A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Mexico. Leer en Español.
The clouds part and the theme to The Simpsons plays in my head as I walk among the colorful buildings of "Sprayfield,” a neighborhood that, in recent months, has been covered with elaborate graffiti murals of the most famous yellow family on TV. It’s located in Iztacalco, the borough just east of Mexico City, within an Infonavit neighborhood—a multi-building, low-income apartment complex built by the Mexican federal housing agency in collaboration with private workers and their employers.
A woman crosses an alley guarded by an aerosol Chief Wiggum, while just around the corner, Professor Frink helps a cube-shaped Homer regain his 2D form. Roy, the artist who created this graffiti (and who asked that his surname be omitted from this article), is waiting for me there with Marco—a.k.a., “Belor,” as he’s called by the street art community—the creative mastermind behind Sprayfield who’ll be my guide on this journey through Iztacalco.
"This neighborhood is ours,” Belor tells me. “Over the years, we’ve seen how the walls were being tagged, but there wasn’t anything that we liked; nothing of quality. We came up with the idea to do something about The Simpsons, which is one of our favorite cartoons.”
Further along the way, in front of a mural depicting the bullies of Springfield Elementary School, we meet up with Cancer and Comer1, two street artists with whom Belor founded Night Lords, the collective that’s been bringing Sprayfield to life since November 2017. The three artists have spent years tagging throughout Mexico City and while their paths had always been marked by secrecy and beefs with other graffiti crews, they’ve always tried to involve residents in the creation of the murals in order to foster community and reclaim public spaces.
"Do you see all the tagged fences here? People develop prejudices, and there’s a stigma around graffiti—for them, it’s a blemish,” Belor explains. He adds that tags tend to generate a collective sense of dirtiness and a lack of safety among the neighborhood’s residents. With Sprayfield, by contrast, he believes that the murals inspired by The Simpsons seem to have made the residents feel safer and more engaged in their environment.
Convincing the Iztacalco community members to let Night Lords paint murals on their homes wasn’t easy, however. Comer1, whose real name is Iván, says that the collective went door-to-door to present the project to the owners of each area where they wanted to paint. “People who’ve only experienced tagging as mere tags and [graffiti] bombs obviously don’t like it, because that’s what graffiti is to them.” The artists looked for a common topic that people would accept, which is what brought them to The Simpsons.
“It’s a cartoon that we all love. It’s easier for the neighbors to accept you painting on their wall if it’s something they like and can relate to,” Comer1 says. “We pitched The Simpsons theme to them and showed them some pictures of our work so they could see how it could possibly look. The first wall is always the turning point. Then—once people see it—they recognize you.”
Six months in, Infonavit Iztacalco is home to 15 completed murals and there are five more that are currently in progress. Renowned artists in the local Mexico City graffiti scene come to display their work, and the Night Lords crew tells me that they’ve been contacted by international graffiti artists who want in on the project. To prove it, we walk a few blocks until we arrive at a seasonal market. There—on a wall that spans several housing units—is a huge mural by French graffiti artist ZDEY. The piece depicts a scene of yellow hippies, all of whom are armed with flowers and making peace signs, in a fight against soldiers with rifles. ZDEY, rendered in his trademark black-and-white cartoon figure, is making a peace sign in one hand and holding a Mexican flag in the other, as he stands with one foot on the backside of a defeated Donald Trump.
The Night Lords are responsible for negotiating with neighbors to agree upon new spaces where artists can tag, but Belor notes that every Sprayfield artist is tasked with translating a chapter or character from the show into a unique concept, and that they alone are required to finance the operation. “Everyone has to get their own cans, their paint,” the artist says. “That’s why projects are occasionally put on pause. Sometimes [an artist] will start a mural and then need to stop to raise enough money for the supplies [required to continue].”
Even though Sprayfield seeks to reclaim public spaces and foster a greater sense of community among residents, the project hasn’t received much support from the Mexican authorities to date. The participation of the public, however, has grown more and more enthusiastic. The Night Lords don’t have to go door-to-door to convince residents to loan out their walls; now, the residents are seeking out the collective to ensure that their building can be a part of Sprayfield. And since none of the artists are charging residents for doing the murals, some neighbors offer their support with ladders, scaffolding, and even art materials.
Towards the end of the tour, we arrive at a huge red wall with some tags—nothing substantial. The building is an elementary school. Belor looks at the fence and tells me that future plans for Sprayfield include coming to an agreement with school authorities to paint a mural on the wall. The goal is to make the wall more visually appealing and that, as a result, graffiti will lose its stigma as something that’s clandestine by necessity. “We want to cover all the walls that we can; to find a way to work with the residents so that more artists who want to participate [in the project] can come here. And we want to do things that are bigger than these walls—to paint murals on buildings or on a school, to cover them from top to bottom and make things look cooler. And we want to do projects in other parts of the city, like starting a Sprayfield Two," he concludes.
Sprayfield’s walls are as diverse as the artistic styles of their respective creators. As Belor takes me to the last mural, I watch how the residents of Iztacalco cheerfully greet him from afar. Some even come up to us to chat with him. The community is familiar with the Night Lords’ project, as are some of the other neighborhoods within Infonavit. As more artists from around Mexico and the international scene reach out to get involved with the project, the Night Lords say they plan on continuing their negotiations to reclaim new spots that will, little by little, transform tags into vibrant murals.
I leave Belor and finish my tour of the neighborhood where residents are the protagonists of a new story, one where a cartoon from Springfield is reborn in Iztacalco. My chapter here may be ending, but Sprayfield’s story isn’t. It’s the start of new narrative that’s only beginning just east of Mexico City.