Agents of Change: The Art of Boa Mistura

Big Cities: Boa Mistura work in Antofogasta

A collaboration between Link TV and TAL, "Big Cities" showcases community-driven solutions for global urban challenges. For more stories about public art and for a deeper into Boa Mistura's work, watch our episode on Bringing Life Into Public Spaces.

The artist collective known as Boa Mistura is changing the world one mural at a time. Consisting of five childhood friends, the group was formulated in 2001 through their love of graffiti and the realization that art can be agent of change. Based in Madrid, Spain, they travel the world tackling increasingly larger projects and commissions. Working in communities that desperately require moral and economic aid, they use their talents to bring joy, attention, and color to these corners of the globe. 

Boa Mistura means “good mixture” and is a reference to the varied expertise of each member of the group. From design, fine art and architecture to civil engineering, the education and knowledge that each individual brings to the group encompasses much more than a single person could maintain. Graffiti and street art collectives are unique in such an approach. Emphasizing the collective over the individual—more is possible with multiple hands. 

Recent projects (or interventions as the group refers to their projects) have been hosted in Cape Town, South Africa; São Paulo, Brazil; and New Delhi, India to name a few.

Kanga project in Nairobi, Kenya
Kanga project in Nairobi, Kenya in 2016. The text translates to to “We are heroes” in Swahili.  | Boa Mistura

A recent project in Nairobi, Kenya in 2016 is good example of how the group embraces local traditions and communicates a message of love to their community partners. A Kanga is a colorful traditional garment or wrap that is often worn by women in Eastern Africa. The cloth is typically designed with a border, uses many symbols, and features a central text or message that the owner identifies with. Boa Mistura captured this concept by creating a large mural of a Kanga, as if it was wrapped metaphorically around the entire town. The blue mural with a white border featured the text “Sisi ni mashujaa,” which translates to “We are heroes” in Swahili. The combination of the message, location, and traditional imagery demonstrate the collective’s interest in being supportive and the importance of positive energy. 

In another part of the world, Somoto is a small city in the northern hills of Nicaragua where most people live in homes they built themselves. This region was struggling with a drought in 2016 when Boa Mistura proposed an artwork on city’s widest street. With no cultural center, the collective designed a mural that was painted on the road that captured much of the natural landscape, including the volcanoes, rivers, animal life, and mountains. Central to life in the area, the color blue represents the rain cycle and its life giving qualities. The massive scale relates directly to the impact art has on people. The implied concept is that this is an important place and the citizens are important as well. They deserve something special and the collective aimed to deliver that message. Boa Mistura holds true to a central theme that they aim to aid and improve communities. It’s not about them but the community itself.

Caminos de Agua project in Somoto, Nicaragua
Caminos de Agua project addressing a drought in Somoto, Nicaragua in 2016.  | Boa Mistura

The complexity of issues related to graffiti is based upon two urban trajectories, according to experts like Jeffrey Ian Ross. One is about crime and graffiti prevention while the other is about using art to promote development and growth. The former is about public safety and preventative policing in order to maintain social control (Boa Mistura is not a stranger to being fined for some of their works in Madrid). The latter trajectory repurposes the urban space to improve the quality of life of its residents. This appears to be the main objective for Boa Mistura’s projects going forward. 

This trajectory has graffiti becoming an artistic contribution and opportunity for communities. The art is transformative in these instances, as it becomes part of establishing a new identity. One such example is in Belgrade, Serbia, a city with a long history of war that has become a cultural capital. Boa Mistura decided to work on the city’s Spanish House, a former customs building that has become a neglected ruin just outside the city. Since the artists typically use graphic text in their works, they created a clever installation that requires visitors to move around the space to explore its beauty and a hidden message.

The proverb “A kind word opens even an iron gate” (Palabra bonita abre puerta de hierro) was painted on the walls of this relic in 2014 so that one must stand at just the right angle to read the first part of the message and move across the ruins to read the remaining message. The words almost appear to float as the viewer lines them up correctly in their sightline. The physical interaction puts ownership on the viewers, conveying that they have the power to make change.

Spanish House in Belgrade, Serbia
The Spanish House project in Belgrade, Serbia transforms a ruined building into a cultural hub.  | Boa Mistura

What started out as illegal graffiti as youth has developed into acts that are both beautiful in concept and product.

As one reviews the rich history of Boa Mistura, it becomes apparent that the group seeks input and direction from the communities they serve. Swooping in and out of a city or town does not help, unless the art becomes part of the fabric of the community. This is only accomplished by connecting and hearing from folks in these locations. By eating, talking, and becoming part of the local culture, the artists are able to understand where they are and how they can help. The collective believes they have the ability to touch the hearts of individuals through their art because their installations are purposely accessible and relevant. The art exists outside in the public square, where folks live and there is no middleman to engage and enjoy. What started out as illegal graffiti as youth has developed into acts that are both beautiful in concept and product. Boa Mistura has captured a fundamental aspect of being human in their conceptual agenda, that a life of serving others is a life well lived and with each completed piece, a community rejoices in appreciation. 

"Live to Learn" project in New Delhi, India in 2015.
"Live to Learn project in New Delhi, India in 2015.  | Boa Mistura
"Luz Nas Vielas" project in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2012.
"Luz Nas Vielas" project in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2012. | Boa Mistura

Related Content
A baby plays alongside a woman braiding rope for the Q'eswachaka Bridge reconstruction.

Indigenous Rope Bridge Builders Face Change With Ancestral Wisdom

Having suffered great climatic, social, and political changes for centuries, the people native to Peru's Quehue region have learned to face change armed only with their ancestral knowledge.
Big Cities: Chi Fu Valley in Hong Kong

How An Old Dairy Farm Became the Green Lung of Hong Kong

In a Hong Kong where enormous banyan trees shade the ruins of one of the world’s first industrial dairy farms, citizens are taking a greater stance in protecting their cultural heritage and endangered wildlife.
Cosmopolis Toronto: Palestine

World In a City: One Photographer, 195 Countries

Colin Boyd Shafer took on the challenge to photograph one person from every country of the world to showcase the beauty of diversity. The catch? They all had to be people who now call Toronto home.