Over the past few years, as the planet has fallen further into the shitpile, La Cuadra has featured the good works of many not for profit, non-governmental organizations which struggle to humanize our host country, make life better for the poorest and most at risk Guatemalans, and foster development in Central America. While we remain committed to highlighting those important projects, this issue we are taking a different tack by shining a light on Urban Reclamation, a local Antigua apparel and accessory venture which is striving to develop a socially and environmentally conscious, sustainable business model for Guatemala and beyond. While NGO’s can have a profound impact on the world, they suffer from a dependency on donations – largely from abroad, and in the current economic crisis, the sad reality is that many of those operations will suffer serious budgetary contractions of their own. Socially conscious for profit organizations, however, have the ability to self-finance and as such, may fare better over the coming difficult years. For Urban Reclamation, and for the planet, we hope so.
Jean-Louis Trombetta Wilson, 42, of Antigua, Guatemala recently launched a business he has been thinking about for the past 31 years.
In some ways the genesis of Urban Reclamation, his messenger bag and clothing business, came in 1977 when he first visited Washington, DC and saw the Metro covered in graffiti. To Jean-Louis this street art was overwhelmingly beautiful. To his young eyes, the flat cement nothingness of an urban light rail system was transformed by individual, self-directed street artists into something far greater than anything the city planners had originally envisioned. And he felt that Guatemala could use some of that beauty, too.
“To see a wall that the day before was gray and blank transformed into a canvas overnight really changed the way I saw the world,” said Trombetta Wilson. “Some people see vandalism, I saw creation.”
Jean-Louis went on to explain that the graffiti, and the “hip-hop consciousness” it represents, is radically different from how it’s often portrayed.
“Real graffiti artists aren’t gang members, they aren’t out to destroy. They want to build and make an ugly world more beautiful. What’s wrong with that?”
That fascination with street art stayed with him, and in the past year he has created a way to bring its cultural value to a project intended to help save the planet.
“I am Guatemalan, and I see, everyday, the ugliness of the City along side the unnecessary waste and pollution that is choking the country,” said Jean-Louis, as we had coffee in Mono Loco, a local bar and restaurant in which he is a partner. “For years I’ve been trying to figure out how I could help reduce that waste and support street art. I was looking for a way to reclaim our culture, while reusing and recycling waste. One day I was driving back to Antigua from Guatemala City and saw some workers tearing down the vinyl from a billboard and it all kind of clicked. I knew I could do something cool with the vinyl – that I could use it to bring the Guatemalan graffiti movement to a wider public.”
He realized that if he could get his hands on that vinyl, which was headed to the Guatemala City garbage dump, he could use it to produce high quality, high visibility products upon which he could feature the work of Guatemala’s best graffiti artists and sell to people interested in both fashion and promoting a healthier environment. The main vehicle he settled upon was the messenger bag, which he produces at a facility in Ciudad Vieja entirely from recycled materials.
Of course, the moment of inspiration was just the beginning. Before the dream could take form he would have to get his hands on the vinyl, find a facility and skilled workers that could realize the product, organize a retail and distribution system – and, most challengingly, he needed to break his way into the rather secretive world of the graffiti artists themselves.
“Most businesses aren’t intentionally wasteful, but markets for discarded products need to be created,” said Jean-Louis.
When he contacted the company that manufactured the billboards they were more than happy to speak to their clients and offer them a means of getting rid of their used signs.
“Generally, what happens is that after they’ve run their advertising course, the signs are either hauled off to the dump or taken back and stored in the advertiser’s warehouse. When we offered to take them off their hands, people jumped at the opportunity.”
Happily for Jean-Louis, if not for Guatemala, there is also an enormous excess labor capacity in this country for skilled tailoring. In the mid 1990s, following the development of the World Trade Organization’s “free trade” rules, many clothing and apparel manufactures in the United States moved to Central America to take advantage of the “free trade zones” where no taxes were paid and labor and environmental costs were low. Unfortunately, with the development of the Chinese economy and its seemingly infinite pool of unorganized workers, most of those jobs have disappeared.
