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Artists Aim To Make Border Fence ‘Beautiful’

The U.S.-Mexico border fence has become a canvas for artists from both countries.

Tijuana muralist Enrique Chiu is leading a binational effort to create a mural that will stretch for more than a mile on the south side of the border fence. That would make it one of Mexico's longest murals.

Photo by Jean Guerrero

Enrique Chiu discusses his community mural at the border fence in Tijuana, Dec. 29, 2016.

"It was a rusty fence, a fence full of, I don't know, apathy, sadness," Chiu said. "For years, it was seen as something that divided."

He said he wants to transform the fence — a conglomeration of steel bars, corrugated steel plates, steel mesh — into a beautiful, inspiring symbol of unity.

“We want to send a message of peace, of kinship, of unity between the two nations," Chiu said.

Every weekend, volunteers spread colorful paints on the fence to create uplifting natural scenery, such as butterflies and flowers, and positive words such as "love" and "empathy."

Chiu is calling the community project, "El Mural de la Hermandad," or the mural of brotherhood and sisterhood. He said hundreds of people have participated since the project started on Dec. 1, and that he plans to lead groups of painters every Saturday and Sunday through April 2.

He said he isn't worried about President-elect Donald Trump's plans to replace the existing fence with a larger wall.

"If they build the wall, it's more canvas for us," Chiu said. "I believe we'll paint that one, too."

Anyone can come paint the wall with Chiu: professional artists, families, even children with no experience. Sometimes Chiu creates outlines for people to fill in with colors of their choice. Chiu's only rule is that the images be happy.

"If someone doesn't know how to paint, I help them," he said. "If they don’t have an image in mind, maybe a message such as ‘love’ and ‘peace.’”

Chiu's community mural isn't the only one that sought to transform the border fence into a work of art.

Just footsteps from the beginning of Chiu's mural in Playas de Tijuana, where the border fence meets the Pacific Ocean, a Mexican-American artist from San Diego named Ana Teresa Fernandez recently painted the fence blue, creating the illusion from certain angles that there is no fence in that section.

The 700 miles of barriers that exist between the two countries sporadically feature small murals, graffiti and memorial crosses for migrants who died trying to enter the U.S. illegally — but only on the Mexican side, where U.S. Border Patrol can't intervene.

Chiu said his project isn't politically motivated; he just wanted to make the fence less ugly.

"This fence, which for so many people in our country is a symbol of sadness, of limitation ... as artists, we had to paint it," he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included a family member of the reporter, who was not identified as such. KPBS regrets this error. Our principles guide us not to use sources that could present a conflict of interest in our stories.

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