Street Life and Public Art in Madrid

Roy Lichtenstein's Brushstroke in the courtyard of the Reina Sofia.

Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstroke in the courtyard of the Reina Sofia.

I arrived in Madrid in September 1981 as a high school exchange student. Back then Madrid was a just emerging from its conservative shell after decades of rule by dictator Francisco Franco who had died in 1975. The first open elections were only in 1977 and Spain was still reeling from the failed coup attempt by Antonio Tejero on February 23, 1981.

I lived in the suburb of Pozuelo de Alarcon with a middle-class Spanish family and attended the local Instituto National de Pozuelo. I returned to Spain in the fall of 1983 and attended the Universidad Complutense de Madrid for a Semester and could already see the profound impact of cultural, economic and political change in Spain which became La Movida.

Street stencil in Barrio Lavapies.

Street stencil in Barrio Lavapies.

Until last week I had not returned to Madrid in 30 years. So a recent very quick trip after attending the Wild10 Conference in Salamanca was a revelation. Spain had already been through what my longtime friend Felix Reneses said was, “The greatest 30 year period in Spanish history.” It was a heady time with the blooming of the Spanish economy and the rise of Spanish sport and cultural dynasties. Finally the promise of Spain had been reached (although it remains to be seen if Spain can honestly deal with the wounds and desaparecidos of the Franco era and the Spanish Civil War).

With my longtime and good friend Felix Reneses.

With my longtime and good friend Felix Reneses.

But then it was all over in a flash. The collapse of the economy and the recognition that the lack of political transparency and accountability and the control of the economy by a corrupt elite had once again wounded Spain and betrayed the promise of democracy.

Old school barbershop.

Old school barbershop turned new school “estetica.”

On my recent very short trip what I witnessed however was that despite the moribund economy  the passion and creative genius of Spain that infuses the country with endless energy has not been dimmed. “The younger generation really have no idea what it was like under Franco,” said Felix. “But due to the economic collapse a whole generation has been lost. People are moving abroad to find work.”


Spain has always been about old and new with visionaries such as Velazquez, Goya, Miro, Picasso, Dali and Buñuel creating new ways of seeing the world and reacting against the corruption and squalor of Spain’s aristocracy and oligarchy.

Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez (1665)

Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez (1665)

Here are just a few images of Barrio de La Latina and Lavapies that are between the Plaza Mayor and the Prado. Both have become  mixed areas of boutiques, great eateries, immigrants and street art. Just at their doorstep are two of the world’ greatest cultural institutions, El Museo del Prado and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. I was lucky to have stumbled upon and stayed at the Hotel Artrip, a very cool boutique hotel in the middle of Lavapies a few blocks from the Reina Sofia.


Mural in Lavapies that frames a Public Plaza that was a former empty lot rehabilitated by the community.


The Lavapies Plaza “This is a plaza. This plaza is yours, ours and for all.”


Inspired design in the Lavapies Plaza.


Community gardens and art in the Lavapies Plaza.


Congratulations to the residents of Lavapies who were inspired to remake the neighborhood without waiting for the government to tell them how to do it. That is bottom up democracy.


In the middle of Lavapies is a former empty lot turned into a Public Plaza by the community.



The plaza was filled with families and children busy making art and celebrating life in one of the coolest community projects I’ve ever seen.

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