Universities hail town’s regeneration by ‘graffiti’

A town of 320 people in the mountainous area of Castellón, north-eastern Spain, has attracted considerable interest among Spanish universities because of its unique way of promoting culture and boosting economic growth.

Many elderly residents of Fanzara were at first shocked and repelled when two local inhabitants suggested inviting artists from around Spain to cover the walls of the village with ‘graffiti’.

However with an impressive leap of faith they agreed to give the project a chance and since then the idea has interested almost everyone who has heard about it.

“We never imagined it would reach the point where we’re living in a huge open-air art gallery,” said Javier López, 48, one of the initiators of the scheme.

“We estimate that there has already been a 25% to 30% increase in the number of visitors to the town and this has had a consequent impact on the growth of restaurants and rural accommodation in the area,” says Professor Javier Sánchez García, head of marketing and market research at the University Jaume I de Castellón.

“More businesses are opening and this is sure to create more employment opportunities for young people and entrepreneurs.”

Professor Sánchez García is now leading an academic investigation into “The perception of the Fanzara community and visitors towards cultural tourism” regarding what has been dubbed the ‘Unfinished Museum of Urban Art’, or MIAU in its Spanish initials.

An unfinished museum

It is being described as an unfinished museum because the idea is that, depending on the assessments of inhabitants and participants, the murals will be painted over regularly and therefore be in constant evolution.

“Some of the residents still have doubts about the innovations, however, especially over the possible impact of tourists on the town,” says Sánchez García, and “that is partly why we are doing this research, in order to focus on what they don’t like and how to address it”.

“The residents of Fanzara are probably not really aware of how important what they’ve done is,” says Belén García Pardo, a researcher in philosophical aesthetics and expert in street art at the University of Valencia in Spain. “This is unique, because it comes out of a social movement that has nothing to do with other forms of street art or post-graffiti, as these kinds of murals are called.”

“This is different to what is going on in cities like Valencia, where artists paint in public spaces without permission,” she adds. “It is also different to when municipal authorities decide to pay artists to decorate the walls of a run-down area; this was born out of a residents’ movement and with no funding.”

In fact Fanzara residents had already been mobilised over a controversial plan to build a toxic waste incinerator in the town. Proponents said it would stem depopulation, a problem affecting many Spanish rural towns, but many inhabitants strongly opposed it.

The proposal was defeated and the new initiative was launched as a way to bring the town together with a new focus.

So on 23 September 2014 two local activists, Javier López and Rafa Gascó – who led the marches against the waste plant – invited street artists, including names such as Deih and Julieta Xlf, to the town, and asked them to paint whatever they liked, with the proviso that they involve local people in some way. By the time the street artists left a few days later over a dozen murals had been created, and the museum was born.

Growing interest

The new economic and cultural activity, as well as growing interest from the public, led to a series of conferences involving art historians, marketing experts, designers and photographers from the University Jaume I de Castellón, the University of Valencia and the Polytechnic University of Valencia.

“I gave a presentation at the second conference on 24 January to explain the differences between graffiti and post-graffiti,” says Belén García Pardo.

“Graffiti often involves a signature or a tag in spraypaint that people outside a particular group cannot understand, whereas post-graffiti, or urban art, can be iconic, tends much more towards academic painting and can be interpreted by ordinary people.

“What is being expressed in Fanzara is really urban art. The talk was well-received: there were perhaps 50 people at that conference, of whom around a dozen were from universities.”

The next major event in Fanzara will take place from 16 to 19 July, and is planned to include muralists, sculptors, photographic exhibitions, street theatre and workshops with academic participation.

Articles are planned for Tourism Management, the International Journal of Tourism Research and art history journals, among others.

“Due to the success of the Fanzara Project, the area of Getafe in Madrid is now thinking of turning its community into the largest open air museum in Europe,” concludes Sánchez García. “Once we have a model, the methodology can easily be extrapolated to any other place in the world.”