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Border Art Short: The Godfather

Cover image for podcast episode

Today, we’re kicking off an ongoing series of shorter episodes about border art. In this episode, we talk to a guy we're calling the godfather of border art. He's the guy who helped put border art on the map: Marcos Ramírez, a Tijuana artist most people know as “Erre.”

Border art is art at the actual border fence, art about the border, and often times, it’s both.

It feels weird to say that the U.S.-Mexico border wall inspires artists. Because mostly, it pisses them off.

Not to lump all artists into one sweeping stereotype, but a lot of the work being made about the border is pretty heavy in its opposition to the fence and all it stands for. It’s protest art. Or art that wants to start a conversation about power, immigration or human rights.

Show transcript

Back in 1988 -- before a big wall stood between San Diego and Tijuana -- artist Richard Lou mounted a door at the border.

Music bump: Intensity

He stood it up between a section of broken-down barbwire near the airport in TJ.

The rusty wire fence was one of the only visible demarcations of the international border line at the time.

The artist’s message was clear: The door was open. Immigrants from Mexico and beyond were welcome to the United States.

Border Art is art at the actual border fence…art about the border...and often times, it’s both.

It feels weird to say that the U.S.-Mexico border wall inspires artists. Because mostly, it pisses them off.

Not to lump all artists into one sweeping stereotype, but a lot of the work being made about the border is pretty heavy in its opposition to the fence and all it stands for.... It’s protest art. Or art that wants to start a conversation about power, immigration or human rights.

Natsound: art show

In San Diego on a recent Saturday night, a few dozen people crowd inside a small gallery called You Belong Here.

The crowd is mostly young, artistic types.

On view tonight… A border art exhibition featuring photography and video.

Natsound: art show

Alejandro Martinez is standing by the gallery door. He exudes a calm intensity. He’s a young artist who works with a nearby nonprofit that serves refugee youth.

Alejandro tells us that border art is not a medium to be messed with.

He has two black-and-white photos of migrants stuck in Tijuana on display. He’s first generation Mexican-American, and he says when it comes to border art, he hates when artists portray the wall as something captivating or mysterious. He says for him, the border stands for something very clear.
***You Belong Clip 5
….The Border has killed and, this is a Border Angels estimate, 30 thousand migrants have died in the desert, you know, so whether we're white whether we're Asian whether were even Mexican, we're taking photographs of the border. What do we want those photographs to achieve?
****You Belong Clip 6
It's not a game. You know, it's not it's not a portfolio enhancer. This is people's lives, you know, so…

A few feet away from Alejandro’s photos, a video screen flashes images of children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The images are caught in the reflection of the colorful eyeglasses worn by the artist who made the video - Amanda Dahlgren.
Amanda is tall and blond. She was born in Sweden and remembers being required to recite the pledge every morning after immigrating to the U.S. -- she says she thought it was weird and never fully understood the tradition until she got older. She recently asked her own daughter what she thought of the pledge. The conversation led to the video piece.

You Belong Clip 1
the Beautiful part is because she goes to a Spanish Immersion School. They from the beginning have learned it in Spanish. So her and all her friends, you know, they all recite it. You know once a week or whatever in Spanish, and so to me that meant so much and that said so much about the future, you know, and that these kids who don't speak Spanish at home, you know, their their first language is English, that they're embracing another language. They're embracing another culture and that they're understanding that being American is not about a language, it’s not about a specific background, we’re a nation of immigrants and I think there’s something beautiful about the fact that they’re saying it in Spanish so….

Across the room, a new group of people walk through the front door of the gallery.

You Belong Clip 11
The TJ contingent just arrived. I guess they all came in the same car.

