Chance Encounters with Beauty: Art in Zona Centro Tijuana

Urban artist James Mercado works on a piece based on the traditional Mexican calavera figure

Last night, I went out to a gallery show and graffiti live painting event with my friends Jodi and Dan, and I was delighted to discover a vibrant art & cultural scene in the middle of downtown Tijuana.

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Jodi parked on Calle Tercera, and the three of us took advantage of a brief break in the rain to walk quickly over to Avenida Revolución, dodging the random drips and drops from awnings, looking for the “arcade” Paseo Rodriguez.  We accidently ducked down the wrong passageway, right next to the enormous red facade of Casino Caliente, and were met by a specter of old Tijuana: “Hey come on in! What are you looking for? Do you want a drink? What are you looking for? Marijuana? Cocaine?”  Like the black & white stripe drawings of zebras that now appear randomly on storefronts & concrete walls, the man’s offers felt like a parody of a Tijuana long gone, when Saturday night streets were crowded with thousands of American tourists looking for cheap booze and loud music.

Patrons relax outside El Grafógrafo bookstore & Wow gallery

While the $25 million renovation of Casino Caliente promises to bring back the sleazy Tijuana we all know, the streets are mostly quiet now, making room for local Mexican hipster kids, indie bands, poetry readings and acoustic guitar performances. Paseo Rodriguez is one of many new little commercial corridors that’s been appropriated and given new life by artists, musicians and cultural producers interested in giving new life to Tijuana.

Two doors down, we found Paseo Rodriguez, and discovered a couple dozen new galleries, bookstores, art supply shops nested in the long covered passageway. We were greeted by Efren Parra, owner of the gallery BajaRepubika, and a few other artists we had stumbled upon several weeks earlier as they were celebrating their friend’s birthday in the gallery.   Efren reminded us that the group had open galleries on the first Friday of every month.

Down at the end, we found Jodi’s friend James Mercado and the graffiti event we were looking for.  Artists Kafy, James and Anselmo were busy with their spraycans, painting big colorful pieces on the east wall, illuminated by an enormous spotlight, while dozens of hipster kids and other graffiti artists looked on in admiration.  I observed a couple of young guys deep in concentration as they worked with magic markers on sketches in their black books. In gallery Local 29, a group gathered around an enormous table made of wooden screenprint frames stacked into a swirl, laden with fruit, cheese and crackers, while local artist Kurtis DJThird RaiLooks Solis stood spinning tunes at a console in the corner providing accompaniment for a bevy of bellydancers in another gallery across the walkway.  At the far end of the arcade, another group of a hundred people sat at tables chatting and drinking coffee, while a singer performed “Tijuanerías” (Tijuana songs) and strummed his guitar.  The artists from HEM Crew a group of urban artists who have been beautifying Tijuana streets lately with enormous murals, clowned around and posed for the camera.

At the very end of the walkway we stopped to chat with Gil, an old friend of Jodi’s who was now running a screenprint shop and selling t-shirts and original art prints. Gil and Jodi and Dan swapped stories about old days in Chicago, and Gil reminisced about his plan to live for one month in each neighborhood so that he could fully enjoy the diversity of Chicago’s ethnic communities. Remembering an art collective Gil was involved with there, he remarked hopefully:  “I think it’s still going–I hope it’s still there.”

What’s clear is that these innovative & cosmopolitan Tijuana artists have much to offer, both to their city and to our region.


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