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Talavera Graffiti

Text and mosaic in collaboration with Mike De Seve, 2009

Talavera Graffiti is a site-specific project, outcome of a week long visit in Puebla, Mexico. It is documented and presented in Puebla Transbaroca, an alternative guide book curated by Katia Anguelova and Alessandra Poggianti, 2009.


Airport. The bus to Puebla cuts through the infinite slums of Mexico City’s edge. Then, in an eyeblink — desert, no person in sight: just Nicholas Cage on the bus TV. Two men behind us are going to the Volkswagen factory in Puebla. “Perfect, perfect” one repeats, ”perfect.” Where are we?

Puebla! Gustavo and Alessandra (project assistants) drive us to the hotel – past huge colonial buildings encrusted in colors. So these are the famous Talavera tiles we read about on Wikipedia. Now the hotel – Meson San Sebastian: one-meter-thick walls and a courtyard built to corral and kill invaders. Now it’s run by the siblings Stephanie, Steven and Stefano. Steven, 20-ish, sweet and smart, was keenly interested in our mission – to produce a piece about Puebla. The briefest chat about politics provokes him to blurt, “I am a revolutionary.” Seeing our looks, he backpedals: “And a Christian.” We’re not sure how to interpret this, but we like him.

Our room is a fairytale with towering ceilings, the key on a giant crucifix. Whose touch was that? On the wall is a sensual San Sebastian pierced with a dozen arrows. Does he represent us or them?

Dusk — time for Zocalo, the opulent center square with its enormous cathedral locked from the people behind four-meter tall fences. A tower of balloons sways above two skinny legs: a woman selling them, her child in a wire cage. Is she protecting him, or the balloons from him?

The square’s covered with marble and wi-fi. Suddenly, wild rock and roll — a bootleg booth. Old ladies, a boy in a wheelchair cheering and clapping to the “Mexican Beatles.” DVDs are burned on the spot like fresh tortillas. Cops pull up but they just light cigars and tap their feet. Smell of sugar, warm hug of the night. We fall in love with Puebla.

But what will our mission be? We’re lost tonight.


Morning eggs swim in green sauce. Off to Fabian at the tourist office. His wall is a photomural of a room caked in Talavera, the recurring theme so far. I’m drawn to the tiles – what’s their origin? Fabian is circling important places on the map—flea market, antique district. We ask about Talavera. Fabian smiles that it is something associated with the old identity of the city and doesn’t commun

icate new ideas. Still, who makes Talavera and what is the economy behind it? What does it mean to Pueblans, and to us?

There are three big markets selling Talavera, but few places are actually certified to do so – it’s a time-consuming, licensed process owned by only five small factories — a restriction that drives the price up. Just like Champagne, Mike says.

Fabian keeps making circles…art cinemas, dangerous parts, VW plant…Something sticks my head: If Talavera is Puebla’s old identity, what’s the new one?

VW is. Wikipedia again:

Puebla is the only North American manufacturing site of Volkswagen, which assembles the Jetta and New Beetle models. Including the plant and outsourcers for Volkswagen, the main manufacturing sector in Puebla is automotive, taking 41.66% of market share.

Talavera VW

Really? What is this city about? Centuries old fantasy fueled by transnational auto industry? Time-consuming local craft and time producing global capital. Who will win? How to put these things together?

Talavera and VW attract each other in my head and become one—opulent tile with the car logo on it.

Talavera VW. Tile graffiti. After some tinkering, I have a design. Now to make it.


We start at the top. Talavera La Reina — the best, licensed, Talavera maker in Puebla. The factory’s a lovely traditional house. Organized green yard, lots of Talavera pots, some modern, innovative. We’re guided through the long process: The few workers mix clay, make objects, fire them, glaze the patterns, re-fire. We’re told Talavera’s a dying art, which few young people are drawn to. There are also export restrictions because of its lead-based glaze. These factors keep it small.