Jill Holslin (whole-slin) is an American teacher who’s been living in Tijuana since 2011. She’s got a lot of energy and you can usually spot her in a crowd because she’s always laughing.
Music bump: energetic
Jill’s piece in the show is a video installation. She took drone footage of herself walking across the border in a place where there’s no fence. She’s shown walking back and forth through criss-crossing dirt paths -- a combo of wildlife trails, migrant paths and roads cut into the hillsides by U.S. border patrol agents.
Jill is becoming well-known for her border art. In 2017, she and a group of artists and activists drove to the fence on the Tijuana side and projected images over the wall and onto President Donald Trump’s border wall prototypes. The prototypes were eight samples of various border fence options Trump had contractors build near the border in San Diego.
CNN News Clip about border wall prototypes https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2017/10/26/trump-eight-border-wall-prototypes-marquez-dnt-ac.cnn
The images projected onto those eight walls that night were political, mostly being subversive towards Trump and his immigration policies. Images of a ladder, the Statue of Liberty and messages saying, "Refugees welcome here," and "Come on in” lit up the prototypes that night.
Jill is both an artist and an activist.
Obviously, when it comes to border art -- which is inherently political -- it’s hard to separate those two sides of herself. But over the years, she says she’s found a way to draw a line between her art and her activism.
*******You Belong Clip 15
...for me, the biggest difference with art is that with with a true work of art, what I want to do is I want to raise questions and I don't want to I don't want to make everything so clear and so unambiguous. I want people to approach a work of art and think about it and bring their own ideas to it instead of having it be like a slogan or something. That's completely, absolutely clear...
The two curators behind tonight’s show can be seen darting back and forth across the gallery, talking to the artists and welcoming guests as they continue crowding into the small space.
Scott Davis is one of the curators. He’s got a thick mop of brown hair on his head and piercing blue eyes that match his blue button-up shirt.
Scott says he and his co-curator Stacy Keck wanted to put together a border art exhibition as a reaction to the current political climate. Not a day goes by without news of Trump wanting to stop the flow of immigrants in one way or another.
You Belong Clip 7
I think it's really important to humanize the the people and the issues that are happening today and photography is such a great vehicle to do that.

Natsound: art show fade
Music bump

I’m Alan Lilienthal, and you’re listening to Only Here, a KPBS podcast about the unexplored subcultures, creativity and struggles at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Today, we’re kicking off an ongoing series of shorter episodes about border art.

After the break, we talk to the so-called godfather of border art -- the guy who put border art on the map. Marcos Ramirez, a Tijuana artist most people know as “Erre.”

Only here will you find an artist making work critical of the border, located at the actual border fence and paid for by the federal government, which is also paying for an expanded border wall.

More after the break.

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The story is unforgettable…

Music bump: Greek music

The Greeks constructed a giant wooden horse, hid men inside it and then pretended to sail away.

The Trojan war was raging…

Sound from Trojan War Battle Movie https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMhVh6edP_k

And the Trojans, assuming their opponents had given up and split, dragged the horse into their city as a trophy of sorts.

That night, the Greek warriors crept out of the hollow inside of the horse and opened the gates for the rest of the Greek army. The city of Troy was destroyed.

Sound from documentary on Trojan War
Music fades.

Once upon a time, a trojan horse stood here at the U.S.-Mexico border, too.

Natsound: Border Crossing Ambi

The giant wooden horse had two heads and straddled the international border line -- one head in Tijuana, the other in San Diego.

It sat here for nearly a year in 1997, in clear view of the thousands of cars and pedestrians who cross through the San Ysidro Port of Entry every day.

The horse was a sculpture… a temporary work of art by Tijuana artist Marcos Ramirez, who somehow convinced the authorities to let him put his politically-charged art at the border without having to cut through a bunch of red tape.
******Erre Clip 20
No it was a different world. I only have to go and convince the director of the Port of Entry. Everybody was told me before like no, you're not going to make it such a thousand going to allow your whatever I went there. I play my my cards, some politics. I had a. The day that I went in there and suggested and show the renderings and the maquette and all about the lady she was in a very good mood and then she said there's going to be a committee meeting between three officials from Tijuana and three officials from San Diego they are meeting in like 2 hours you hang around and hook go have a drink or soda come back and if you convince them and you have a democratic vote on your favor, four to forty two six two zero one. We can do it and then it so I did what you said. I stay there and wait for the people
The vote was 4 to 2. So he parked the horse,which was mounted on giant wooden wheels, at the border.

