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Yucatán’s muralism boom —  an explosion of color, tradition and meaning

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

Yucatán’s history of muralism famously dates all the way back to the elaborate frescoes of the ancient Maya.

Section of a partially surviving mural from Mayapán, Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Though much has changed since antiquity, murals have remained a popular medium in Yucatán to express ideas, recall history or simply bring beauty to an otherwise boring wall. 

Some of Yucatán’s most famous murals were painted 50 years ago by renowned artist Fernando Castro Pacheco (1918-2013) and are housed in Merida’s Palacio de Gobierno. Castro Pacheco’s murals depict scenes from Maya mythology, as well as Mexican history — depicting the region’s conquest by Europeans, as well as the Caste War. 

The creation of man from corn as described in the Popol-vuh and painted by Fernando Castro Pacheco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Painted signs, featuring artwork both grand and small in scale, have long been a staple of life in Mexico. In the past, these works were seen as almost entirely utilitarian in the art community, but this has begun to change. The tradition known as rótulo has long been popular as it clearly conveys ideas using multi-colored painted text and iconography to easily get an idea across, even for those who may not be able to read well. 

The Mexican graphic rótulo tradition dates back hundreds of years and can be seen on the facades of businesses in communities large and small across the country. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht  

When muralism really started to kick into gear in Yucatán, about 20 years ago, most pieces were rather simple and either more closely resembled graffiti or stencil work —  though this is not to say that more elaborate murals were not being created back then or even well before. 

Interesting graffiti that used to be on the outside wall of Mérida’s Polifuncional sports center in Mérida. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As the types of people getting involved in muralism began to widen, so did the artworks’ subject matter. 

Scenes involving death are common subject matter for murals in Yucatán and across Mexico. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Larger and larger murals soon started to pop up in places one would not traditionally associate with muralism.

The movement would begin to spread out from Mérida and its surroundings and before long, large bright murals would begin to pop up across the region.

Mural of a sea turtle by Manuel Gonzalez in a walkway leading to the beach in Chelem. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

With time, fledgling muralists started to work together and form looser artistic collectives to take on more ambitious projects and help legitimize their craft. 

Murals created by two or more artists are often attributed to a collective in the spirit of building an artistic community. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As these public artworks began to grow in popularity, businesses like restaurants and hotels decided to take the plunge and use this type of artist expression as part of their decor. 

Murals depicting Mexican pop icons Maria Felix and Pedro Infante at the Bonampak bar in Mérida. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht. 

Instead of slowing muralism down, the COVID-19 pandemic has actually seen the popularity of these artworks gain in appreciation, and in a very real way has become a symbol of hope through trying times. 

Mural accompanied with text reading “the pearl will rise again,” making reference to Ticul’s nickname “la perla del sur.” Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Created by Montserrat Pastrana, Enamora Mérida began as a pet project to cheer up Yucatán’s capital city during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Montserrat Pastrana posing next to one of the artworks created by art collective Enamora Mérida collective which she founded. Photo: Courtesy Enamora Mérida.

Though Enamora Mérida would evolve over time and bring in dozens of volunteer artists, Montserrat’s original plan was to simply paint inspiring words on walls and facades, always with permission, of course. Once the pair had painted a few city walls, people really started to take notice and volunteer their own time and talents to the cause. “Before we knew it graffiti artists, illustrators, and even muralists were asking to work with us, we were thrilled of course,” says Montseratt.

Enamora Mérida volunteer Manuel Ceballos, who is also a pro-boxer, painting a falcon using graffiti technique. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Murals have also become popular additions to homes across the Yucatán, and have even become common reference points.

A mural on the outside wall featuring multi-colored macaws in Valladolid, Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Murals located indoors have also become popular and are often more elaborate than their outdoor counterparts as they tend to age better, not being exposed to Yucatán’s ever-shining sun and other elements. 

Section of a highly detailed indoor mural at Conato’s in Valladolid, Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Part of what makes Mexican muralism so wonderful is the way in which it combines classical techniques with folklore and urban traditions to create stunning artworks that are sure to continue to stand the test of time. 

Murals don’t have to be technically impressive to be meaningful or resound with passers-by, as evidenced by this mural on Mérida’s Calle 59 that reads, “Be proud of being Mexican.” Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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