Around the corner from a bland grey street in the working class Tres de Febrero suburb of Buenos Aires, a blue boat starts to take form on a wall.
Street artist Andres Rotundo Fraga, wearing a green overall and armed with a brush and some acrylic paint, has started a three-day project aimed at reviving an apartment wall damaged by indecipherable graffiti.
"The walls were damaged by vandals, by rude people," says 80-year old Edith Campelo, who lives in the building.
"We have no money to paint so the municipality kindly sent us this great artist so we can embellish the wall."Though graffiti is illegal in Buenos Aires, it is typically allowed if the building owners give their permission.
Children play at a playground decorated with murals in Buenos Aires. (AFP Photi/Eitan Abramovich)
Sometimes, the government or local authorities fund the murals themselves as a decorated wall tends to remain in better condition than a plain one.
"It is in poor or middle-class neighborhoods that people take care of a mural as one of their own," says Diego Silva, coordinator of the ART3 public project that funds graffiti work in the Tres de Febrero municipality.
"Four or five year-old murals can be damaged by the weather and the deterioration of the wall, but never because they've been vandalized. The murals are fully respected," he adds, as he stands in one of the most impoverished areas of the municipality, in front of an impeccable mural of a red lighthouse.
ART3 and other government or non-government projects in the city want to fight vandalism with street art, thereby making residents more mindful of their surroundings and improving their quality of life."They're not just drawings. From the time we first started we always said it was something for people to participate in," says Silva of the district's 400 murals.
The landscape of poor areas of the city has been enriched with murals, either searching for urban harmony or to hide poverty in a megalopolis. (AFP Photi/Eitan Abramovich)
Capital of street art
In Europe, despite some artists gaining international fame like Banksy, graffiti continues to be largely stigmatized and synonymous with vandalism.
But in Buenos Aires the opposite is true. The Argentine capital has become one of the world's centers of street art with thousands of murals decorating houses, schools and even churches.
Muralists receive entire blocks or 25-meter-high facades to express themselves using oil or acrylic paint and aerosol spray.
Festivals celebrate their work and some urban artists like Martin Ron or Fio Silva have been asked to paint abroad."The murals are here to surprise, to add pleasure, art, culture and joy to the public space," says Patricio di Stefano, the sub-secretary of public space for the city of Buenos Aires, which spends more than 60,000 dollars a year commissioning graffiti.
Graffiti tour companies have also started to appear, showing tourists the city's great outdoor museum.
Women walk near a building decorated with a mural (L) depicting Argentinian football forward Carlos Tevez at his native Fuerte Apache neighborhood in Buenos Aires. (AFP Photi/Eitan Abramovich)
Some murals feature local idols, like football star Carlos Tevez, whose face is famously painted across a building in Fuerte Apache, his poor Buenos Aires neighborhood.
Other murals portray centaurs, giant eyes and various multicolored fictional creations coming straight out of the artists' imagination.
For tour company Graffitimundo member Cecilia Quiles, Buenos Aires' vibrant urban art scene is partly a reaction to Argentina's 1976 to 1983 military dictatorship.
"Buenos Aires is a city that has been scarred", says Quiles about those years "when public monuments were actively cleaned up and graffiti strongly repressed."
Today, street art has given a new lease of life to Buenos Aires' walls, providing a new form of freedom of expression and improving the quality of life of some of its 10 million residents.