Street Art Series: Madrid, Spain

Spain's capital city is a sprawling metropolis, and like any big city encompasses many different neighborhoods. From the tourist center and its shopping districts to historic castles, rose gardens, and parks, Madrid is a grand and cosmopolitan hub. But the city isn't all glitz and glam, and Madrid's diversity also includes neighborhoods that fly under the radar —or have until recently. Real estate is at a premium and traditionally working-class and immigrant neighborhoods are changing, just like they are here in New York.  As tourists like myself, investors, and new classes of workers flood the city, neighborhoods that used to be undesirable, residential, or industrial have become commodified; where artist lofts and factories used line the streets, trendy bars and flashy apartments are taking over, and everyday grit gives way to polished perfection and airBNBs.

My first visit to Madrid was a quick one, and I stayed in a central, touristy area near the Royal Palace and walking distance to most major museums and attractions like the Botanical Gardens. I wanted to see some traditional sights (and was not disappointed by the grand parks and depth of architecture and art history at my disposal) but also made a point to get out of my pricey, central neighborhood and explore the city on foot. To get a change of scenery and see another side of Madrid, I planned to explore the nearby Lavapiés neighborhood, which is known for its edgy, artistic, and multicultural character, and specifically wanted to check out an old tobacco factory that has been converted into a performance art space and is covered in murals and graffiti. And this isn't just tags and vulgar phrases — feminist, anti-capitalist, and anti-fascist slogans plaster the Tabacalera and other walls in the neighborhood; the graffiti in the Lavapiés neighborhood is sharp and to the point, and largely in tune with a lot of cultural criticism I've seen around the world.

The Tabacalera would have been a great destination all on its own, but I was lucky enough to visit Madrid during the Tapapiés festival, which celebrates the diverse heritage and cultural history of the Lavapiés neighborhood by spotlighting different tapas bars and local musical performances over the course of a week. Historically Lavapiés has been home to immigrants of all backgrounds, originally because it was a low-class neighborhood outside of Madrid's inner, wealthier walled city; as students, artists, and the working-class community continued to thrive in Lavapiés and rents stayed cheap, it kept its melting pot character and diverse feel through the present day. Lavapiés is also proud of its diverse religious history and origin as a Jewish quarter —even housing persecuted families through the low point in Spanish history when Jews were expelled from the country or were forced into hiding— and it's no surprise that the area cultivated a vibrant political, activist, and artistic scene. (Supposedly, the neighborhood's name refers to a long-lost fountain where the Jewish community would wash before their religious services, but now that's more legend than fact). In the '80s and '90s, Lavapiés earned a reputation as dangerous and downtrodden, but the community worked to improve their neighborhood's conditions and revitalize the area, and is now closer to a bohemian enclave than crime-ridden ghetto. All in all, it's better known for its many bookstores, intellectual cafes, museums and art galleries than its past dangers.

The Tabacalera is one of these community projects and intellectual spaces, which has grown from an edgy collective to a mainstream artistic destination as well. Before my first visit, I only knew about the converted tobacco factory's graffiti'd outer walls, which have been repurposed as a continually evolving urban art exhibition (similar to a sanctioned street art project in my neighborhood in Queens) but I also stumbled in the front door and saw several contemporary art exhibitions on the main floor.  A helpful volunteer gave me a quick run-down of the projects on display, and then I was free to wander through cavernous space and explore the light shows, installations, photography, and paintings currently in place.

I couldn't have imagined a better surprise — until I returned with friends a year later and discovered I'd only seen the tip of the iceberg! The Tabacalera's first floor had many entrances and I'd only had time to see one before they closed down for the evening, but there was a labyrinth of artistic spaces hidden within its walls. The old Tobacco & Snuff Factory has been transformed into an entire city block of creativity, commentary, performance and cultural production, aboveground and below.  

