By Ana Laura Caruso
Pum Pum’s drawings can be found all over the city. Her blond girls with bangs and high-heeled boots can be seen in parks, next to the railway tracks, and even on traffic light posts or trash cans. In Argentina, street art became popular in the late 90s, when various groups of artists decided to get out of their studios and put their work out on the street. But painting walls is not all street artists do. In late May, Pum Pum launched her ‘Troublemaker’ exhibition at the Hollywood in Cambodia art gallery, located at Thames 1885, in Palermo Viejo. Has street art become a trend or has it made its way into the consumer market? Why host an indoor exhibition when you can use the city’s walls? According to Jimena (Pum Pum), street art is not limited to political graffiti about French revolutionaries. A graphic designer and illustrator, her work reminds us of the main character of Graffiti – a short story by Julio Cortázar – who painted walls ‘not to protest against the state of things’ but simply to have fun by drawing with colored chalk. ‘I don’t want to sound superficial’, says Pum Pum, ‘but to me, expecting every single drawing to send out a message is whack’.
Nowadays, many people complain about the fact that street art does not demand or claim anything. What do you think about this?
It’s almost a cliché, if it’s out on the street, it has to have some content’. To me, making an aesthetic contribution counts. If someone else wants to send out a political message, well, that’s fine by me. There are many stencils out there with social messages that I like a lot. But I don’t agree with the snob idea that ‘if your stuff is out on the street it’s gotta be deep’. Nowadays, there’s a lot of absurdity going on because it’s easier, because the whole thing has become quite trendy. Also, there are some people who still use walls as a tool to express their ideas by means of stickers, stencils, and graffiti. That’s what´s up. In my case, I’m just not interested in putting concepts into drawings. I do this and I deal with my deep side through a different channel.
Why do you choose to paint on the streets?
I think it’s aesthetic and it’s something I like. I don’t have a manifesto about this. It’s just a passing-by story about seeing something you like and making up a little story with the characters. I think that this sort of thing ‘touches’ lots of people. There was a time when I painted a lot on the streets and it was really crazy because I had almost instant feedback. Two days later I would sometimes get an email saying ‘I love what you’re doing with the city’ or ‘Every day, on my way to work, I see your drawings and I like them a lot’. That sort of thing.
How do you choose the walls you’re going to paint?
I paint with brushes, which takes me a long time. So I look for abandoned walls, or I ask for permission. In general, people seem to like the idea. They prefer a mural to political slogans, for instance. So I go there and I see what comes up on the spot. I don’t usually bring sketches with me. I see the colors and I adapt to them with freedom.
What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever left your mark on?
There was a time when I always had my markers with me, in my bag. I liked painting trash cans, for instance. Once, I was asked to paint all restrooms in a Palermo bar called Mundo Bizarro. That was weird because I even had to paint the walls above the urinals in the men’s room. But it was fun at the same time. Also, a while ago, someone asked me for an estimate to paint a house facade.
Did you ever get into trouble painting?
Just once. I like riding my bike a lot. So every now and then I would ride my bike, I would stop somewhere, and I would make a little drawing with my markers. Three years ago, the police stopped me. But it was funny. It was night and I was going back home down Alvarez Thomas street in Colegiales. I suddenly saw a traffic light switch box. It was so clean it looked like a whiteboard. So I took my markers out and I drew a rabbit. All of a sudden, I saw the lights of a siren behind my back and when I turned around, there was a police car with two guys in it. One of them said, ‘Was it you who drew that little rabbit?’ So I said, ‘Yes”. And he said ‘It looks cute, but...’ and he made a sign with his hand like saying ‘Get out of here’. It was kinda cute because the whole thing was totally innocent. I was drawing a little rabbit with markers, there was no vandalism there.
What was it like, the first time you went out on the streets to paint?
I used to upload lots of illustrations to fotolog and made lots of stickers by hand and just put them up on the street. That was my first contact with the public environment. And that’s how I met lots of graffiti kids who asked me to paint with them on the streets, and I said yes. That happened four or five years ago. It was sort of by accident. I went out and said, ‘OK, let’s try painting the walls’. And I loved it, it blew my mind.
Is there anything special about street art in Buenos Aires, anything different from what happens in the rest of the world?
I think that what’s special about our city is that it has a certain ‘delay’. This phase that we’re going through, where lots of people are eager to paint walls, it all happened a long time ago in other places. In other parts of the world, there are these super well-known graffiti or stencil artists who have their own line of clothes and are quite mainstream. Here, it’s like people are just starting to pay attention to all that. Anyway, in Buenos Aires, there’s lots of communication among us street artists. We’re even coming up with small events. There’s this group of about twenty of us who paint in different ways and get together to have ‘Expression Sessions’. So far, we’ve had four. We get together, we all chip in, and we paint in public places.
Do you ask permission to paint walls in those occasions?
In general, we look for walls we know we can paint, like an empty curtain wall or party walls that have been painted over and over like in parks and stuff.
Do you think that the street art environment is sexist?
No. There used to be more prejudgment, but right now I think there are a lot of women involved. It’s happened to me lots of times, to be painting and suddenly realize that I’m the only woman among fifteen guys. I’ve always been OK with that. I guess that drawing is such a good thing that nobody cares whether you’re a man or a woman.
