The port city of Valparaíso in Chile was once one of the most important in South America. It was of great geographical significance and benefitted greatly from the California Gold Rush. As a result, Valparaiso became one of the wealthiest cities in the Americas during the 1800s, and was where wealthy immigrants and Europeans settled to create new homes.
Despite the danger of frequent earthquakes, the city blossomed and industry boomed, with the settlement stretching from the Pacific Ocean towards the steep mountains. However, when the Panama Canal opened in 1914 the city lost its status as the trade route and it gradually lost much of its wealth and glory. None the less Valparaiso’s vibrant history has created a truly effervescent and diverse present. The city now houses a fascinating contrast in its architecture; from extensively intricate colonial buildings, to brightly coloured, mish-mashed houses on the steep hills that rise up from the Pacific.
What makes Valparaíso such a fantastic place to explore are its steep, narrow, winding streets each boasting houses painted in such an array of colours that is near impossible to ever find two painted the same shade. This tradition stems from the days when citizens rushed to use the left over paint from docked ships in the harbour to paint their homes. This disorganised creativity continues on to the present day, as Valpo, as it’s affectionately known to locals, has since borne a graffiti revolution.
As soon as you start to tour the city it is clear that graffiti and street art is everywhere. What is special however, is that unlike in most cities, graffiti is not frowned upon by citizens. Instead it serves as a testament to the great artistic and cultural talent in Valpo. Since the 1990s, thanks to increased awareness of the city’s unique architectural heritage, projects have been underway to paint bright murals around the city and preserve its individuality. It is difficult not to be drawn in by Valpo’s unique imagery, where muralists and graffiti artists use irony and humour in their work to convey political messages about society. The artwork, coupled with the century old ascensores (outside lifts that take passengers up the steepest parts of the city) creates a definitive vibe of discovery as few cities demonstrate such an absorbing communal homage to creativity.
Despite continuing poverty and high crime rates in some areas, the city has burst back into life after a period of disillusionment. It is now a major scene for festivals, artists, exhibitions and concerts; it is the perfect environment for free expression and bohemian creativity. The continued and demonstrable respect for the graffiti and street art allows for a visual communication between the different sectors of the community. When you explore Valparaíso you are not only walking around a city full of history and contrast, you are in fact witnessing an explosive creation of culture, which unifies all strands of society, and strengthens its future through community spirit.