Text of the book “COLOR, CARNAVAL y RESISTENCIA” by Pablo Aravena. (Editorial Albin Michel)
Inti Castro, artistically known as INTI (meaning sun in Quechua), is one of Latin America’s foremost street artists and an artistic ambassador to the world. Coming from a family dedicated to the arts and music, he started tagging the streets of his hometown Valparaiso at the age of 13. Working on the street gave him a freedom to explore from the earliest days of his artistic practice. Yet whilst the wall was his natural medium, he also went through formal artistic studies at the Fine Arts School of Viña del Mar. There he acquired the rigor and training of a professional painter. Life experiences and his street practice rounded off his formation.
INTI is from a country that is changing its perception of itself. His generation grew up in a nation that suffered the growing pains of rapid economic development brought on by an extreme form of neo-liberalism implanted by the Pinochet dictatorship. Prior to the dictatorship, the country’s culture had been bubbling with avant-garde movements in many disciplines. These movements were squashed and erased; many of the leading artists were exiled. The post-Pinochet generation is looking back to the culture produced by their parents before and during the dictatorship and recognizing the past that was hidden during the dictatorship. There is a present-day pluricultural Chile that is beginning to arise in this process. Slowly, different identities are being recognized and their presence is being felt more in the public sphere. In particular, the indigenous identity that has been for so long hidden – both in times of the dictatorship and after – is slowly beginning to assert itself.
Chile has had a long history of painting in the streets, a practice preceding the arrival of American graffiti and hip hop culture in the mid-eighties. The pioneers were the mural brigades like the Brigada Ramona Parra (or BRP) associated with the Communist party in the late 60’s, who painted political murals supporting the Union Popular candidacy and presidency of Salvador Allende prior to the military coup in the 70’s. During the Pinochet dictatorship all of their murals were erased. They had discovered the street as a powerful modern medium that had massive impact, mural brigade members would say: “the walls are the poor man’s newspaper”.
As Chile rid itself of the dictatorship in the early 1990s, graffiti culture exploded in the country. INTI was part of this movement. Chilean urban art has a strange mix of anarchistic anti-systemic influences coming from graffiti with socially concerned impulses coming from the Chilean school of muralism. Current Chilean street art is a combination and a fusion of these perhaps contradictive impulses. His generation grew up seeing political murals and the Brigades resurgence during the eighties and nineties as they started to paint again during the end of the dictatorship.
They instinctively knew that the street was a place to say messages without censorship and control. They understand the ways in which the street creates a dialogue with the passerby. The most important element that INTI learnt, however, was the idea of being responsible for what you put out on the street in terms of content and thinking about the street as a place where what you say could have great impact. INTI and his collaborators understood that the wall was a place in which one could denounce things as well as a space to share communal dreams.
Besides a genuine desire to communicate, the social concern of the muralists and the space invading approach learnt from graffiti led INTI to question the concept of public space in his work. To occupy it one needed to think about what and why one does it. Questions come up. What is public space? Who can use it and who can’t? Why is okay to advertise or use public space when you pay for it and not when it is by common citizens? In many 21st century urban spaces corporations have taken over public spaces. For INTI painting murals is a way to retrieve this space. It is a way for city dwellers to have a presence and to resist the homogenization of urban space.
It is in this context that INTI adopted his strategy of what he terms Syncretism. In Latin America, syncretism was the cultural process in which the Indigenous and African cultures fused with the Spanish culture of the invader during the painful colonization of the continent. The result was a metisse culture that drinks deeply from its European, Indigenous and African elements and creates its own cultural creation and process. The subversive element contained within syncretism is not to be underestimated however. Those who have been colonized find a way to survive by both adopting and adapting the colonizer’s culture. It is in the mixing that the resistance and survival of these cultures was ensured. It is through syncretism that many modern cultural and religious practices came to be in Latin America, making it one of the first examples of post-modern culture.
As part of his artistic development INTI began to research local and Latin American first nations cultures for an identity and inspirations for his work. Mirroring Chile’s search for identity, INTI first searched for sources close to him in the country. First he looked to the Mapuche culture in southern Chile and later he explored the altiplano Aymara and Quechua cultures in the north of Chile and in Peru and Bolivia. His methodology was to travel and immerse himself in the local culture. Over a period of a couple of years he travelled extensively in Latin America involved in this research. He learned about their stories, mythology, colors, symbols and culture. In this search for identity he realized that these cultures were a part of him as a modern mestizo Latin American even if he wasn’t part of any of them in particular.
