Grime, Graffiti and Glamour in Valparaiso

When someone is physically out of shape, there becomes a point where they have to decide which way they are going to go. On one hand they could put in the superficial work dragging them back into a physical state that is aesthetically pleasing to the eye. And on the other hand, they may feel like the work isn’t worth the pain, and fall into a deeper depressed version of themselves. Many port cities find themselves in the same situations. Ports are notorious for the grim and rough shape of the buildings, streets and, quite frankly, the people. A point often arises in the historical span of a port where the city must decide that it is time to put in the hard work necessary to get the city to a point where they can be proud to show themselves off. Or, they may let themselves dive deeper and deeper into the sad state that the city sits; deciding that the salvation process isn’t worth the effort. It seems like there was a point that the city of Valaparaiso Chile was at that exact crossroad.

When it comes to people, however, there is another alternative, one that is usually preferred to the other superficial masking ideals. The later occurs when someone simply becomes proud of one’s self for who he or she is. Being comfortable in one’s own skin is maybe the most beautiful characteristics found within the core of a person’s self-image. Generally, the people who are comfortable with themselves, and who they truly are, are the most beautiful people in the world. When it comes to ports, Valparaiso, Chile has also chosen the third road. Rather than masking its rough and tumble image, or diving deeper into despair, this wild port city has instead found pride in its history, character, and nature. That alone allows a charm to rise through the grime that covers many of the city’s bright buildings.

In the vast majority of the world’s cities graffiti is seen as a plague cursed at before having someone come in to clean up the “mess”. It seems that white washed walls, to most, echo a city’s peace, class and eloquence. In the city locals call “Valpo,” graffiti is a cherished art form, it lines the streets and alley ways, and stands tall and proud without fear of removal by the authorities. Graffiti has become such a powerful means of expression that it has actually began to engrain itself into the cultural identity of the city. Even houses which would normally be referred to as “respectable” have their garage doors painted by the spray cans despised in most urban enclaves. Graffiti, in Valparaiso, is more than a simple form of art, it is a lifestyle embraced by nearly everyone from the poor to the rich.

Valparaiso, Chile, South America, graffiti

Valparaiso Graffiti

The character of Valparaiso extends much deeper than the surface symbols represented by the graffiti and murals of the city as well. The port is built on such a slope that much of the metropolis is inaccessible by cars. It is a nice change of pace to walk the streets of a South American city without the constant threat of speeding cars. It is comforting to be able to hike through an urban area without the constant harassment of the noise bellowed from the honking horns of taxis. And it is absolutely refreshing to be able to wander the alleys without being intoxicated by the scorched fumes that hang in the air of the streets pumped into the air by shabby city “buses.”

Where the roads can’t reach there are steep stairways that zigzag along the cliff sides and in between the vicariously hanging hillside houses. These pathways offer tranquility to the pace of the modern city, and romantically lead our minds back to a world free of the rush of traffic and crush of crowds. However, when weary feet leave visitors and villagers alike staring up at the steep steps towards the neighbourhoods that Pablo Neruda once called home, there are also other options. Funiculars, a hilled version of a train, drag people up the hills and into the barrios of the hills where guests are granted some spectacular views of the city and the ocean port where this city finds its home. Looking down on the city makes it hard to imagine how a port city, which seemed destined to the gutters of typical port life, has managed to create a grace and character like nowhere else in the world. However, it isn’t until you’ve taken the time to sit in the pubs to have a pint, walk through the parks to observe, or shop in the local markets and mingle with the inhabitants of Valparaiso until you’ll really understand where this colourful character has arisen from. The humour embedded within the fun-loving character of the people shows a heart willing to embrace life. The wide smiles that shine on the vendors’ faces in the markets describe the love that they are willing to share and the welcome that they wish to greet every single visitor. But it is their welcoming handshakes above all that make one understand. The firmness of their greeting reeks of pride; it tells of a confidence exuding from their hearts that they know you will love the city just as much as they do.


Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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  1. This was possibly your best post. You did a great job of describing the grit and how that has its own kind of appeal.

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    • thanks ted!

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  2. Hola de Mexico, Brendan,
    Loved this particular piece on graffiti…..You did an outstanding job once again on your discriptions….

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  3. These pictures totally made my day! That 1st one is GORGEOUS!!!

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  4. As I was telling you yesterday, I’s really curious about Valparaiso. Now I’m sure we’ll check it out. I love places that have awesome graffiti like this. It really allows the people to have a voice and most of it is so beautiful. We have a lot of good graffiti in the alleyways of Melbourne and it is always fun to happen on a new piece. Thanks for posting these photos!

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  5. When we first got off the bus in Valparaiso we stopped by the big fresh market. The friendliness of the vendors and customers was amazing. It really is a unique place and the street art is the best we saw in South America. Your photos and description capture the beauty and grime of Valparaiso so well. We only wish we had been able to spend more time to spend there.

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  6. great post! loved your description of valpo. we thought it was incredible. how did you go with your camera there? i lost count of how many times people approached us telling us to put it away immediately or it would get robbed. so hard to do in such a photogenic place! cheers, jamie from

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    • Hey Jamie,
      Ya, one of the girls said the same thing happened to her. I was up at 6am and shot until 10am with the camera and tripod out. No one said a word to me about it. The trick is to stay in busy areas, no one is going to rob you in front of everyone else. I had no problem, maybe by sheer luck.

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  7. Cool shots of Valparaiso. When we visited last year it did nothing but rain, so its nice to actually see what the city looks like! 😉

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  8. Brendan,
    Really awesome hearing about this different approach to street art. The pictures are excellent, but I also really enjoyed the commentary. B well, Phil

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