A commuter train hisses and squeals to an unexpected halt somewhere in Madrid; it’s 2004.
Someone has pulled on the palanca, signaling an emergency stop.
Having waited in the station for just this moment, a group of kids aged 13 to 16 suddenly swarms the tracks, spray cans of paint in hands. Two of their co-conspirators burst out of the train and join them.
A curious woman peers out the window, her makeup kit still in hand. Within seconds, it seems, the exterior of the steel train gets bombed in wild style.
The tags read: Vile1, Oveho, Snack and finally, the youngest of the lot — a tiny, energetic kid with a face speckled in paint and freckles and with short-cropped hair that clings to his head like a skull cap — polishes off in rough curves the street name he’s going by at that time — Rena.
“What’s Rena mean?” I ask Corona, who’s sitting next to me in Juanele HQ hand-rolling a cigarette.
“A character from the video game Tekken,” he says, chuckling, continuing to watch with me the grainy, handheld, black and white Hi-8 footage that depicts this graffiti crime and the earliest recorded birth pangs of a young street artist.
The formerly white iBook it’s playing on looks like it’s spent some time on the streets, as well.
“This looks really dangerous, Pol,” I finally say.
“Yes. Dangerous but fun,” he replies, laughing again.
The Big C
Pol sits observing three rectangles of brightly colored paint on the walls in front of him as if he were expecting them to move, or to talk to him.
There’s a small spiral-bound sketchpad lying on his crossed legs, a spliff in one hand, and a pencil in the other. After scribbling a bit, he gets up to walk around our high-ceilinged flat where a dozen other painters and street artists work on their own walls.
We’re all preparing for Juanele’s launch party, scheduled three days later on July 8, 2010. Pol asks a couple other artists if they need any help — holding a ladder or a paint bucket or creating outlines for bigger work — and he remembers to dribble some yellow and red paint on the business cards I’ve placed around the feet of the artists, hoping to end up with spontaneous souvenirs of the event.
But, that day, he does no more work on his own wall. I’d never watched a street artist paint before. So I was a bit worried.
But I shouldn’t have been.
By the time he’s finished, three of his signature, bald, yellow-skinned, long-necked, androgynous faces inhabit the three rectangles. Below the wall’s moulding, they’re uncharacteristically wearing clothes and holding the numbers 8, 7 and 0 in their laps — like shiny jewels, or like ancient Egyptians might hold an ankh.
An explosion of brain confetti erupts from the tops of their heads and spreads upward toward the ceiling. Up-top floats — either spuming out of or dripping into one of the head’s mouths — a spontaneously rendered 3D treatment of Pol’s tag.
“Why ‘Corona?’” I ask him almost a year later.
“Because I like the look of the letter C.” He shrugs, deadpan.
This time the answer makes sense to me. I’ve long admired what seemed like Pol’s natural gifts for hand-lettering — fitting naturally within a country known for fileteado and a profusion of professional typeface designers.
But Pol, unlike many of Buenos Aires’ street-art luminaries, has had no formal training in graphic design. Or painting for that matter. And yet he can produce stuff like this:
His affinity for experimental typographical forms was evident even at 14. Then, he resisted adhering to clichéd wild-style graffiti type and instead used it as a jumping-off point for his own crude style.
By the time he moved to Argentina from Spain and created the Corona persona in 2007, he’d decided that the obtuse code that trad taggers used to communicate with one another was not how he wanted to represent on the streets of Buenos Aires. Rather, he wanted anyone who looked to be able to read it, to know who he was.
Corona says that the people of Argentina — their openness, their onda — inspired and encouraged him to abandon the youthful rebellion of European Rena and embrace the spirit of community and collaboration characteristic of South American street art.
Similarly, the simple lines and shapes of his human figures — hairless, often nude, neither all male or all female, skin in non-human hues, eyes closed in zen-like contemplation — allow anyone to project onto them their own ethnicity, socio-economic class, and gender presentation.
It’s a conscious choice, Corona says, because all the outward markers — hairstyle, eye color, fashion — all signify class difference and stratification. Corona’s faces look alien but also comforting and familiar, inhabiting green rolling landscapes dotted with cozy houses and spreading trees. If it’s naive, it’s also self-aware.
