Using Art to Reinvent Tijuana

Mexico has a dynamic and rich art history and a deep cultural appreciation of its artists. From Diego Rivera to Frida Kahlo to emerging graffiti street painters, the country has many gifted artists–but they struggle. Today in Tijuana, the city of three million people is experiencing an explosion in their art community and everyone is waiting to see how this new revolution will play itself out.

Graffiti artist Frank Romero opened his gallery Local 29 two years ago. He works in both silkscreen and on the sides of buildings. Romero works in graffiti because he says, “Art is for everyone. If it’s in the streets, everyone can see it. The city becomes the art gallery and no one can limit the audience.”

Romero and many of the TJ artists talk about working hard to change the image of the city. They say their work is a natural response to their frustration with the perception of a violent city and a stereotype that every city in Mexico is the same. Tijuana’s crime rate has dropped by 40 percent since 2010 and 2011.

“When the violence was at its height in 2007 and 2008 and America was economically failing, the rest of the world felt the effects of that. We locals decided to take back our city," Romero said. 

He said spaces along the tourist street Revolucion were empty. He said artists asked owners if they could rent them buildings at low rates.

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"We filled the spaces on streets like Pasaje Rodriquez and more recently Paseje Gomez, with our studios, bookstores, and coffee shops," he said. 

A few spaces down from Local 29, owners of the Freelance Art Gallery or (Espacio Freelance), Ximena Jasso Monge and Ruben Frank Notch, say their gallery/record store/book store gives “a place to new and unknown artists who may never get a chance to display work." Freelance offers free lectures and classes for local artists monthly.

Monge and Notch say they’re getting more locals visiting their gallery daily, and about 10 percent of their visitors are tourists. In the next five years, they’re hoping more like 50 percent will be tourists. They do get some very serious buyers and collectors coming through, so they’re hopeful.

Thirty-six year old painter Jean Von Borstel was born and raised in Tijuana. Borstel had a show this past Spring called Exhibit Flourish, and not unlike many of her fellow TJ artists, she sold almost all of her paintings.  

When discussing why now art in Tijuana is thriving, Borstel says: “We have something to say, we’re sending a strong message. Many of us are self-taught, so our work comes from the core.”

Von Borstel’s work shows vibrantly colorful paintings of women with serene faces holding their hands to their hearts, or embracing flowers. The colors seem in contrast with her subject’s expressions. A dichotomy Borstel says reflects the calm versus violence of her country. 

“A kind of controlled chaos,” Borstel says.

Arturo Rodriguez has run his gallery La Caja since 2003.  The building was designed by TJ architect Jorge Gracia, and built from all found wood, sheet metal, and old industrial box freezers.  

“It’s a slow process selling art in Tijuana. We have faith there are incredibly talented artists in TJ, but we still have to sell in unique ways,"  says Cossete Delpech, gallery manager for La Caja. "Arturo has dinner parties in collaboration with art openings, inviting new chefs and creating themes with the art and the food, often including live performance as well.”

In recognition of the exciting things happening in the emerging art community, this month Caja, which usually works solely with established artists, will invite several unknown artists to bring their portfolios in for review.  

Choosing as many as they believe qualify, Caja will give the space to few young artists for a showing in the fall.  

Josue Castro, photographer and owner of the art space, La Tentacion, located in Pasaje Gomez, says that despite much of the growth and success on the Pasaje’s spaces, they are still in their infancy.

“What’s interesting is that now, government-supported organizations like the Central Cultural Tijuana Museum (CECUT), are coming to us," he said. "This little art community is bringing artists and collectors from the US and other parts of Mexico to them."

He said bigger cities have more support. 

"The truth is, more in the past than today, an artist has to leave Mexico and go to the US or Europe, get shows and sell work there, then he or she can make money as an artist in Mexico," he said. "It’s just like that with artists. But this new movement may change all that. We’ll see.”

Rebekah Sager is a writer and editor for She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @rebekah_sager.