In 2008, sick of watching his derelict neighbourhood dying a slow death, Spanish artist Eduardo Hermida walked out of his studio and painted a mural inspired by Diego Velazquez’s masterpiece “Las Meninas”. It was a spontaneous protest begging authorities to do something in Canido in the industrial northwestern town of Ferrol, dubbed Spain’s Detroit for its shrinking population and abandoned homes.
His friends joined in. As the years passed, so did other artists from as far afield as Taiwan and before he knew it, Hermida had created an annual urban art festival that has helped breathe life into the neighbourhood, attracting visitors and new residents.
In April, a mural sporting the alleged signature of legendary street artist Banksy appeared overnight, generating breathless excitement.
Was this the famously anonymous graffiti star’s first foray into Spain, coming to the rescue of the struggling Galician town?
Unfortunately not. Banksy’s official website has since denied he was behind the stencilled image of two Guardia Civil police agents kissing, and the author’s true identity remains a mystery.
But the show goes on.
During last weekend’s edition of the event, now sponsored by commercial brands, artists from around Spain got busy on walls marked with a yellow “M”, indicating where they were allowed to work.
Some perched on aerial work platforms to spray-paint giant building facades, others delicately glued mosaics to the wall of a house in ruins.
The neighbourhood has accumulated around 240 quirky variants of Velazquez’s 17th century painting, which depicts young Infanta Margarita with her ladies-in-waiting (Meninas in Spanish), wearing tight corsets and wide, bouffant skirts.
Cubist Meninas, a Menina with a Darth Vader head, another sporting the feminist slogan “Time’s Up”, a mermaid Menina with long blue hair and a scar on her breast campaigning for breast cancer, another whose face lines follow the cracks of a wall…
In Canido, they come in all colours and sizes, helping liven up a town that Hermida says has suffered an “agonising and chronic” crisis sparked by the decline in its once buoyant shipyards.
“That pushed people to migrate, to leave, and there are lots of abandoned houses,” the bearded 52-year-old artist says.
Since 1981, Ferrol, also the birthplace of late dictator Francisco Franco, has lost more than 20,000 inhabitants according to Galicia’s statistics institute.
Between 1998 and 2017 the number of under-30s living there fell by nearly 47 per cent. In February, Zara, the high-street fashion favourite whose billionaire owner is Galician, closed its only store there.
Injection of youth
Canido, perched high in town overlooking lush rolling hills, has been “one of the worst-hit” neighbourhoods, says Hermida.
But it has gradually changed over the decade helped in no small part by the Meninas, locals say.
While many dilapidated, single-storey houses remain, several new homes have sprung up.
A popular supermarket chain has also opened.
“There is a gynaecologist, fishmonger, restaurants with good food,” Hermida adds.
Jose Gandara, a 46-year-old newsagent who has run a small shop since 1996, estimates that Canido’s population has doubled since the festival began.
“There are more customers… young people have come to the neighbourhood, couples, young people with kids.”
He says tourists from cruise ships that now dock in Ferrol trek up to the neighbourhood to see what all the fuss is about. The concept of art helping revive a town is not new. Fanzara in eastern Spain, for instance, has been revitalised by giant murals painted by street artists from around the world.
For Maria Fernandez Lemos, Ferrol’s 46-year-old urban planning councillor, the Meninas festival — and a close-knit community — has helped generate pride in a town that didn’t have much to go on.
“It’s had a huge impact,” she says. — AFP