Murals are popular throughout Latin America. It is a tradition that dates back to well before the glory days of Mexican muralism lead by the immortal Diego Rivera in the early 20th century. In fact, murals or wall painting is probably the oldest form of art in human history, dating back to 30,000 B.C. in the caves of southern France. Therefore, one would expect artists to take to the walls to express their vision. This is very common in Central America, where past political upheavals have caused murals to often take a political slant, normally against those in power.
That said, the sheer quantity of murals in the little coffee village of Ataco in western El Salvador surprises even an experienced observer like me. Ataco is a classic highland coffee village in Central America – peaceful, religious, with a friendly populace and an eternal spring climate. What really makes it stand out is the sheer proliferation of murals. This humble town resembles a street gallery, it is almost impossible to walk a block without seeing at least one mural if not multiple.
The street murals of Ataco started in 2003 as a display of personal passion for cats by a native of the town who returned after a long stay in the capital San Salvador. Cristina Pineda decided to paint the side of her artisan craft shop with curious blue cats, using the color of the Salvadorian flag, to call attention to her shop. The townsfolk liked the mural so much they started painting murals on their homes and this attracted more artists from around El Salvador and even abroad.
The mural movement of Ataco also inspired locals to become artists like brothers Bruno and Fabricio Jiménez who, with no previous experience as artists, created a mural they called Memita to represent the admirable qualities of all Salvadorean women. Based on their mother Noemí , the paintings of Memita with her big eyes, long dark hair and brown skin became a national symbol - drawing further fame to Ataco as ground zero for Salvadorean muralists.
In general, political themes have been discouraged in the murals of Ataco, to the extent that in January 2011 the mayor ordered three of the murals – those dedicated to women’s rights, indigenous roots, and environmental activism – to be whitewashed. Two that were allowed to remain were an elderly woman drinking coffee and a mural about children’s rights and aspirations.
On my recent visit in June I did view some politically inspired murals, but they were very much in the minority. One such mural showed the terror of crossing into the United States as a migrant, something very poignant today with so many Salvadorians looking to migrate to the U.S.
Most of the murals I saw were a celebration of life in Ataco... Some residents taking advantage of the medium to turn their front door into the door of a church, lots of depictions of festivals and also the hard work of harvesting coffee. Humor is often present, with one ceviche bar using a mural as a sort of x-ray view of the typical activity inside the bar, and another showing Homer Simpson dreaming of a cold mug of beer.
What is for sure is that Ataco is one of the most pleasant and beautiful towns in El Salvador to visit, with a very unique historic hotel, beautiful parish church and very polite and welcoming populace that appears justifiably proud of the beauty of their walls.