On the streets of Santiago

Evelyn enchants children, Rodrigo works his magic with puppets and Fernando’s saxophone charms everybody: Evelyn, Rodrigo and Fernando are artists and Santiago is their stage. Their audience loves them, the authorities not so much. Evelyn remembers how even though she was 8 months pregnant, the police arrested her anyway. Street art is mostly illegal in Chile. An unacceptable situation for the numerous street artist unions in Santiago and the starting point for a series of protests they initiated today in Santiago. “We’ll sing and dance until the government hears our cause,” says Fernando.
Only a couple of months ago, in November 2011, the ministry of culture signed an agreement with the artist unions, giving out a total of 164 work permits for street artists. And that’s it, the list is full. According to the agreement, only these artists can work on Santiago’s pavements. “We are treated like criminals,” says Evelyn, “It’s not fair. We only want to work.” A work, that is not as easy-going as many might believe. Evelyn studies theater and is a single mom. On an average day she goes to classes, works on the street, organizes theater workshops, and takes care of her one year old boy. “It’s my passion, I wouldn’t want to do anything else – but people sometimes forget that being an artist doesn’t mean sleeping during the day and partying at night, it really is hard work!” Rodrigo agrees. Without his art, he couldn’t have survived. “I am Mapuche and grew up in the south of Chile. When I moved to Santiago my family didn’t have any money to support me so I started sewing traditional Mapuche clothes. It was the only way, I could pay for my education.” Now he has come to love his life as a street artists and has developed even his own puppet act. Without street artists like them Santiago’s streets would be far less colorful but the government refuses to give out more work permits. To them, more street artists mean more chaos. “I don’t think it would lead to an explosion of street artists,” says Claudia Navarro, from the artist union Itinerarte. “All the artists that want to work on the street are already doing it. There is not going to be more of them, they would just work legally.” Since most street artists are gypsies, they do not stay in one spot nor in one city for very long. Yes, street artists come but they also go; a working permit would not create more chaos, it would help regulate their situation. Even with work permits, the authorities can decide arbitrarily if an artist is allowed to work on the street or not. The artist unions have therefore submitted a bill, asking for a regularization of their work situation, allowing new artists to get work permits on the one hand but also offering to pay for them on the other hand. “We are willing to pay for our permits as long as our art is not considered a crime any more,” says Rodrigo. So far however, the bill has not even been discussed in congress. Chances are, it won’t be for a while; on the government’s to-do-list, art is at the very bottom.