Image credit: Terri Gordon-Zolov. Figure 8.4 Here, protest figures drawn in a style evocative of that popularized by Keith Haring are depicted as waging battle against the carabineros.

Along with the early twentieth-century avant-garde movements, Pop Art was a notable influence in the street art of the Chilean social uprising. Pop Art made a visible imprint on the walls both in terms of style and content. An outgrowth of the rise of mass consumer culture and pre-fab suburban life, Pop Art flourished in the United States and Great Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. Artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein incorporated consumer goods, Hollywood icons, comic book figures, and advertising symbols into their works through the use of new techniques such as silk-screen and lithograph printing, as well as older ones such as collage. Through its integration of everyday objects into art, Pop Art furthered Dada’s project to collapse high and low and to destabilize the notion of the original. While celebrating artifacts of the everyday, these ironic reflections of contemporary culture also served to critique mass consumer culture, the commodification of art, and the institution of art itself.

As Pop Art spread across the Americas in the 1960s and 1970s, its accent became more explicitly political, targeting the Vietnam War, US-backed military regimes, and a growing mass consumer culture. Artists such as Raúl Martínez, who depicted Cuban revolutionaries in Warhol-styled grids, drew on Pop Art sensibilities to critique US imperialism and capitalist culture. The 2019 traveling exhibition Pop América, 1965–75, which includes work by more than forty artists from across the Americas, aims to challenge the myth that Pop Art is a uniquely Anglo-American current. (Other exhibitions in this vein include the Tate Modern’s 2015–16 show The World Goes Pop.) “As the first exhibition to present a vision of Pop on the American continent as a whole, Pop América makes a critical contribution to understanding this artistic period and Latin America’s rich artistic heritage,” said Sarah Schroth, Director of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University (which co-curated the exhibit). Significantly, the title of the exhibition is based on a 1968 collage by Santiago-based Chilean visual artist Hugo Rivera-Scott. In Rivera-Scott’s Pop América, the three-dimensional bubble letters “Pop” explode out of a red blast, echoing Lichtenstein’s mid-1960s Explosion series. In its use of primary colors, sound words, and Ben-Day dots, the work draws on comic conventions established a generation earlier. Pop América can be read both as a celebration of Pop Art in Latin America and as an injunction to “pop” or shatter monolithic or North American-centric ideas of America. “We always thought about it like ‘explode America, burst America,’” explained the artist, “in the sense [of ] Pop as an onomatopoeia.” Pop Art has also become visible in the art scene in Santiago in recent decades. An art gallery called PLOP!, the first Chilean gallery devoted to comic art and drawings, was founded in 2010 in the Lastarria neighborhood. In 2017, the Centro cultural of La Moneda mounted an exhibition entitled Andy Warhol: Ícono del Arte Pop, a major show that traced the evolution of the artist’s works from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Popular cultural icons, such as superheroes and Pokémon figures, were a prominent feature of the 2019–20 protest graphics. The Joker, a stock comic supervillain, in particular took on larger-than-life form, becoming a hero-rebel figure of the social revolution. Since the release of Todd Phillips’s 2019 film Joker, painted Joker masks have become popular symbols in protest movements across the globe. The film’s central theme of the struggling underdog in the face of a heartless and detached elite resonated widely across the globe and in Chile in particular. As one film critic writes, “Joker . . . embodies a—fairly blunt—representation of the failures of neoliberal capitalism, and its disastrous consequences.” The Chilean movement gave birth to its own homespun superhero, “PareMan,” a muscular male figure modeled after a shirtless protester who used a Stop (Pare) sign as a shield during a violent clash with the police in November 2019. (The “first Chilean Superhero” has also inspired a comic strip featuring PareMan and his loyal sidekick, Matapacos.) Pokémon’s Pikachu mouse became a central icon in the Chilean protests as well, perhaps no surprise given Chile’s notable consumption of Japanese anime. After multiple appearances of a dancing protester in a yellow Pikachu costume at rallies and marches, Pikachu came to be a much-loved figure in the revolution, one who symbolized joy and well-being. Chilean fans of Japanese animation, known as otakus, took to the streets in cosplay, appropriating anime costumes, songs, and phrases in their marches. One twitter feed read, “The otakus are also marching against repression in Chile.” (The government, on the other hand—no fan of Japanese anime or Korean pop music—cited K-Pop and other similar musical genres as an influential force in youth violence against the police during the social revolution.) Not all of the pop protest icons were homegrown. A Homer Simpson outlined in neon pink appeared on the wall of the Baquedano subway station, demanding, “I want my pension!”

