The Expat: Jonny Robson

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Name: Jonny Robson
From: London
Age: 33
Profession: Creative director at graffitimundo
Education: English Literature and Sociology BA from Durham
Just read: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
Just seen: Life of Pi
Gadget: iPhone

In a backroom of a crumbling San Telmo mansion which has seen better days but is assured a much improved future, Jonny Robson gently picks up a piece of art and starts cutting up some bubble wrap to fit it.

“This is painted on a sheet of metal — it’s a portrait of a girl who came on one of our tours and became romantically attached to one of the artists. He made this piece in her honour,” he says.

As he gently encases the artwork in the plastic, he repeats the question: “What’s my job title? Packaging specialist, of course.”

Preparing to send a selection of pieces to Washington DC for graffitimundo’s first US exhibition, this is the latest boost for the Argentine artists who work alongside Jonny, who runs the arts organization with his partner Marina Charles.

Sent to work in Buenos Aires in 2008 for London advertising agency Initiative, Jonny is a true expat if you will.

“It took about three years to go from the idea of working in Latin America to being here. I got fed up and wanted to leave the company so I was placed on an international transfer list. Eventually a big pitch came up in Buenos Aires — I chose it, rather than them choosing it for me,” he explains.

In the beginning, Jonny was on his own before Marina joined him.

“The first time I came here was for work to see if I liked them and if they liked me, and happily it all worked out. I stayed at Meliá Hotel on Reconquista as the office was right nearby. That part of town’s not great… but I had friends here and they took me out. We went to San Telmo and Palermo. It’s weird thinking back to the first week in a place that is now incredibly familiar, but at the time it was all really exotic.

“Take San Telmo Market. At the time I thought ‘wow, look at all the soda bottles and all those old-looking antiques!’ Five years on, it looks like piles of other people’s junk that’s aged in different ways! But it definitely made a huge impression.”

Living in Congreso, Palermo and Las Cañitas, the latter is where he and his family have made their home, albeit inadvertently.

“I moved over before Marina as work needed me to start immediately and I stayed on various sofas for a few months until I found a sub-let in Las Cañitas. I rented this huge place from someone who needed to leave really quickly, not knowing that it was a modern and trendy area, but thinking it was a good place as it was close to the parks. Marina joined me a month after that, and we’ve been quite unadventurous and never left. It’s a charmless place, with a lot of small dogs and people who live in gym wear but it’s very practical!”

Given the fact that he already had itchy feet, needless to say Jonny started to lose interest in communications planning — “the part of advertising that no-one realizes exists” — but he already had his fingers firmly involved in a side project set to become a much larger part of his life: graffitimundo.

He says: “We started graffitimundo as a little side project about six months after we got here. Initially, we didn’t know what was going to happen so there wasn’t too much going on. We had planned to go travelling but instead we found out we were going to have a baby and that changed our plans. So we decided to stay and work on graffitimundo. It’s been a good combination of happy accidents!

“Marina and I had been walking around the city as you do when you’re in a new place, and the street art was something that stood out. It was really impressive and there was no information about it. It was one of these mysteries. Who makes it? It’s never completely explicit. But we’d never seen it being done on this kind of scale. Take the power station in Colegiales neighbourhood. At one point, all 150 metres of it had been painted by 30 different artists — and not as part of an urban regeneration plan or funded by someone. Just painted. I’d never seen anything like it and they were obviously getting away with things they would never get away with in England.

“We’d see people painting in broad daylight and take pictures, being a bit geeky about it. We’d go and talk to them, and they were quite interested that we were interested. So little by little, we’d start to recognize pieces by certain artists and they started to introduce us to other artists, then invite us along to the gallery. We started to get a feel for who was doing it — and why. The guys who did cartoon styles said they did it deliberately because after 2001 the city was grim and unrelentingly bleak, and putting some colour back would be an interesting social experiment to see how people would react to it, because at the time there was propaganda and negativity, and anger. The most apolitical thing they thought they could do was to paint giant colourful characters and see what people would do. That was just a very different way of dealing with economic hardship.”

The more artists they met — and in the early days, these wanderings included another friend, Jo Sharff, who eventually moved back to London — the more they started to wonder why no-one was talking about street art in Buenos Aires. And that led to the birth of graffitimundo.

