Under the dark sky of Argentina, the bus bounced along dirt backroads. We’d left Rosario an hour or so ago, and the distance had been filled mostly with visions of rural life. Civilization arrived in Acebal, and as we entered town I gazed lazily through the window. Pictures of quaint homes flashed by in quick session, when a four-eyed cat caught my eye. I blinked, unsure of what I’d seen. The bus carried on. Sabrina and I got off at her home, and I went to bed wondering about the mural.
I asked Sabrina about it the next morning, and as to who the artist might be.
“Oh yeah, I know him.” She said.
Acebal is a small town where everybody knows everybody.
“I’ll see if I can get his number.” She offered.
Later that day, I made for a strange sight to the townsfolk. While Sabrina and the family siesta’d, I went for a walk about Acebal. With the blazing midday sun overhead, I meandered through the village. Most people were inside at the hour, and those few out scratched their heads, bewildered by this unknown foreigner in their midst. I greeted anyone with a nod and an ‘hola’ and kept on, checking walls as I went.
I had a vague sense of the direction the bus had come from. Doing my best to retrace the tracks, I set off toward the edge of town. I rounded a corner to find three painted panels. They were propped on the back of a Telecom company. The discovery sent a thrill through my spine. If there were four, maybe there was more.
Hidden behind another intersection, I found a six-eyed puppy with tats. As I checked it out, a yappy doggo came bounding after me, barking up a storm. He looked like the mural. The rest of the afternoon I hunted. By the end of the day, my camera had bagged a tiger, a bear, two hearts, a skull, and the four-eyed cat. I returned home satisfied and sporting a wicked sunburn.
Sabrina talked to a friend’s friend or another and got the artist’s Instagram. While I found the murals, I wasn’t quite able to decipher the tag; written in perfect script, the letters looped illegibly. Sabrina answered the riddle; his name was Ariel. She worked her magic and set up a meeting for the end of the week.
Laura, Sabrina, and I set sat around sipping mate. She’d brought Laura along to make things less awkward for Ariel. Laura is herself an artist, and had worked with Sabrina on a photoshoot. We were sharing our argentine tea and crackers, when the doorbell rang. Ariel came up, skateboard in hand and a little sweaty from the ride. He took a seat, we made introductions, she offered some mate, I clicked on the mic, and we began to chat.
Both Ariel and Laura don’t speak English, and my Spanish is limited, so Sabrina operated as our translator. The three gossiped about the town some, while I noticed Ariel’s tattoos. Several were the same as his murals. I asked Ariel [through Sabrina] which came first. He explained all of his art began as drawings, and from there he would transfer them to whatever medium they evolved into.
“Cool.” I said. “So why animals, porque el oso… o el perrito?” I tried in broken language.
Ariel laughed. “Si, el perrito…” He explained the mural was based off his friend’s dog, named Pity.
“Ah, I saw Pity!” As I motioned with my hands to demonstrate the tiny barker. We all laughed.
Sabrina translated, “he paints what he feels, if he’s happy or angry…” as Ariel clarified the inspiration behind each mural.
He cited the skull. “It was a black and white day.”
Ariel has been making art since he was a kid and studied in college. Over the years, he estimated he’s done about twenty murals around Acebal, as well as a few in neighboring Rosario. [Though most in the city have since been buffed.] He lamented not having documented all of his work with photos. Scrolling through the insta, Ariel showed me a whale he’d painted in Brazil.
When it comes to technique, Ariel has practiced the gambit. In terms of street art, he works with brush or a spray can, and paints freehand as well as with stencils. Whatever the work calls for. Sometimes he’d set up a projector and trace the outline first. Or for the Bear, he broke the image down into sub-squares, and painted each box at a time. [That particular project took him twelve hours, 8pm to 8am.] Ariel talked about the difficulty in getting quality cans in Argentina; he preferred American brands. As to his spray knowledge, he noted art school didn’t cover street art; Ariel had learned his own way.
On the legality of his work, Ariel said it depended. If he knew the owner was nice, he’d ask. If not, he’d hit the wall on a late night run. He laughed recounting the time his mom called to tell him the police were searching for him. A landlord of a building he’d sprayed hated the work and made him buff it. We chuckled while he explained going to face the irate owner. It’s hard to hide in a small town… word travels.
Beyond the streets, Ariel is something of a renaissance man. He’s worked odd jobs, restoring old bikes and doing tattoo design. One his occupations is at a planetarium, the Espacio Lab in Rosario, where he combines art with technology. Ariel makes music mapping equipment for DJs, creating digital images to synchronize with the beats. But Ariel’s primary career is as a teacher.
Ariel has worked with different classes, schools, and ages, but likes working younger kids better, as they’re more eager to learn. Ariel beamed with pride as he demonstrated some of his student’s creations. He joyfully announced that one his classes was having an art show that Friday. Ariel teaches the kids a wide range of techniques and forms, beyond just painting. For Ariel, art is a form of self-discovery, and he enjoys helping the young ones find their path. A man with a soft heart, he also instructs a class for kids with disabilities. He showed us a colorful mural they’d created.
It was suggested we take a walk across town, and the four of us finished our mate and cookies. As we strolled, Ariel described what draws him to street art in particular. As Sabrina rendered his words, “[with street art] anyone can enjoy it. You don’t need to go to a museum.” The democratic nature of the medium is what rouses me as well. Unfortunately, life often interrupts passion and Ariel hasn’t had much time to focus on murals lately. This year, Ariel has been caught up between the planetarium, teaching, and theater.
Ariel joined a local playhouse, and recently acted in a show. It was a rendition of La Jaula de Las Locas, a play about the queer community in Argentina. The title, roughly translated means: The Cage, The Gays [Locas is Argentine slang for flamboyant folk.] The cast is made of trans and gay characters, and Ariel played one the transgender leads. In addition, he painted the backdrop.
As we toured the town, Ariel showed me some of his murals that I’d missed. Our search culminated in a colorful whale he’d done with the disabled children. Ariel created the design, and he gave each of the students’ balloons filled with paint to chuck at the wall. The kids loved it.
We wrapped up our day at a bus stop the artist had designed in honor of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The background was marked by a stencil of Argentina’s infamous missing man: Santiago Maldonado.* The two of us sat for a photo-op, and as Sabrina snapped some quick pics, I asked Ariel what was next.
He spoke of some upcoming projects in Rosario, including painting a skate park by the river. Laura, a rollerblader of great renown in town, was excited. We all talked some until the sun began to set. The four of us said our goodbyes, and later that night Ariel gifted me a drawing of his as thanks. I appreciated the gesture, and dig my new art.
As Sabrina and I made our way back to her family’s house, I reflected on the monotony of gray walls that marked the town. To think, among this quiet, quaint town of Acebal, there is a hidden oasis of art.
Written by T.K. Mills
Photos provided by T.K. Mills
For more by the author, check out tkmills.com
*Who is Santiago Maldonado? For the answer, come back for next week’s article on Argentina’s Political Graffiti. Only on Well Pleased We Dream.
Index of Instagrams
Sabrina – Sabrina Ortolani Photography