The spirit of the house
A couple blocks down Marcelo T from Juanele HQ, there’s an abandoned kiosk which façade bears Corona’s marks — in this case, “870” in freehand aerosol. It’s probably the biggest example of Corona’s mysterious tag I’ve seen.
If you keep an eye out, you can find the same sequence of numbers all over the city, in various sizes and styles. I’ve seen it in every barrio I’ve visited. Um, except maybe Liniers. And, of course, it’s also on the wall to my left as I type this.
Sucre 870, Belgrano, Buenos Aires. As Corona admits, that address is in one of the most cheto neighborhoods in the capital but it was also home to what can best be described as an artist squat, if a legal one — two floors of an apartment building donated by the owner to local artists to use as they saw fit.
Corona was a member of that collective that threw parties, exhibited, collaborated and hung out with the idea of “doing some cool shit.”
870 lasted two fulsome years and Corona now paints the number to invoke the “spirit of the house.” When you see it, think of it as a reminder of how much is possible here, as a welcome and an exhortation: Come to Buenos Aires and paint.
The wall is the limit
Dipping the paint roller in the can, Corona then takes it to the curb and pours water across it from a plastic bottle. The color mixes with the yellow and the pink and the green already running in the street on the corner of Cordoba and Gascóns in Palermo.
He turns to the wall, tips it slightly at an angle and quickly limns what is both a rolling hillock and the torso of one his androgynous figures with a meter-long ribbon of maroon.
On the other end of the wall, fellow street artist and frequent collaborator Mart stands on a ladder outlining one of Corona’s houses and adding leaves to his trees.
Across the street from the bed of Mart’s cool-ass, white Peugeot pickup truck, the Juanele crew has been watching the two of them silently complete their collaborative painting, criss-crossing each other’s paths, painting over and under one another, all without seeming to get in each other’s way.
Every once in a while they cross the street to assess their work or take a smoking break.
Two friends of theirs shoot video — one of them from a skateboard which he eventually topples off of, breaking his camera — and dozens of passersby stop and check out the boys’ progress.
Only a petite, stoop-shouldered little old lady has anything negative to say. But Corona patiently listens to her rant and she finally moves off.
As I idly start counting the number of paint buckets and boxes full of aerosol cans, I spot coming around the corner a burly, barrel-chested man dressed in what looks like a paramilitary uniform. He’s a bit overdressed for a beat cop, at any rate.
He’s checking out the mess on the sidewalk like I am and talking on the phone at the same time. Neither Mart nor Corona pay any attention. I’m a bit worried since Juanele is sponsoring all this.
When he’s got a minute I ask Corona if he has permission to paint this wall. We’re right next to one of Buenos Aires’ biggest streets, after all. He says, no, but “In this country, I don’t think it’s necessary.”
I knew this, of course, and have said it many times on Juanele’s Art Walk, but I’d never actually witnessed the reality before. It’s strange to imagine that some 6000 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, some stuffy editor is having a hissy fit over MOCA’s graffiti and street art retrospective, histrionically objecting to it on the grounds that it glorifies vandalism.
In my 8 years as an expat I have often felt sorry for the silly restrictions Americans seem content to live under. On this sunny day, on a noisy street corner in one of the largest cities in the world, chatting, laughing, snapping pictures and watching two relaxed, paint-spattered guys turn a grungy urban wall into a work of art, I remember why I’m glad I left home, and also why I love my job.
In the last minutes before beginning to write this post, I e-mail Corona. I tell him, I’m stupid, but I don’t even know your real, full name.
Always seeming to be online when he’s not painting in the streets, he writes back almost immediately — Mi nombre es: Pablo Paul Pau Lloveras.
Yet, other than as Corona, I also know him as Pol.
So, he’s a 24-year-old guy with six names and he’s a son of three countries — family exiled from Argentina during the dictatorship, born in the south of France, raised in Spain and grown up as an artist in Buenos Aires upon his mother’s return.
Corona’s origins and onda seem quintessentially Argentine.
He’s right at home.