After digesting and processing those influences he then expanded his search to Latin America in general. Being exposed to the continent’s cultures and its similar histories (European colonialism, economic colonialism, dictatorships, post-dictatorship periods) made him realize the commonalities that existed; it led him towards a transnational, Bolivarian vision of Latin American culture. Referring to this, INTI said “once you leave Chile, once you forget about these borders which are lines on the map because the culture crosses any of those boundaries, you realize that the whole continent is your country. Once I learned the codes and symbols I felt comfortable respectfully playing with them in my artwork”. For example, the symbol of maize is universal in all of Latin America. Equally with the skulls and pepper symbols they are transversal from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego. INTI selected a range of personal symbols that he used to create a continental, syncretic language. Other elements used are the bullets that may allude to the revolutionary impulse present in the continent due to lingering injustices and enduring inequality.
Nine years ago in this search for a distinct language he encountered the character of the Kusillo, a type of altiplano carnival clown during one of his trips. The particular Kusillo costume that INTI was inspired by was made by the carnival reveler from a patchwork of different fabrics that were both modern and traditional, mixing sports brands with pieces of traditional cloth due to a general lack of resources. In that material poverty INTI saw a cultural richness that patched the ancient with the modern. This costume became an analogy that represents the different cultures (European, African, Indigenous) that through syncretism make Latin American culture. The use of patches and stitching represent the forced union of different cultures, this union sewed together with stitches and scars brought on by human history with all its violence and drama. This character became one of INTI’s iconic characters along with the Ekeko, who is the Andean god of luck and prosperity. As well as these characters, INTI incorporated elements such as patterns found in in tapestries from different indigenous cultures in Latin America, an electric color palette and iconic symbols. It is through this process of playing with the language of Latin American symbols that INTI created his signature style.
Eight years ago INTI relocated to Europe. Living outside of Chile changed his way of seeing and living in the world. Now based in Barcelona, he learnt to see Latin America from another perspective and the differences between both continents better. As an expatriate artist he can look in from the outside to see the contrasts between both realities. INTI makes it his mission in Europe to spread the ideas of Latin America syncretism, from there he spreads it to other parts of the world to showcase and elevate this form of cultural creation.
This re-signification of his work that occurs when INTI paints in Europe and further afield, led him to question himself and the elements he uses in situ. Something that may work in one continent is unthinkable in another. Through this process, he was able to test his personal art language and to see how far he can take his work in different contexts and cultural realities.
The constant travelling INTI has engaged in has allowed him to change the way he sees the world from a Latin American perspective to a more global perspective. He learnt to put himself in the place of other cultures worldview, learning see the world from multiplicity of views as an artist. The power relationships that normally exist between the global North and South, East and West are blurred with this new perspective learned from globe-trotting and painting all over the world.
This new worldview and point of view leads INTI to begin experimenting with a new direction in his work. Having made Latin American syncretism his banner and creative process for several years, he now is looking at the world as a source of more universal icons. This new “global syncretism” that he is trying to create takes more universal symbols and decontextualizes them to resignify them in a global context in order to create new work. He believes that a “global syncretism” is possible based on the example of Latin America and the richness of the metisse culture that it has produced for over 500 years.
In this new direction INTI sources the iconography of different cosmovisions and cultures and remixes them to create new fusions with new combinations. New global themes emerge, like science and knowledge conflicting with religious belief systems become an important part of his body of work. He aims towards a utopian society that highlights diversity from knowledge, and makes our cultural differences a source of learning to understand the world from different perspectives. He proposes we adopt and mix customs of other cultures that feel close to us, creating ways to live that identify us as unique beings without the great belief systems that still govern us. INTI wants to represent a new and definitive global cultural syncretism yet being able to feel a deep spirituality towards the wonders of the natural world and understanding the difference between cultural customs and beliefs.
INTI achievements and work have left a mark worldwide. His hybrid artistic language is fitting with the times where hybridity and the cross-cultural seem to be the norm. Boundaries and borders are destroyed by the sheer amount of information and by forces that work with cultural fusion. Let’s see where this global syncretism direction takes INTI next.