I ask: can I make a custom design? Yes, it’ll take 2 to 6 weeks. But I have 2 days! Plan B – make a mosaic. But to create it we need “harlequin” tiles in white and blue. This is our challenge.


The VW plant. Tight security, my camera taken away. The official tour in an open bug: Biggest plant in Mexico, 1400 workers; 1000 women; 50,000 auxiliary jobs; ½ of the gross product of Puebla; Workers trained at age 15; 60 laser robots; 1800 cars a day…We’re done.

I get a promo video and snap a shot with the camera I just got back. No pictures, someone yells. Okay, okay! Taxi!

From Talavera de La Reina, with masterpieces at $400-2000, we descend to the Cholula bootleg markets, where knockoffs are 10x less. “Very poor people that survive from the ceramics they sell,” says Emiliana, a young artist working in a café there.

Cholula’s a university town with 200 churches and as many bars. Its dusty Talavera market snakes down the highway. Friendly sellers, tons of kids. At our first stop a sunburned woman comes out of her house-slash-shop, trailed by an old mop of a dog. We ask her about harlequins; she starts digging in piles: stones, metal parts, carved wooden angels, broken toys. A harlequin! Our first success. She promises she can find 30 more by tomorrow and gives us a…business card? The last thing we expected her to own. 30 more tiles? Do we believe her? We keep looking.

2 more days searching prove harlequin tiles are rare as dinosaur eggs. After 20 shops we hit the tourist market in town: prices 3-10x higher. Still no luck.


Back to the Cholula lady, our last hope. But she’s not there! A 7-year-old with a broken arm sells us 8 equally broken harlequin tiles we find in a corner. Is this what it’s all come to, all our work? Where’s the lady? I am exhausted. Let’s move on.

An absurd trail of questions lands us at a sagging mountain of boxes in a hidden yard off the highway. The lady guarding it looks like a big kid with contagious grin and huge sombrero that flies off in the wind. She pulls a tarp off the mountain: boxes of old tile, leftovers of other jobs, other lives. Suddenly Gustavo spots them! Harlequins! We toast with beer and say goodbye to the sombrero lady and her 2nd hand happy world.

Slowly a realization: the VW logo shouldn’t be painted by the licensed, elite factory. It should be made out of this recycled waste product. A convergence of high and low: transnational brand associated with money and Western values, and bootlegs associated with the precarious life on the periphery.

Talavera Graffiti at night

To work. We turn our Princess suite into a radical’s workshop. Steven would be proud, Mike smiles. Wooden table. Cheap tile cutter. Plastic pot. White cement. A mysterious brown liquid.

We cut tiles, file them on the stone floor, mix cement in the sink.

2 AM; the VW logo is built in tile! But the cement’s drying too fast. Hurry. We leave the piece and sneak out to find our site to install it. Steven, sleepy, lets us out the gate. Mike tells him we’re making Talavera graffiti. Was this wise?

Empty streets. We dodge lights — avoid cops. Finally, a street dug up for repaving. No cop car can drive it. Perfect. We measure a spot on an ancient wall. A fit!

Suddenly, footsteps. Workmen are coming straight at us! We hold our breath. But they blow past us, load their wheelbarrow with stolen cement and disappear. Compatriots of sorts.

We rush back for the piece, telling Steven we’ll be going out again – please don’t lock the gate. We mix fresh cement in our room and rush to the gate with it. The cement’s hardening fast. We knock on the gate. Nobody. We knock again and again…we bang on the glass with our crucifix. Why doesn’t he answer? There’s no way he can’t hear us. We can’t believe it – locked behind iron bars — the fortress hotel now our prison, echoing every sound.

No way out. The cement is now hard as stone.

We go back to our room. Sabotage, Mike says – he locked us in. Agitated, exhausted, we pass out in defeat. In the morning we leave for our plane.

What happened? Mike thinks it was Steven’s Christian winning over his Revolutionary. Were there forces greater than us at work? Is the town itself somehow rejecting the brand-name logo?

In the end the hand of Volkswagen remains invisible in Puebla. Nowhere do her elegant streets bear its name.