Tucked inside a parking lot off Calle Primera in Tijuana’s Zona Norte, a mural now covers what was once a blank wall. This past week, members of the graffiti crew HEM (Hecho en Mexico or “Made in Mexico”) marked a milestone together–twenty-four years of bombing the streets and alleys of San Diego and Tijuana.
Started in 1989 with members from both Tijuana and San Diego, the crew struggled at first to fit in and to define themselves in an era when graffiti crews built their identities around neighborhoods and local turf.
For many HEM crew members, Tijuana is as much home as San Diego, and they pushed back against the dominant notion of the crew, celebrating their double identity with the name “Hecho en Mexico” and challenging themselves to produce work on both sides of the border.
And like many graffiti artists, the boundaries between fine art, urban art, street art and old school graffiti are aways a topic of debate. Crew members have a wide range of backgrounds– many members have studied architecture, graphic design, fine arts while others have decades of pure street experience bombing and tagging.
Members carry on lively debates with each other about what counts as real graffiti: should you paint letters or figures, if you paint with a brush, is this graffiti? If you only paint commissioned works, are you really a graffiti artist? Is this term “urban art” just a way of selling out?
One measure of their success has been the local celebration of HEM crew by Tijuana’s CECUT, where their work was featured last December 2012 in a large gallery show. In the world of graffiti, local writers are often hounded by a strict regime of police harassment, graffiti task force agents with sophisticated databases of graffiti pieces, while international artists are embraced and invited by elite arts institutions to celebrate the city’s love of edgy, urban art.
HEM crew members have successfully managed to bridge this gap by earning commissions and financial support from local cultural institutions. Private patrons, spraycan paint companies like Montana and Ironlak, and state institutions like ICBC (Institute of Culture of Baja California) have provided funding and support for artists to complete projects. bringing together local artists, teenagers and community members, HEM crew has changed the image of graffiti–urban murals are no longer viewed as scourge on the neighborhood, but are celebrated as a form of community engagement.
Yet in spite of all this, HEM crew never forget their roots on the streets.
Now, as much as ever, their work touchs hidden street corners, train cars and abandoned warehouse walls with everything from informal tags and throwups to enormous commissioned murals.