It’s been years since I’ve walked the cobblestone streets of Buenos Aires, but the sights and sounds of the city that doesn’t sleep have never left me. Strolls down narrow alleys and the expansive city avenues of B.A., and the street art I stumbled on along the way, are what I remember most. Some of this art literally stopped me in my tracks, transporting me to another place in time.
I was reminded of these memories after reading “Argentina’s Textile Crusader,” Craftsmanship Quarterly‘s recent story about one woman’s mission to popularize sustainable clothing that is made from the fleece of South American’s native guanaco.
From colorful, retro-style graffiti to vivid, labor-intensive murals that span entire city blocks, a synergy of imagery, symbols, and stylized lettering enlivens Buenos Aires’ storefronts, signposts, private homes, and even its vehicles. Amid the dizzying array of forms and styles, perhaps the most distinctive is fileteado porteño (or filete), a traditional style of folk painting almost as emblematic of the country as the tango.
Although the exact origins of fileteado porteño remain a mystery, it is widely believed to have originated in the port city’s old wagon factories at the turn of the 20th century. Italian immigrants who worked in those factories are credited with first painting delivery wagons in filete (from the Latin word filum, meaning “a fine line, or thread-like”) — a fitting name, as these early artists used very fine lines and only a few colors.
Over time, fileteado porteño evolved to include elaborate ornamentation, bold colors, gothic typography, and popular themes of the day. Classic filete artists often incorporated religious iconography, such as images of Jesus and La Virgen de Lujan (Our Lady of Lujan), both symbols of protection. The face of beloved tango star Carlos Gardel (1890 – 1935) has also graced the panels and hoods of many trucks and colectivos (urban buses), usually accompanied by his song lyrics. My father, a tried-and-true porteño, fondly remembers seeing the title of Gardel’s classic tango, “Mi Buenos Aires Querido,” on the buses he rode as a boy.
During the 1970s, a period of national unrest, military dictatorship, and economic crisis that would last for years, the government banned filete from the colectivos, supposedly to avoid confusing commuters. Many fileteadores found themselves abruptly out of work, searching for inventive ways to keep their art alive. A few master fileteadores, like Alfredo Genovese, who was born in Buenos Aires in 1964, have been instrumental in preserving the tradition. In his book, “Tratado de Fileteado Porteño,” Genovese passes down what he learned from teachers like León Untroib and Ricardo Gomez, offering an educational starter kit for would-be fileteadores the world over. His goal is to teach the craft to the next generation so they can carry it forward.
“I’m interested in preserving fileteado porteño because it is the most original form of Argentine painting there is,” Genovese says.
Along with teaching, Genovese believes innovation is the key to his mission’s success. For example, he and Claudio Momenti, a tattoo artist and owner of B.A.’s Lucky Seven Tattoo Studio, collaborated in 2006 to create a series of unique designs for tattoo fileteado — the first time the two art forms had ever been combined, according to Genovese.
When I asked Genovese if he would ever pick up a tattoo gun himself, he exclaimed, “Tattoo, no! The application and the tools are different.” He’d prefer to stick with what he knows best and leave tattooing to experts like Momenti. For Genovese, “Fileteado porteño is a practice closely linked to design. It has reached new uses without losing its characteristics and its traditional image. That is, it went from the body shop to graphics and advertising.”
Today, el filete is used on billboards, signposts, advertising (including global brands such as Coca-Cola and Nike), and human bodies throughout Buenos Aires and beyond. For Genovese and the newer generation of filete artists, the canvas has changed, but the craftsmanship and highly recognizable style of their art remains: clean lines, bright colors, ornate designs, fine lettering. So, they carry on.
Long considered a “common” art, fileteado porteño finally received some recognition in 2015, when UNESCO included it in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Several years earlier, in 2012, the city of Buenos Aires declared Genovese a “prominent person of the culture.” But overall, fileteadores still struggle to earn respect. And despite filete’s historic and artistic value, it is rare to find the art form in larger institutions or museums.
“[There is] a very small collection in the Museum of Buenos Aires, and in another private collection,” Genovese says. “No other museums, no institutions are dedicated to promoting fileteado in Argentina. The state does not favor those things.” Genovese shrugs off the lack of support. “Here, it’s normal… we don’t expect anything. We have other problems that are more urgent for the state to worry about than the culture. It’s the artists who are in charge of that.”
So Genovese does what he can to keep filete thriving. When asked about the art form’s future he says, “I’m not a fortuneteller; I don’t know the future. I hope that it’s good and inclusive, and open to innovation.”
Nonetheless, a growing, worldwide interest in filete gives Genovese hope that younger generations will appreciate this “friendly and easily accessible” art, despite the lack of institutional support. What he enjoys most these days is taking the art form he loves to faraway places like Europe and Tokyo, where he offers fileteado workshops to eager audiences. He believes there is “a mutual cultural appreciation” as well as genuine interest in Argentine traditions.
As with most traditional folk arts, fading into extinction is still a very real possibility for fileteado porteño. But with Genovese and other masters dedicated to sharing their skills, this iconic Buenos Aires art form may continue to evolve and thrive.