Fileteado, what is that? you ask. Well, I’ll tell you. It is as porteño as it gets. Let me tell you a tale of dragons, Gardel and virgins, of flowers and banners and the Italians who started it all.
Way back in the days, before the time of cars filling the streets and exhaust contaminating our air, there was a time of horses and carts and cobblestone streets. Imagine San Telmo, ages ago, with gentlemen bowing before a madam, opening doors. The era is the early 1900s. In factories, carts are produced at high speed, for milkmen and taxis. The vehicles are dull and gray, plain lifeless. Here is where the fileteado is about to be born.
The last hand to be laid on the finishing cart was that of the painter. He needed to be swift, but yet paint something aesthetically beautiful. It needed to be something easy to paint, but yet be volumous and decorative. This is the beginning of fileteado, the decoration of a cart turned art. The story of how environment influenced and gave birth to an art form that today covers the whole city, from La Boca to Recoleta.
A fileteador and his mate
The painter is called a fileteador. One of them is Jorge Molina. He has painted the filete for nine years and is more than eager to share is passion. “To understand the filete one needs to know the whole story,” he says, and takes another sip of his mate before passing it to me.
I am in his apartment/studio in Lope de Vega to oversee one of his fileteado classes that he teaches and to learn from a true painter what this is. “Just as tango, no one knows who started it or when, it has no specific origin,” he says. “But testimonies tell us it was introduced by Italians in the early 1900s.” Jorge knows his story and explains it with passion.
Fileteado started simple with carts. As technology progressed, so did fileteado, and moved on to buses and lorries. It evolved and did not just serve as decoration, but served social motives as well, stating words of wisdom and political beliefs and words by famous Argentine poets like Borges. The city’s vehicles were decorated with bright colours, with ornaments and flowers, leaves, beautifully curved lines, banners and in the centre of it all, the city’s pride and joy, Carlos Gardel and tangoing couples. Fileteado was started at the same time as tango, therefore the two go hand-in-hand through history and are as intertwined as they are.
As buses were privately owned in the early days, the bus driver was his own boss and hired who he wanted to have his bus decorated. The number of the route was usually drawn in beautiful colours, the bus stops graced over the windows, the Argentine flag – always visible, a dragon to represent masculinity and strength and whatever else he wanted. The bus was a work of art. Still today this is visible in the colectivos, but history played its part, and at one point interfered. The era was 1970. The time when everything changed.
The art faces extinction
The economic crisis of the 70s hit hard, everywhere. Factories were shut down and jobs were lost. In 1975 fileteado was prohibited from buses by law and painted over. It looked like the end for the fileteado and at one point almost died out as a form of decoration.
Time passed by and the fileteadores did what they had to do to survive – they evolved. Prohibited from decorating buses they moved to newsstands, buildings, store entrances, bars, posters, what ever you can imagine. And so it blossomed again, but this time as a form of art, not just decoration. It became symbolic of Buenos Aires, embracing all that is porteño and displaying it.
“I remember from when I was young growing up in La Plata, the milkman and his cart. It was beautifully decorated with bright colours,” Jorge recollects. “When I started I was searching for something authentically Argentine to paint. Throughout decades we have copied European art and artists. And for what? I was not interested in that. Especially not when we have something of our own that is original, something that has the Argentine identity. And so I started exploring the filete,” Jorge explains.
He shows me the typical brush he uses to paint filete with, without a handle to allow for smooth and free movement, and long hairs to paint the arched lines with precision. The lines are simple and the movement slow and steady. “To paint fileteado is a game with lines and colour,” he says as he looks at his paintings.
Jorge is a re-inventor of filete, a modernizer. He is introducing this traditional, old art form to the modern society. He mixes subtle details of fileteado into his portraits, creating a new fusion. Nowadays fileteado has become a tourist attraction, guides to buildings are found in the Lonely Planet guides and fileteadores sell their work at the countless fairs around the city.
On the other hand though, it is again battling society, or, more correctly, the bus companies. Fileteado paint on buses does not bring money to the owners, so the ornaments are removed for advertisement. For them, the important thing is not to keep a culturally significant part of Buenos Aires city life, but to make money. “We all need to do what we can to make it survive this phase too,” Jorge says.
We can only hope that some of the beautiful decorations are kept and that not all of the earliest works are lost. Today, strolling around San Telmo, El Caminito in La Boca and the Abasto area you stumble upo fileteado in the oddest places. And this is where to seek it. Put you walking shoes on and start walking. Look around you and explore another part of Buenos Aires you did not know about.