Rectangular cuts of 35mm film fashioned into earrings. Stenciled portraits of Salvador Dalí with his mustache twisted into an infinity loop. Transparent ’70s-style skateboard decks made from unbreakable polycarbonate.
These were just a few of the homespun goods on display at Tijuana’s seasonal Arts & Trees craft bazaar last month. The roving arts, food, and music fair found its home for the day in a gravel parking lot behind the trendsetting La Mija de la Mezcalera bar on Sexta, where hundreds of sharp-dressed locals and more than a few San Diegans came out to browse the kitschy T-shirts, custom moccasins, and ambrosial paella vendors.
The artisanal flea market kicked off a couple years back at the behest of Pölen, a collective of Tijuana culture movers who took action in response to a perceived absence of venues for bands, graphic artists, crafts, and other creative outlets.
“A few years ago, there were only electronic DJ sets due to a lack of spaces for live music,” says Manuel Cabrera, an organizer with Pölen.
This isn’t to say that their events eschew DJ music altogether. In fact, between their periodic installments at venues around town, the biannual Vegetarian Cuisine & Arts Festival, and Arts & Trees, electronic music covers about a half of their lineup. The difference is in who they curate.
Rather than the nauseating club anthems that can be heard booming from balcony bars along Avenida Revolución on any given weekend, Pölen highlights musicians who take cues from chillout, nu-disco, live beats, and underground sounds.
Coastral, for example, is a producer from San Diego and Tijuana who — as the mash-up of “coastal” and “astral” in his name suggests — layers atmospheric synths with beach-bum zen beats to create laidback soundscapes that leave the listener feeling enchanted and carefree.
All of this is indicative of the cultural shift that has been happening in Tijuana for some years now — a shift marked by movement away from disposable, lowest-common-denominator culture and toward something more genuine.
“We have seen a constant growth in the artistic and musical activity in Tijuana,” Cabrera notes. “Today, people risk more. Their purpose is to create, nothing more.”
Of course, cavernous curio shops still line the tourist districts of Zona Centro, but there is a new desperation to the hawkers’ entreats to “come in and buy some shit you don’t need.”
A hint of sadness lingers in their voices, as if it has finally struck home that shoddy luchador masks, fake leather Tecate holsters, and ceramic feats of trademark infringement really are shit, and shit of the past.
Or maybe not. Maybe a legion of summer-breakers are already on their way to Revolución, hungry for beer-breros, Raiders ponchos, and the odd shot of weak tequila.
Either way, most merchant arcades — Pasaje Rodriguez among them — came screeching to a halt with the frantic tightening of borders after 9/11. Then, three years ago, with the help of an organization called Reactivando Espacios (Reactivating Spaces), the abandoned callejon was converted into an arts-and-culture alleyway teeming with galleries, cafés, bike and skate shops, bookstores, hole-in-the-wall breweries, and fashion outlets.
In April of 2012, Arts & Trees helped kick off the reactivation of Pasaje Gomez across the street. The retro stretch of alleyway is mellow in comparison, but a look around at the renegade art pieces or a cup of coffee in Kafe Muah’s elaborate interior is enough for one to agree with Cabrera when he says, “Tijuana always presents and will present projects worthy of applause.” ■
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