Trombetta-Wilson, going through old contacts, ended up contracting with a family run tailoring business in Ciudad Vieja, just a few miles west of Antigua. The fabrica employs 12 to 18 workers, though, if the venture is successful, those numbers could grow exponentially. With a payment system that includes a salary, plus production based incentives, the workers can earn the up to triple minimum wage in high demand seasons. Moreover, it allows the workers, mostly young women, to stay near home rather than traveling to the city for weeks at a time.
“We’re very conscious of valuing the fabric of the family. We want the women to be able to return home at the end of the day. Also, at the fabrica there is a garden and if the women need to bring their children to work, they are encouraged to do so. We want to help build these families, not tear them apart.”
I asked Jean-Louis if he would change his production methods and move manufacturing to China if the business were to grow. He flatly answered, “No.”
“The sustainable development, environmentally conscious philosophy is all about local production of both the final product and the art. Even if we someday become a multi-national company, we will not act like one. We’re all about building the local community.”
Having the raw materials and manufacture figured out, Jean-Louis needed to find the artists who would create the images for the messenger bags.
He’d seen street art all over Guatemala, and he had some contacts with the hip-hop community. The hip-hop connection brought him to a graphic design firm in the city called GuareGuare (a name intentionally mimicking the way that gringos mispronounce the “Guate, Guate” call of chicken bus ayudantes on the road to the capital.)
When he visited their office he explained the project and the larger philosophy of Urban Reclamation, a philosophy that intends to embrace the living art of the streets and engender pride in creating a more beautiful Guatemala. As he counted off the names of the artists he wanted to contract for the business (Kiki, Zane, Zoad, Woser, Zick, Meteoro, Sonar…) smiles and laughter percolated around the room.
“I thought they were laughing at me,” said Jean-Louis.
As it turned out, four of the artists were actually sitting in the room.
“This, again, points out the disinformation many people have about graffiti. The real artists aren’t gangbangers or criminals. They’re artists. Professional artists.”
He then went on at length about the beauty he sees in the art form.
“Listen,” he said, “these are artists who really care about making their world more beautiful. These aren’t rich kids. They work during the day, they go to school. Each can of paint is 130Q. They risk getting caught. They risk coming back the next day and seeing their work painted over. They know the art is temporary, and yet they keep creating. They keep learning from one another, developing their personal styles. Each one of them works with a different visual language. And each one of them respects the work of the other. They don’t tag over someone else’s work. They respect national patrimony…”
I cut in and asked him what he meant by that.
“It’s completely against the rules to make art on national monuments. They choose spaces that are just ugly, underneath overpasses, on walls that are eyesores. They make their world more beautiful and none of them make a dime.”
He continued, “with Urban Reclamation, we want to give them an opportunity to get their work outside of their neighborhoods, and we pay them for every design.”
Jean-Louis then took me to the retail space he has in Antigua, in the entrance of Mono Loco, on 5th Ave, just south of the Parque Central.
The store is filled with several different lines of messenger bags and tee shirts. The messenger bags are faced with a design by one of the graffiti artists and carry the Urban Reclamation logo. The designs of each artist are unique, ranging from classic hip-hop iconography to a new line that Jean Louis is developing with the help of Meteoro, called Maya Manga – a fusion of traditional Mayan images and modern Japanese anime.
“We want to expand around the world – using street art and graffiti, supporting hip-hop culture and local production to get exposure for the artists and the art form, and also to encourage other businesses to get on board with the concept of sustainable development through recycling and reusing what otherwise would be garbage, while reclaiming their culture and their national pride,” said Jean-Louis.
For me, it’s comforting to think that, in these waning days of the American empire, something good may finally grow out of the relationship between Guatemala and Washington, DC.