Old city paints a new life

There’s plenty of space for street art in Valparaiso and it helps attract tourists.
There’s plenty of space for street art in Valparaiso and it helps attract tourists.

IT WOULD be easy to bypass Chile's Valparaiso, thinking it yet another drab, dirty and decaying port city, and head for nearby swank Vina del Mar. Or the famed valley wine country. Or up the highway to the national capital, Santiago, 120km away.

If you did, you'd be missing one of South America's oddest, most interesting and most colourful - literally - cities.

It is a must-see destination, a strangely beautiful city and now widely believed to be Chile's greatest urban treasure - and much of that is down to a makeover that began with official, citywide walls of colourful and creative graffiti.

While most cities rush to cover up graffiti, Valparaiso - with the unlikely encouragement of an expatriate American poet Todd Temkin - has made a feature of the street art as part of the revamp.

Artists were given freedom to express their ideas or points of view, which could be social criticism, or any personal creation, as long as they made a contribution to the urban area. The idea has taken off.

Unique, eccentric, and hip - the hippest in South America - there's certainly a strong Bohemian flavour to Valparaiso, no doubt fuelled by a large student population at the city's nine universities. It was ideally placed to grab a graffiti-led revival.

The city is now a huge, outdoor art gallery.

The graffiti isn't seen as trashy or a symbol of rebellion. It is a healthy, honoured, genuine art form. It is made to tell stories, preserve a culture and maybe, send a political message.

From dreamlike wall paintings of glamorous women to political-style commentaries; from op-art, pop-art to classical forms.

Built on 42 rugged hills, the city forms a natural amphitheatre. Old Valparaiso is a labyrinth of narrow, uneven streets and lanes that wind around the saucer-shaped city. Some are so narrow they pose a challenge for passing motorists.

It's home to 300,000 artsy people, known as Portenos - and 5000 stray dogs. They inhabit ramshackle houses that cascade randomly down hills and valleys.

Its lively past was filled with pirate ships and gold trade. It was also a commercial success, home to global banks and businesses, and a stopover for ships sailing from Europe to California via Cape Horn.

All that came to an end after 1914 when the Panama Canal was opened. The port of Valparaiso lost its way. It began to decay.

When Temkin arrived in the 1980s he saw abandoned houses and terrible slums. Where others saw only hopelessness he saw another side of the city - a potential for a new Valparaiso.

If only the civic fathers could brighten and restore the old city, he reasoned. If only the faded, tumbledown houses could at least be given a lick of paint.

Temkin also saw the potential for graffiti to lead the city along a brighter path. With his urging, the city's government made supervised graffiti acceptable.

In the Chilean port city of Valparaiso, some street art has political overtones. An annual competition encourages professional artists to paint house walls.
In the Chilean port city of Valparaiso, some street art has political overtones. An annual competition encourages professional artists to paint house walls. Contributed

Milwaukee-born, Temkin, now 48, poet-turned-social-and-cultural activist, has since gone far beyond prompting the city's graffiti scene.

He is said to have also played an instrumental role in the transformation of Valparaiso into a major cultural centre and UNESCO world heritage site.

To find the city's most interesting parts you have to get behind the oldest part of the town around the port area and the congested flat, commercial district which suffered most in a devastating 1906 earthquake.

Early on, Temkin also targeted the unique Valparaiso ascensors, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed trolley cars or funiculars, much-loved by the portenos, carrying commuters up some of the steeper parts of Valparaiso's hills. Temkin spurred authorities on to restore five of the 14 ascenors, built between 1883 and 1916.

They are now used mostly by tourists. Travelling on them is one of the most popular tourist activities. So too, is riding the city's old trolleybuses. Take a camera - Valparaiso's street art makes the city a photographer's paradise.

The writer travelled at his own expense.

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Qantas has flights to Santiago from major Australian ports from $1399 return.

Staying there: RC DecoArt Hotel Boutique - and Family suites in Hector Calvo 389, Cerro Bellavista, from $AU131 to $AU219 a night.

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Topics:  chile graffiti south america travel

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