The influence of a pop aesthetic could be found in the protest graphics as well. The Warhol-like repetition of silk-screen prints was a common aesthetic technique, as can be seen in this series of stylized, Moai-inspired masks (figure 8.1). One striking graphic employs a Lichtenstein-like explosion to convey the force of the cacerolazo by capturing the sonic dimensions of this non-violent protest strategy (figure 8.2). The saucepan and spoon are rendered as a drum, and the rhythmic drumbeats are expressed through onomatopoeia as “Tack, Tack / Tack, Tack, Tack.” The hallmark style of Keith Haring, the North American artist who took Pop Art to the street, was recognizable in the protest iconography as well. An elaborate mural on Ramón Carnicer Street in the city center featured a series of Haring-inspired figures (figures 8.3 and 8.4). The police with green berets and batons are shown fighting a dynamic group of multicolored protesters with x-ed out eyes, a black Matapacos springing into action by their side. Here, Haring’s imprint is evident in the use of vivid primary colors and thick black outlines—a style also reminiscent of the Brigada Ramona Parra—as well as the raw energy emanating out of the jumping cartoon-like figures. In response to the tear gas canisters launched by the police, the protesters are throwing rocks. A graffiti tag reads “Cops without Brains” (Pacos Sin Cerebro), a motto reinforced by the barred eyes of the police. These signifiers suggest the motif of the cop-as-zombie, as an unthinking arm of the state, a theme that derives from the 2011–13 student protests. The use of pop material and methods infused a sense of irreverence and humor into the protest graphics.

One paste-up by Fab Ciraolo, for instance, shows Cecilia Morel, President Piñera’s wife, as one of the “Men in Black” (discussed at greater length below). The image depicts a deadpan Morel in suit and sunglasses sitting in a pod. Funny on its own terms, the deeper logic references Morel’s off-the-record comment that the protesters appeared like an “alien invasion,” a remark that was immediately leaked to the press and generated a protest graphic theme of aliens. Plays on the trope of space invaders were soon widespread across the walls. Simple stencils elegantly and succinctly riffed on the leitmotif. A pink stencil on a cracking white wall, for example, depicts an alien-revolutionary landing on earth from a spaceship (figure 8.5), while a black stencil shows the modern city under attack by extraterrestrial forces (figure 8.6). One graffiti on Avenida Providencia depicts a white alien face with the message “Aliens take power” (Aliens al Poder) (figure 8.7). A satirical cardboard poster shows a grooving 1970s-styled Martian holding up a peace sign. The label identifies him ironically as “powerful enemy” (enemigo poderoso). The alien broadcast reads: “We’ve come for Human Rights” (Llegamos por los derechos humanos) (figure 8.8).

Figure 8.1. This stenciled serialization of Moai-inspired masks (from the Rapa Nui culture of Easter Island) reflects elements of a pop culture aesthetic process. © Terri Gordon-Zolov.
Figure 8.2. This graphic, which uses onomatopoeia to convey the sounds of the cacerolazo, directly emulates the aesthetic sensibility of Roy Lichtenstein, a figure closely identified with the Pop Art movement of the 1960s.
© Eric Zolov.

