When a girl on my course first suggested that I join her and the English Literature Society on La Rambla, I initially thought (as any sensible student should) “I couldn’t possibly. I have too many deadlines to prepare for and my bank account would need some serious replenishing”. This is a tune that quickly changed, however, when provided with a cocktail (or two) and a new sense of freedom. This new lease of life deceitfully coerced me into clicking all the necessary buttons so that to Barcelona I was a’going.
Now, this wasn’t my first trip to Barcelona, but I will admit that it was my first trip to Barcelona that involved my paying attention. I feel this is for many reasons, but the most likely of them all is that I had to pay for the holiday myself this time. I had promised myself upon purchase that I would get my money’s worth and that I did. I have to confess, however, that my imaginings of Barcelona involved being greeted by a Javier Bardem lookalike and a blinding Mediterranean sun- sadly this was not the case. In fact, some members of the trip were greeted by a group of very rude women that were not sleeping in their allocated hostel beds. The allocated beds being none of them. They had overstayed their welcome. This, however, did not deter me from loving Barcelona any less.
Due to taking a ‘Barcelona and Madrid in film’ module last semester, I had a pretty good idea of what Barcelona had to offer besides the obvious tourist attractions. As many people may already know, Barcelona is a city that is and has been undergoing a surge of gentrification. This particular form of gentrification has been referred to by scholars as ‘The Barcelona Model’. Far from being the bustling, cultural hub it is now, Barcelona was once one of the many industrial Spanish cities to be seriously impeded by the Francisco Franco regime. It wasn’t until the 1992 Olympics that Barcelona seized the opportunity to modernize and catch up with its European counterparts. The “Barcelona Model”, therefore, has been internationally regarded as a profound example of urban regeneration. Together local politicians, urban planners and architects alike have transformed Barcelona, a once exhausted industrial space, into a more beautiful, more economically successful and more “socially just” city. If not one that is manufactured for the gratification of tourists like myself.
So what have they done? What does Barcelona look like to the naked eye? Well, it is a city of many layers. Although many urbanized and industrial areas, such as the Barrio Chino, have been bull dozed for the development of new “Barcelona looking” buildings, there are several buildings that have been restored in accordance with the modernista architectural movement. The Spanish director Jose Luis Guerin once said that Barcelona is a city that, whilst ‘looking for its future […], bumps against its remote past’. Upon walking along Barcelona’s many streets I begun to see what Guerin meant. While on one side of the street I could see the rustic and romantic shapes of buildings gone by, on the other, I was faced with modern concrete shapes dispersed with heavy machinery. It was an interesting yet confusing mix of architecture.
As mentioned, there are a great number of buildings that have benefited from restoration and, consequently, are now one of the many apples in Barcelona’s eye. These buildings are more often than not in concordance with the modernista heritage led by the great architect Gaudí. This is a phenomenon that combined historical references with modern materials and decoration. When looking at La Sagrada Familia or Parc Guelle, one can see how these examples of architecture were, indeed, designed “with the flowing lines borrowed from the primary source of Nature.” They look rather alien like, if not plonked onto an urban landscape. Catalan Modernisme was, and is, “much more than a local variant of Art Nouveau because it has become a style identified with a total movement to affirm Catalan nationhood and cultural autonomy, differentiated from Spanishness and attuned to its advanced European counterparts. ” (Mackay (1985:vii)). Barcelona since paying careful attention to its aesthetic has unsurprisingly become a city internationally renowned by its architecture and become a honey trap for moneymakers and tourists such as myself. Woo. Indeed, The Barcelona Model and Modernisme itself seeks to be candidly beautiful, yet, knowingly ornate. Not at all like my disheveled self.
In order for Barcelona to compete with international markets, there has become a habit of selective highlighting. It is a city that privileges a certain type of culture and a certain type of history. A city that fossilizes the modern bourgeoisie that were financially stable enough to fund the most avant-garde architectural forms of their era i.e. pay Gaudi. The less attractive and the less tourist-friendly aspects of its industrial history go unnoticed and, thus, have been left unpreserved- if not demolished. The working class heritage has been deemed unsellable and unworthy of private support, therefore a new form of beauty has had to be called upon. Graffiti!
Barcelona is a graffti’d gem and there is nothing anybody can do about it. On every wall, on every door there is a canister created masterpiece. In fact, the lengths people had gone to to scrawl some Spanish slur astounded me. No matter where I looked there were brightly coloured murals within my peripheral and, you know what? I loved it. Top trumps to the Catalonian people. In a city that has glorified itself on its architecture and authentic culture, a new art form has taken over. Like a rebellious sister, it has embedded itself within Barcelona’s streets. It whispers to tourists and citizens alike that this is Barcelona. This is modern. Artists are no longer constrained to being dependent on private funding or the expensive gallery. The city is their canvas now and those that have been forgotten need not go unheard, they need not shy away as they have a voice now. And guess what? It’s sellable.
No, really! An alternative to the usual run-of-the-mill tour, is now a graffiti tour of the city’s outside artwork. Barcelona Street Style Tour, offers a choice of tours that aim to highlight a more authentic Barcelona and, similarly, immerse tourists in the street culture that lies within. There are two tours available; one around the Borne/Gothic Quarter and one on Raval Street. Tourists will have to decide which they’d rather take when concerning these tours; the graffiti collection in Barcelona is so big, it would be impossible to do it all at once. On these tours, tourists are made aware of all the best skate spots, the hard to find galleries and boutiques and, my favourite, street bars! Amazingly, the walking tours are completely free (although a donation is appreciated) and there is the choice of taking the tour via bike! Perfect for fitting in on the skate scene.
The tour company also offer a variety of artist-lead workshops that cover everything from graffiti art techniques, the roots of street art and an opportunity to create your own. Bare in mind, however, that both the workshops and tours are subject to availability and, even, subject to weather conditions. I found this out when it rained. I found, however, that the city was still fantastic to look at, even, when the weather was rainy and my feet were soggy. There were plenty of bars and tapas eateries to hide in and I rather enjoyed looking out of the window onto rain sodden streets. They felt gothic and atmospheric. Fortunately, there were a number of bands playing around the city at my time of visit. They were lovely to listen to under an umbrella that I bought from a dodgy man on La Rambla.
Barcelona and it’s graffiti are not always beautiful, but this only juxtaposes the perfection that has been built around it and that is where its beauty lies. For in the darkest of corners and the most bulldozed of places, graffiti and street culture lie inclusive, for all to see. The rich, the poor and the tourist like me.