Music bump: bouncy

It’s hard to know what people who saw the horse thought of it... It definitely would’ve evoked the secretive Greek invasion for those familiar with the story.

For Marcos, who’s mostly known by his nickname Erre, the piece had a clear message. The two-headed creature symbolized both the feelings of mutual exchange and invasion at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Erre wanted to provoke thought and conversation about that relationship. Who is invading whom? Who depends on whom? Who will be on the right side of history?

Nat sound of the border

Two decades have passed since the horse straddled the border. And Erre -- a former construction worker -- is now one of the most prolific and well-known border artists in the world.

His reputation helped earn him a big-time commission…

In the summer of 2019, he again put up a sculpture at the actual border. But this time, it wasn’t as DIY. It went through the official public art channels for the federal government, and the federal government actually footed the bill.

For those who follow Erre’s work, it’s sorta shocking since he’s such an anti-wall kind of guy.

The punk-rock, at times guerilla-style artist known for criticizing the very existence of the border wall, has now worked for the same government funding an expansion of it.

Erre Clip 17
I would didn't believe i.... I didn't believe that I was happening and then they weren't going to allow me to do a piece.
Erre Clip 6
you have to come and see and then come up with an idea of this piece is as belligerent as the other one or maybe already it's subdued by the pressure of the money or the invitation or whatever like and then I had the time to think about how am I going to do, to put another trojan horse at the Border, without being offensive, you know, so so that's that's where everything resides in the interpretation of the work.
Erre’s sculpture sits just feet away from the entrance of the newest pedestrian border crossing at the port of entry. It’s a large piece, and, at first glance, it looks like a giant hourglass....
The frame is made of big, black steel beams.
NatSound of Erre hitting black beams
The beams hold in place two large cones. The one on top is narrow-side down, like an upside down pyramid, and the one on the bottom is narrow-side up. A gap about an inch wide sits between the pointed tips of the two cones.
The words “todos somos distintos” or “we are all distinct” are etched into the bottom cone. And etched into the top cone are the words “we are all equal.”
Erre likes to use text in his work.
As a conceptual artist, or an artist whose first and most important medium is ideas, he likes to leave his work open to interpretation, but he also likes to provide parameters. That’s what the text does - it points people in a certain direction.
****Erre Clip 18
half of the work at least. It's the responsibility of The Viewer. so i plant the seed and I hope people come in and water the tree.
Erre doesn’t like being didactic or over-explaining his art, but we were able to squeeze an explanation out of him anyway.
Erre Clip 2
…. We are all distinct. That's a fact, and we are all equal in the eyes of the law. And the eyes of God would ever leave you believe in a god pick the one you want to know and then and then and that's the way it should be. We are all equal and and but at the same time we should be able to to Really value our differences in the things that distinct us culturally and physically and in the many other fields to know. That's basically the idea behind the piece
Music bump: quizzical
So... this bold new symbol of equality sits just a stone’s throw away from the border fence, which has been topped with menacing-looking razor wire since Trump took office.
Lots of people see the border wall itself as a brazen symbol of inequality. A physical representation of the U.S. seeing Mexico as different and lesser, not equal.
So while Erre’s new sculpture is not nearly as aggressive or antagonistic as his famous trojan horse, his new piece at the border wall is quietly and poetically protesting any policy that might treat people as unequal.
It’s a little weird, right? To have a border artist, who’s done several pieces of art critical of the border wall and immigration policies, get paid by the very government he criticizes. And even weirder for the government to pay for that political piece, too. Right?
But Erre says that view of things is too narrow.
Because the federal government is multifaceted. And the project itself started during Barack Obama’s time in office. It’s very likely never even crossed President Trump’s desk.
Plus, public art is required to be included when new federal buildings are constructed -- it’s a federal policy. Five other pieces of art were commissioned alongside Erre’s at the new pedestrian port.
Erre says he doesn’t feel like he’s a sellout for taking money from the very government he’s so critical of. Instead, he sees himself as more of a savvy infiltrator. Someone who was smart enough to push his project through the federal process without losing any of the sculpture’s integrity.
In other words, he sorta feels like he trojan-horsed the federal government.
***Erre Clip 9
the fact that I'm putting it here for me, it's a it's an accomplishment is instead of something to be sorry about or ashamed, you know, because of the fact that I was able to put it and still have the piece to have the meaning it has, in or the many meanings according to the people will see as well as I think it's good.
Music bump: Momentum
Erre grew up in Tijuana, so he remembers a time, not so long ago, when there was no fence between the U.S. and Mexico whatsoever.