This time around, we stayed in the Lavapiés neighborhood, and while I am generally more at home among artists, students, and workers than tourists, gift shops, and castles, I felt pretty uncomfortable with the airBNB we rented. Not because I found the neighborhood unsafe or unwelcoming, but because the apartment we chose was a perfect example of the most controversial and harmful type of airBNB rental. When we arrived at the property, it became clear that it was being used exclusively as an airBNB: the proprietor showed us a spic-and-span apartment clearly designed for short-term use and asked us not to use the outdoor space or draw attention to our presence, and the signage and decor in the apartment was eerily reminiscent of a hotel. If that wasn't clear enough — there was even a short-term rental sign on the front door, a requirement in many Spanish cities that have now started to crack down on illegal airBNBs, and no sign of any full-time residents.  


This wasn't someone's home they just rented out while they were on vacation, or (my favorite kind of airBNB) a tiny house added to an existing property without displacing anyone.  This property was the work of an investor or landlord who wanted to make more money monthly by renting to tourists at a markup than they could renting long-term at market rate — but this effectively prices out locals from their own neighborhoods and decreases the amount of actual housing available. Joining airBNB can be a great way for a property to generate extra income and boost a local economy by supporting enterprising individuals, but when it shrinks the local housing market and drives prices up, it has the opposite effect. The apartment we rented in a traditional corrala, a tenement-like apartment complex with a shared central courtyard full of clotheslines, benches and plants, was clearly part of an old-school neighborhood and working-class community, but it was no longer on the market or in use to anyone but visiting tourists, and I felt guilty for my ignorance and complicity in this theft.   

I was particularly aware of this dynamic in contrast with the Tabacalera's organized embrace of visitors just down the street, where that particular community was gentrifying more actively and deliberately than the housing market. As a performance space open to the public, and one that is designed to attract visitors, the old tobacco factory is a less problematic peek into Madrid's artistic scene and the Lavapiés neighborhood. On the bright spring day we visited, some studios were open to the public, radio stations were broadcasting, dance ceremonies and works-in-progress were out on display, and the Tabacalera was full of locals and guests alike.

We started by checking out the murals on the outer walls that I remembered from my first visit. Some had been painted over with new art, while others persisted; soon we headed inside the factory walls. We took a different entrance than I did the year before, and I soon realized how much of the building I hadn't seen! The Ayuhasca ceremony taking place in a large hall might have been the loudest and most temporary new element, and there was an entire courtyard and outside garden space I hadn't seen the year before — but the underground caverns and graffiti'd basement tunnels were by far my favorite to explore. The ancient and formidable stone archways lent a certain gravitas to the art, while also providing a literal architecture for the artists to incorporate into their work. Even as we were visiting, video projects were being filmed in the subterranean corridors, new wall art was in progress, studios behind closed doors thumped with loud music, and the Tabacalera felt even more vibrant than I remembered. 

We wandered the Tabacalera for over an hour, and while we were certainly obvious tourists, didn't feel as out-of-place as we did entering "our" apartment afterwards; though we were consuming the art within the Tabacalera's walls, we weren't displacing anyone to do so. We did spot some interesting layered graffiti on the Tabacalera itself —a sort of conversation between multiple residents and participants— that alleged the very presence of visitors and tourists changed the nature of the art being produced. However, while I understand the fear of selling out or producing cookie-cutter art just to rack up Instagram hits, sponsorships, or media attention, I didn't get the sense that the Tabacalera had fallen victim to the pressures of the outside world. There was enough provocative new thought, anti-capitalist, original, and intellectual work on display that I felt the artists were holding their own. And I'm sure there is far more art, inspiration, programming, and revolution happening behind closed doors that visitors like myself aren't privy to.

Madrid may be changing rapidly and some areas of the city are struggling to hold onto their character in the face of greed, assimilation, and capitalism, but I think the artists of the Tabacalera and the Lavapiés community are finding a balance between protecting their community's character and sharing it with visitors, producing art for themselves and for the wider world, and criticizing the status quo.