Armed with a simple but trusty set of tools, artist Alfredo Romero has made his way across Mexico, literally peeling layers of history found beneath decades of paint.
Alfred is obsessed with memory and what he refers to as “the archaeology of the recent past.”
Anyone who has spent time in Mexico knows that painted signs and advertisements known as rótulos are ubiquitous. But in recent years, this trade, along with both its commercial and artistic dimensions, has begun to be displaced from the centers of major cities and towns.
Originally from Barcelona, Alfredo explains that the phasing out of this tradition is due in large part to renewed interest on the part of affluent Mexicans and foreigners to buy up homes in the once again desirable centers of colonial cities. In Mérida, as with other cities, a great many of these homes lay empty for decades, with their owners opting instead to move out to the north of the city and its mall-filled suburbs.
And with the people went the businesses. By the ’80s, the Centro had gone from a booming commercial area full of movie theaters, shops, and markets to not much more than a hub for travel to and from the region’s towns and villages.
“Now that the Centro is desirable again, people want everything to be clean and shiny; they scrape away countless decades worth of layers of paint without realizing that what they are doing away with is history and memory,” says Alfredo.
Alfredo refers to the recovery and safeguarding of these memories rendered in paint and plaster as a despiel or de-skinning. Think of this process as a more elaborate version of what happens when you tear a piece of adhesive tape off a wall. While sometimes the patterns and colors that emerge from this process resemble a surreal patchwork of designs and shapes, on others, Alfredo is able to recover old hand-painted commercial rótulos for beer brands that are no longer the mascot of a long-ago abandoned bodega or corner shop.
“These time capsules of sorts tell a story, and though for some they are nothing but eye sores, for people like me, they are invaluable,” says Alfredo.
In his Chuminópolis home, which doubles as his studio, accompanied by his pets and with the help of his friend and colleague Manuel Canché, Alfredo assembles these patchworks of paint into true works of art, either set on canvases or treated to be more resistant and hang as if they were a fabric.
“For me, existence is an act of memory that reminds us all that all of our facades, both literal and metaphorical, are just temporary. Nothing really belongs to us but rather to time,” reflects Alfredo.
Signs for businesses like bakeries and advertisements for cola brands are still painted on facades all over Mexico, but especially in small towns and villages. However, unlike in decades and centuries past, these designs have become much more standardized and are seldom done by hand, utilizing stencil techniques instead, which guarantee uniformity at the cost of uniqueness and artistry.
“I always get such positive reactions from people, especially when they recognize Yucatecan icons like the Soldado de Chocolate (from a now-defunct local brand chocolate drink brand) or mascot they remember from their childhood,” Alfredo says with a smile.
The removal process
When Alfredo Romero removes signage that’s been painted on a wall, his technique isn’t much different than an archeologist’s.
The strappo technique consists of firmly gluing canvas to the artwork’s surface and then carefully peeling away a thin layer of the plaster containing the pigment.
Alfredo then might embellish the canvas with paints or by revealing several layers of advertising. One year, the wall might have been promoting Coca-Cola, and a decade before that, bottles of Sol.
The end result is a vestige of commercial street art, usually from the 1960s to the 2000s, preserving what would have been lost to remodeling or demolition.
See the process at YouTube.com/@lasalaartgallery9878