To him, the barrier is an affront to Mexican people…an uncivilized, bullish and primitive way of solving the complicated puzzle of immigration.

In 2014, the artist sparked a conversation about the u.s-mexico border again, this time by working with Arizona photographer David Taylor.

The two set out in a van and installed 47 steel obelisks, marking the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico that existed in 1821.

They didn’t ask anyone who owned the land permission -- they just went out and did it, guerilla-style.

The shiny silver posts stood a few feet high and included QR codes that, if scanned, told people more about the project and the artists.

In the early 1800s, California, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and parts of other states were still part of Mexico. It wasn’t until after the Mexican-American War in 1848 that Mexico lost more than half its land to the U.S. and the border we now know was drawn.

Here’s a clip from a youtube video of David and Erre talking about the project in Santa Fe:

Art Talk Clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ml4bnaDQdw

So yeah... Erre has lots of thoughts about the border. And the current messages coming from President Trump are basically the opposite of what Erre is trying to say with his work.

Build the Wall Chant
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGSAhNZnisk
Erre 2 clip 29
There are as many many many things and I hope for sure it will there will be no Waters and many places in the world and we all be a big big happy family, but there's also may be very naive. So let's find this time to find a place where we can. Be together in a good mood and happy whatever the closest to that idea, you know, and I don't think a wall in between helps.

Music bump: hopeful

Erre says one of his duties as an artist is to keep pushing political ideas. He knows he’s not going to change anyone who’s already convinced. But it’s his responsibility to keep the conversation going.

He says it’s not only artists who should feel responsible for calling out policies and practices they think are wrong.

Erre Clip 16
everybody not only wears have a responsibility about what is going on in the world right now. We just have to keep doing your work and keep the going, you know, and if you are not is maybe more you know, but but but they got that's a heavy weight to put it. And just the artist what about the rest of the society, you know, like you're doing your your work by opening offering your mics and opening the ways of the radiative to hear people Express their own opinions, you know, and then that's I think the basic the basis of everything the chance to express and then the possibility to do it in the and that some other people hear your opinion and they are perfectly in the right to disagree with. When you feel can say this is fine. Those kind of discussions are healthy.

Next episode teaser

Next time on the podcast…. A story about trash and dirt flowing from one side of the border to the other, and two guys’ plan to stop it.
******Fourwalls 2 Clip 37
Steve: So we're going to be creating lots of jobs for a lot of people that call this place home. But there's also an opportunity to create jobs for migrants that are being forced to await their asylum claims on this side of the border.
We follow two San Diegans to a canyon in Tijuana and they show us their plan to empower people there to help stop trash from flowing across the border.

Show credits

Only Here is a KPBS podcast hosted by me Alan Lilienthal. It was written and produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is the director of sound design. Lisa Morrissette is operations manager and John Decker is the director of programming. Kpbs reporter Erik Anderson helped edit the script.

KPBS podcasts are made possible by listeners like you. Go to kpbs DOT org to make a donation or become a member today.

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Only Here

“Only Here” is about the unexplored subcultures, creativity and struggles at the U.S.-Mexico border. The KPBS podcast tells personal stories from people whose lives are shaped by the tension reverberating around the wall. This is a show for border babies, urban explorers or those who wonder what happens when two cultures are both separated and intertwined.