Lavapiés is a neighborhood in the city of Madrid, Spain. The name means “wash feet,” presumably named after the fountain that once stood in the plaza. Today, Lavapiés is the local point for alternative restaurants alongside typical Spanish tapas bars. This neighborhood has a high population of immigrants, a fact which attracts tourist and visitors from other parts of the city to try foods from far afield. The cultural exchanges that take place there add to the character of this cosmopolitan maze.

It is also worth mentioning that Lavapiés used to be notoriously known as a slum. Its tenement blocks since then have been transformed into apartments and markets painted in pastel colors.  

The steep hills and labyrinth-like streets also add a dramatic effect. In this neighborhood, street art is used as a medium for cultural acceptance and expression. Some talented pieces are splashed across shutters on store fronts. You have the most luck exploring on Sundays when most of the shops are closed, making the paintings visible to everyone who passes by. Other likely sights are the crumbling walls of deserted buildings. All the spaces I encountered are locations which attempt to break ties with the negative connotations that are attached to graffiti.

Bangladesh Association in Spain (photo: Ajok Deng)

Printed in this picture are words which read “Bangladesh association in Spain.” Lavapiés is home to many immigrants of Asian and African descent. There is also a Muslim community made up of people from places such as Senegal, Morocco, and other North African countries. These populations add to the diversity of the neighborhood and the city as a whole.

Be it murals or small objects painted on the face of a building, the artist aims to put the residents and visitors into conversation with references to social or political issues. My personal focus on street culture is connected to Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Much of the attitude behind public art can be traced back to the Franco dictatorshio (1939-1975). The regime of terror and repression imposed by Franco deliberately silenced those who opposed his ideologies. In contrast, the artists who feature their work in Lavapiés are politically-minded individuals who portray an anti-Franco sentiment. In Lavapiés art acts as a reminder of the country’s past, a past which many wish to forget altogether. The neighborhood’s history is juxtaposed beside the national history to show its revolutionary tendencies. There, art is a means of reconstructing history to recreate a collective memory.

Many of my findings regarding the collective memory show a conflict between remembering a painful past and the desire to create new identities. I believe that these alternate identities hinge on a common understanding of Spanish history. In other words, the act of choosing to remember creates new possibilities for the collective in the present.

What was once covered (photo: Ajok Deng)

Skulls and bones emerge from the ground beneath your feet. They peek right above the sidewalks and leave a chilling impression of what was once hidden. Also, corpse-like figures are meant to draw attention to the mass graves that scatter the country and critique the impunity of the crimes committed during the regime.

The history surrounding the dictatorship has long been buried, but it still has a way of creeping up to the surface. The collective memory acknowledges that the recovery of the remains of victims is an essential step for the countless families seeking closure.