By Nick Sustana | Reprinted with permission
We moved to a new neighborhood in Barcelona this year. Last year we lived in Sarria. It was close to our daughter Rae’s school, but it was a bit too sleepy for our tastes. Too many old ladies in fur coats clogging the sidewalks.
Now we live in Gracia. If Sarria is your grandfather’s neighborhood, Gracia is where your cool older brother goes to hang out with all his friends. The vibe here leans toward young and energetic, alternative and artsy. It’s funky but not dangerous funky. Citizens of Gracia have their share of tattoos, but the tattoos are more “Burning Man” than “San Quentin.” When Rae goes out at night here with her friends, she has a greater chance of getting a contact high than getting robbed.
Half a dozen public squares, or “plaças,” are scattered throughout the neighborhood. They’re usually full of bearded goofballs strumming guitars, little kids chasing soccer balls, and couples enjoying a beer or two at the cafes lining the perimeters. Barcelona, in general, has a strong sense of community, and Gracia certainly upholds that tradition.
It didn’t take the neighbors long to introduce themselves. Within a few days of our unpacking our last box, someone began putting down the welcome mat in the form of hundreds of these stickers.
OK, so it’s not exactly a freshly baked apple pie. But given that they spelled “neighborhood” with a “u,” I have to believe the Gracians, like everyone else, were really only complaining about the Brits.
These stickers were up through most of August and September. Those visiting bastards from Liverpool must not have gotten the message, though, because pretty soon a new round of posters went up.
I had no idea what kind of budget the “Pissed Off Urban Art Brigade” was working with, but it must have been substantial. These purple posters were on every street in Gracia. I had six of them on my block alone. Not my whole street, mind you. Just my block. I didn’t notice them in other parts of Barcelona. The photo in the background of the poster shows the main plaça in Gracia, so I figured some local crew was behind this wallpapering job.
I like that these posters at least present some kind of argument. Let’s take a closer look at their five-point grievance.
- Higher housing rents – Guilty. AirBnB has hit Barcelona as hard as any other place. Flats that used to be available to residents are now appearing on AirBnB resulting in a shortage of affordable housing. It’s also a simple matter of supply and demand. There are more people coming to Barcelona (like me.) This obviously drives up prices. I’m guilty as hell on this one. Now if you need help raising my bail, go ask my landlord.
- Basic goods price increase – Hung jury. I suppose this goes back to supply and demand. If more people need to wipe their asses, sure, the price of toilet paper will increase. But the guys who work at “Charmin, Scott, & Beyond” probably aren’t complaining. Tourists, as annoying as they are, still bring money into the economy.
- More precarious employment – Charge dismissed. I’m not even sure what this one means. Tourists don’t typically pile off cruise ships, take Catalans’ jobs for a few days, then head back up the gangplank. Maybe the Gracia Poster Platoon means that businesses are more likely to cut back their staff after the summer season is over? Either way, you can’t blame your entire 22% unemployment rate on the socks-and-sandals crew from Cleveland.
- Public transport collapse – Not guilty. Compared to the rolling petri dishes in New York City, the subways and buses here are like private limousines. Sure, they can get jammed at rush hour, but for the most part they’re fantastic. I don’t see many signs of collapse. Still, I can understand why you’d want to keep them in good condition. They’re home to Barcelona’s largest labor group: pickpockets.
- Sleep and rest disturbance – Kiss. My. Ass. The day one of my neighbors goes to sleep before 1:00am is the day I master the past perfect subjunctive in Catalan. If I disturb my neighbor’s sleep, it’s only because I slammed the front door on my way to lunch.
I will give them credit for their logo, though. Note that the crossbones behind the skull are actually selfie sticks. Nice touch. Walter: International Dog of Intrigue was not as impressed. If you look closely at the bottom of the photo, you’ll notice the black and white top of his leg. While I was busy taking this photo, he was busy spraying his rebuttal all over the utility box the flier was glued to. (I suppose he was also adding a sixth complaint to their list.)
People tore these posters down after a few days, but they were replaced almost immediately. This went on for several weeks. It was fascinating. I should’ve stayed up one night and kept watch through my front window to see who was putting them up. It clearly wasn’t just some disgruntled kids with an inkjet printer and a twelve-pack of beer. These guys had a plan.
Towards the end of October, that plan included a ladder and some rope.
This banner was put up in Plaça Virreina, two blocks from my house. The left half says, more or less, “You suck, Nick. More tourism equals less neighborhood.” The right half says, more or less, “You suck, Nick.”
The most depressing part about this banner is that it stayed up in a major public square for four days. I figured it would be taken down the first afternoon it went up. No such luck.
When the banner was eventually taken down, the spray paint came out.
This was around the corner from my house. Loosely translated, it says, “You suck, Nick.” More exactly translated, it says, “No hipsters. No guiris. We want Three Lilies.”
“Guiri” is a generic word for “tourist.” It’s not entirely derogatory, and it doesn’t specifically refer to Americans. As far as “Three Lilies” goes, well, that shed a bit of light on who was keeping the Barcelona spray paint industry in business.
“Tres Lliris” refers to the Casal Popular Tres Lliris, or CP Tres Lliris. It’s a left-wing activist organization, like Occupy Gracia for the “turn on, tune in, take a nap” Catalan siesta crowd. It’s been around in one form or another for almost 20 years. They keep an eye on labor practices in the area and organize protests against local businesses that they feel abuse their employees. Giant corporations head their shit list. (To discourage people from going to IKEA, they hold workshops on how to restore old furniture. That actually sounds pretty cool.) And, of course, they offer guitar lessons. They’ve had a rough go recently. Last November, the police came in and kicked them out of the building they’d been squatting in for the last few years. It seems the Tres Lliris took it out on this wall.
I actually agree with some of their points. But as Pam pointed out, spray painting slogans on the sides of buildings is actually sort of a hipster thing to do, albeit in an agro-hipster way.
The Lilies didn’t run out of paint very quickly. They tagged buildings all over the place. This one was my favorite.
The two stencils on either side say, “Tourism kills neighborhoods.” They also feature my favorite skull-and-selfie stick logos. The hipster hashtag in the middle says “tourism kills.”
Now, one could easily make the argument that spray painting the crap out your neighbor’s property also kills the neighborhood, but what does a hipster guiri like me know? But the reason I like this particular piece of art is because it’s spray painted on the side of a 135 year old church. Remember that beautiful stone church in the first photo of this post? This is it from another angle. And as we all know, “Only assholes write on churches!” (#ourayRHPS)
I eventually laughed off most of these incidents, not because I disagreed with the principles behind them but because I disagreed with the medium. Trashing churches, parks, and people’s apartments makes it harder for me to sympathize with the cause. There was a moment, however, when I was definitely bothered by it all. At the height of the Poster Blitz, you couldn’t walk more than 100 feet without seeing some version of “GTFO” scrawled across a building or telephone pole.
Of course I understand that these messages weren’t directed specifically at me. But it certainly felt that way at times. It also felt unjustified. I’ve kept a pretty low profile here in Gracia. No loud parties. Always respectful of the environment. I try to shop local. I’m learning the language and embracing the culture. Hell, I haven’t even complained when the experimental music workshop across the street from our house plays Yoko Ono albums backwards at full volume until 5:00am. So quit your bitching.
Besides, I’ve only been here six months. The fine citizens of Ouray had to put up with me for ten years. If you want to learn what it’s like to have a true pestilence descend upon your community, go talk to them.