If you had to change anything about the city, what would it be?
There’s this dilemma we’ve always had, which is the struggle with political graffiti. When there’s an election going on, we know that all we’ve painted in the previous month will be buried under a coat of paint. People don’t seem to think of it as an invasion, everyone is just used to having their walls covered up with posters saying “Vote for this” or “Vote for that”. That’s terrible. I like Buenos Aires a lot, but sometimes, in my opinion, it can get violent. And I’m not talking about the kind of violence you hear about on the news, I’m talking about the violence in people. Getting on a bus is a struggle; it’s a city with lots of baggage in terms of resentment and uneasiness. You can sense it on the streets. So it seems to me that it’s good for us to have some visual relaxation. Maybe you’re on the bus, you’re in a bad mood, and you suddenly think to yourself, ‘Look at that, a small sticker right there’, and that’s when you unwind a bit. I’m quite of an observer myself.
How would you define your work? Do you relate to the art world or the design world?
I actually think that I’m some kind of a hybrid because I am a graphic designer who thinks of herself as an illustrator and paints a lot on the street. People see me as a graffiti artist, a muralist, or whatever. I like painting on the street but I also enjoy working in my studio, with my brushes and paper. I also work a lot on the computer, when I do design work.
How would you describe your relationship with the market and brands?
That’s always a dilemma, because I think that my Pum Pum world is very personal. As far as I’m concerned, what’s controversial is what a brand expects from your strokes. I say no to lots of people. I try to determine up to what point I’m being allowed to be authentic. When I feel that they’re starting to mess with my foundations, that’s when I don’t feel comfortable anymore.
None of your paintings are for sale?
Not for the time being, no. However, I’m thinking about designing some bags to stamp my drawings on.
Did you turn down many proposals?
Yes, but they were indecent proposals. I mean, proposals I knew would end up prostituting my little world of drawings. I don’t like doing work by request, I don’t like it when they tell you ‘I want this character, doing these things, and naming my brand’. I like it when a brand decides to give money to an artist or graffiti maker and just lets them be. But I’m not one of those idealists who say that they don’t work for any brands whatsoever. I think it’s possible for us to do something interesting and it’s possible for us to get money for our ideas and events. You just need to think about each proposal and decide whether it’s a good idea or a no-go.
What’s your inspiration for your characters?
There’s this character, the ‘big bangs girl’ or ‘Big Flequi’, who is a caricature of myself, like a ‘mini-me’. I like to put her in a universe of weird characters. I think she saw the light of day as a result of me wanting to see myself as a caricature surrounded by all kinds of creatures. Then there’s the rabbits, cats in boots... I come up with a number of characters and then I make up stories based on them.
Why did you choose ‘Troublemaker’ as the name for your exhibition?
The guys from the gallery offered me the place to do something with total freedom, including anything from painting walls and putting up paintings to building installations. I had already had some exhibitions of paintings, which were kind of orthodox. And now I’m in a phase where I want to go back to illustrations, watercolors, nibs, and India ink. So I wanted to take this opportunity and do that, which is really old school. I picked that name because I’m kind of a troublemaker, I can pick fights. You see me and maybe I’m all good and nice, but then I can get mad and ‘pum pum’. I finally decided that the exhibition would be about a gang of troublemakers and I tried to come up with a small scenario that would summarize all the things I’m doing.
What kind of advice do you have for beginners?
Practicing with various techniques really worked for me. Solitude is also good. It’s good to have a phase where you do research, where you experiment to find your stroke or your colors. You need to get in touch with your personal side and that’s when your strokes will look the way you want them to. For instance, I’ve been painting since I was really young and I’m a graphic designer, but I never studied illustration. Some day, I’d like to take illustration classes with someone who does something really different from what I do.
Would you like to change your style?
No I wouldn’t, because my work keeps mutating even though I’ve found my comfort zone. My characters change. Nowadays, when I take a look at my photoblog from a couple of years ago, I can’t recognize myself. I sometimes have to make some illustrations for design-related projects that have nothing to do with Pum Pum, and that’s when I change my style. But I wouldn’t make any radical changes as far as Pum Pum is concerned.
How does the Internet influence your work?
I think it’s something positive because it offers you the opportunity to show what you do and to get in touch with Brazilian people, French people, and people from other places who sometimes tell you stuff that you don’t understand, but who exchange drawings with you and it all ends up being a very enriching experience. There are lots of people out there – generally younger than me – who tell me that they started to paint because they liked what I do. They even send me their work by email. That’s great!
Why don’t you make your name public?
I never say anything. Back in the day, when I started uploading drawings to a photoblog, I didn’t even say that I was a woman. To me, who you are or what you are like is just an accessory. A couple of days ago, a journalist asked me if the reason why I didn’t reveal my name was egocentricity. Actually, it’s the opposite. Many graffiti artists refuse to disclose their names because what they do is vandalism. In my case, I’m just not interested in exposing myself. I just want people to know my drawings.
More about Pum Pum:
Photos courtesy of Marisa Camaaño & Gulliver