He adds: “It was amazing — I’d never heard of this happening anywhere. So graffitimundo came about as a website where we could put all the artists’ work in one place, we could offer tours, and talk about the murals, introduce the artists and go to their galleries and present the scene as best as we can. I think we were quite lucky as no-one else seemed to be doing anything similar in the world at the time, and it was quite a novel idea. Someone wrote about it calling it ‘the first street art tour in the world’ but as it was novel, we had a lot of press, which generated a lot of curiosity, and a lot of people have come to us.

“People have a very specific interpretation of what graffiti is — that it’s related to vandalism, gang culture and social decay — so it’s interesting that what is being done here is in the spirit of development, community and positivity rather than ‘to spite everyone, ‘cause I don’t care what they think and I like the adrenaline rush.’ But the more people we speak to, the more stories we have ended up collecting. We’ve never really stopped researching.”

In these six years, graffitimundo has grown by enormous leaps and bounds. Initially, the trio started tours “as a way to introduce people to artists we thought were amazing but it’s become much more of a way of understanding Argentina, Argentine society and its modern history and how you can use urban art as a way of understanding it. You can see different traces of different movements and philosophies on the walls — and that’s what kept me here and kept me interested,” Jonny adds.

The tours expanded into workshops, which led to organizing street art interventions around Buenos Aires, which in turn led to curating a pop-up exhibition in London. This year, he has been filming White Walls Say Nothing, which finished a few weeks ago.

“We’ve been working on a book for three years but it’s been overtaken by the documentary,” he says. These, among countless other activities, means time for guiding is now limited.

In addition, on July 13, Marina and Jonny will be at the opening of The Talking Walls of Buenos Aires at The Fridge in Washington DC — although Argentina’s urban art culture has been presented in their UK homeland (in part, thanks to Charlie from the East End’s Pure Evil Gallery who recently featured on The Apprentice), the Fridge exhibition is a US first.

Graffitimundo is clearly the intermediary point of reference in Argentina for street art but way back when, how did the artists respond to these Brits who were so keen in their form of expression?

Jonny says: “It was an odd proposition in the beginning, as Marina and Jo — two blondes — led everything: English girls, with little Spanish and no background in art or graffiti, talking about promoting them. But we’d already met a lot of the artists who knew we were friendly, so there wasn’t total disbelief or confusion — it was more ‘nothing to be lost’. But once we started to sell their works and bring people to the galleries, that changed. The artists could see the value and interest we generated.

“When we first started — and we became friends with the artists first, instead of coming up with a project then trying to figure out who they were or how they worked — a lot of the guys would say, “but you’re from London, it must be amazing over there.” There was this assumption that whatever they were doing here must be 10 times better in Europe or the US. It was difficult to explain that this doesn’t happen anywhere and the reason it happens here is very special. Just because the UK has a higher purchasing-power doesn’t mean its art scene is better — plus people get put in prison for three years for doing street art!”

To the sound of popping bubble wrap, the newly painted walls in San Telmo await curation. Graffitimundo has been loaned this mansion for six months, before its eventual conversion into a boutique hotel by a Swiss investment company. In the meantime, various artists and art collectives can breathe some life into this beautiful house, while it awaits yet another facelift — it was previously a doormen’s syndicate and suitably, an artists’ workshop.

Jonny says: “We’ve always said it would be amazing to have a gallery. But realistically we don’t have any money, and nothing to invest! So when this came along, it was a ridiculous stroke of luck. There’s absolutely no possibility whatsoever that anyone would have loaned us a 120-year-old mansion to use as an art space four blocks away from the focal point of the city. This would never happen in London.”

Reflecting on graffitimundo’s recent stroke of impressive luck, combined with their impeccable reputation built up over the past five years, Jonny says: “All of this is a bit ridiculous, really. I’m not an artist, I’m not an art historian but this city presents all these strange opportunities. Lots of people come to Buenos Aires and become involved in a start-up and I don’t know whether it’s because they find traditional work too hard or whether the city lends itself to starting something up — that the barriers to entry are less expensive — but there’s lots of people doing creative and independent things. And we count ourselves among them.”


Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on June 22, 2013

Ph: Mariano Fuchila

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