pepsi logo are diminishing the presence of the idiosyncratic hand painted sign.

One interesting role of rotulistas is to ward off graffiti. If someone is tired of having a wall graffitied he can contract a rotulista to paint a mural of some widely respected figure, betting that nobody will scrawl on a painting of Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, Jim Morisson, Marilyn Monroe or the Virgen of Guadalupe. Particularly beautiful are the scripts decorating taxis and buses on the periphery with their cursive loops. The incredible variety of hand painted signage is one of Mexico’s great and yet least studied graphic traditions.