The use of humor as a revolutionary tool has deep roots in Chile. Humor provided a powerful weapon in the fight to topple the civic-military dictatorship. The radical deprivation of human rights during the Pinochet regime had secondary costs, among which were the loss of a sense of freedom, spontaneity, and overall well-being. “[T]he dictatorship killed humor in this country,” said Constanza Figueroa, a member of the Taller de Gráfica Inmediata (Immediate Graphic Workshop) run out of the GAM during the estallido (see chapter 9). “The dictatorship killed many things, among them, the joy of life. Little by little, more political humor based on irony and other rhetorical forms began to emerge.”14 The “No” Campaign of 1988, which successfully persuaded citizens to vote against the extension of Pinochet’s regime for another eight years, employed a deliberate strategy of positive energy. The central campaign slogan, “Chile, happiness is coming” (Chile, la alegría ya viene), was supported by a series of largely upbeat, optimistic messages. In a campaign made up of twenty-seven television spots, each of which lasted fifteen minutes, advertising executives and artists collaborated to create a complex series of clips that injected humor, tenderness, and hope into the representations of the devastating political reality of the previous fifteen years. In Pablo Larraín’s 2012 film No, which won the Art Cinema Award at Cannes in 2012, advertising executive René (played by Gael García Bernal) advocates “more humor.” “[T]he ‘No’ campaign was a wonderful, completely artistic thing,” commented street artist Caiozzama in an interview. “Now this whole movement belongs to those who are against the government. You realize that art comes from the hand of injustice. When there is injustice, art is what helps you put everything together.”

Figure 8.3. An elaborate mural along Ramón Carnicer Street integrates various aspects of the social uprising iconography, such as the barred eyes and zombie-like police. © Terri Gordon-Zolov.
Figure 8.5. A stencil playfully depicts an alien beamed down from its mothership, coyly referencing First Lady Cecilia Morel’s off-the-record comment that the protests appeared like an “alien invasion.” © Eric Zolov.
Figure 8.6. This stencil also riffs on the alien theme, conveying an attack on the city of Santiago by alien forces. © Eric Zolov.
Figure 8.7. “Aliens take power,” a minimalistic white graphic on a wall along Avenida Providencia, builds on the alien theme. © Terri Gordon-Zolov.
Figure 8.8. A sign in the Plaza Ñuñoa features a space alien flashing the peace sign and proclaiming, “We’ve come for Human Rights,” an ironic riposte to the first lady’s off-the-cuff comment. © Eric Zolov.

In the 2019–20 social revolution, humor served multiple functions. On an aesthetic level, it broadened the appeal of the graphics. “Personally, I think that inserting humor into visual works is very important, above all, because by far the majority of images that we see are terrible. The images that the press puts out are of unleashed violence, of the police, of mutilated people,” said Pablo C. Castro Zamorano, who coordinated the Taller de Gráfica Inmediata, in an interview. “[I]njecting a bit of humor into the visual helps generate a different sense of empathy, a smile, a wink, something that stays with you and doesn’t generate a negative reaction.” For Castro, humor is intrinsic to Pop Art and to its allure. “[Humor] makes it more digestible, more palatable. It’s a way of creating an expression that captures your interest. It’s ‘sexy’ to have a sense of humor.” But humor also served a political function as well. It helped to mediate the latent tension between supporters of a strategy of mass, peaceful collective protest and those who endorsed the “heroics” of anarchist violence and direct confrontation with the carabineros. It also allowed for the expression of strong political sentiments in a non-aggressive manner. “What happens is that you feel wronged, and there are different ways to show your indignation,” Figueroa explained. “In this case, humor allows us to say things.”18 Caiozzama considers the deployment of popular cultural references, such as Matapocos, PareMan, and Pikachu, as “using humor as a weapon”: “[I]t is much more powerful than putting up an image of Piñera hanging, bloody, and being eaten by crows. Making Pikachu the national emblem is much more powerful than that and the message is just as clear. In this sense, it’s fantastic.”

Copyright © 2022 by Terri Gordon-Zolov and Eric Zolov. This excerpt originally appeared in The Walls of Santiago: Social Revolution and Political Aesthetics in Contemporary Chile, published by Berghahn Books. Reprinted here with permission.

Click here to read a conversation about The Walls of Santiago between Terri Gordon-Zolov, Eric Zolov, and Jordi Mariné Jubany.

Terri Gordon-Zolov is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at The New School. She researches the intersections of memory studies, gender studies, and cultural production and is currently working on a book on the literature of memory in post-dictatorship Chile. 

Eric Zolov is Professor of History at Stony Brook University. He teaches and researches the interplay between culture, politics, and international relations in twentieth-century Latin-America. He is the author of The Last Good Neighbor: Mexico in the Global Sixties (Duke University Press, 2020) and Refried Elvis: The Rise of the Mexican Counterculture (University of California Press, 1999).