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THE BARCELONA SQUARE WITH A MIGHTY MEOW

Mosaic view of Arnal Ballester's "Gats" mural in El Raval of Barcelona

You can find an abundance of street art all around Barcelona. It’s part of what makes the city what it is. Everywhere you turn, you’ll come across something that will catch your eye and maybe even get you to pull out your smartphone for a snapshot.

If you’ve walked down Carrer del Pintor Fortuny, you might have caught site of the Plaça dels Gats, or the “Square of Cats,” at its intersection with Carrer d’en Xuclà. Right there, you’ll find what is more of a nook than a square. It’s usually abuzz with people drinking and dining at the two bar and restaurants housed there.

On the façade of the space’s most prominent building are paintings of various cats accompanied by the word “gats.” So what’s with the feline infatuation?

Photo of the Plaça dels Gats on a sunny day

In 1998, a group of artists, promoted by the MACBA Educational Service, and supported by the Barcelona City Council, started La Ciutat de les Paraules (“The City of Words”) project, which sought to see Barcelona in a new light. Back then, the neighborhood that was formerly, and informally, referred to as Barri Xinès (“Chinatown”) had begun to reinvent itself, starting with reclaiming its name: El Raval. The neighborhood was undergoing an overhaul, with many buildings being torn down. This left many a dividing wall exposed for all to see; quite literally, those who had lived in the buildings had pieces of their former lives on display (i.e. wallpaper, decorative kitchen tiles, sinks still attached to the wall, abandoned paintings, staircases, etc.).

Close-up view of the upper part of the Gats mural in El Raval in Barcelona

There was something about it that made the area feel more alive, and the artists saw a unique opportunity.

Those dividing walls would be their canvas and pay homage to the stories of the unnamed who would no longer be able to find shelter there; therefore, the “City of Words” project was born. It would be carried out on Sant Jordi, Catalan’s better version of Valentine’s Day, and they declared it the international day of words. The Raval was converted into a massive, artistic party. It was a day when balconies, façades and dividing walls were filled with art, including banners with visual poems that included words and drawings. The idea was to shed new light on, and breathe life into, a neighborhood that had been struggling, even if for just one day. To put it plainly, words took center stage.

All Raval residents were encouraged to hang words from their balconies so that people could pass through and read what they had to say. The district has always been a place full of ethnic backgrounds and cultures, and this was a way to give each person their own platform to speak. Virtually everyone latched onto this initiative and participated, from children to the elderly.

Lower view of the Gats mural and the Gats bar in El Raval in Barcelona

As we’ve already mentioned, many artists were taking the initiative a step further by installing more conspicuous works. Many of their emblematic interventions were short-lived, but not before being immortalized in other works of art, such as “Ojos” by Eva Davidova that filmmaker José Luis Guerín memorialized in the first few minutes of his documentary film “En Construcción, which is about the construction of a block of flats in Raval.

Some of the other interventions had better luck and were organically integrated into the urban landscape. One such case is that of Arnal Ballester’s Gats (“Cats”); Ballester received the National Illustration Award from Spain’s Ministry of Culture in 2008 for his illustrations for children’s and young adults’ books. The reason for the survival of these artistic contributions is that the neighbors living in the area requested that the city council intervene to preserve them; they had become part of the neighborhood’s DNA.

A view of the fat, black cat, through a hanging lamp, of the Gats mural

Arnal Ballester, like many of the artists, was told he would be given a wall with which he could do whatever he wanted. When he saw his wall for the first time, it was raw, untouched and looked, to him, like a wasteland. The mural itself is a projection of a vertical wasteland. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do with the wall right away but says that, impressively, when he went up to the roof on a crane for the first time, he saw that the rooftops were full of cats curiously looking on at the action. From that moment, he had his mind set on what he was going to do.

A close-up view of two cats of the Gats mural in El Raval in Barcelona

Ballester had drawn many cats before, and the ones on the mural were all enlargements of some of those previous drawings; the idea was to make them easy to spot for people passing by. He had always loved the artistry of cats, and he remarks that, back then, he had to take care of his daughter’s four cats; one that was rude with people, one that was a bit crazy but affectionate, another that was distrustful of people and another that was just a few months old. When he saw those cats atop the roofs, his admiration of cats and his experience illustrating them came together to form a clear concept to run with.

In order to create the “Gats” mural, Ballester stood on a crane with an extendable arm to reach the spot where he himself painted the fat, black cat. His partners, Xavier Mas and Illo Tatxé, painted the rest of the cats with stencils, using the crane to reach the various heights. As he tells it, it was a quick and easy job. Thanks to the cats mural, the space has been given the unofficial name of the “Plaça dels Gats.” Since the mural found its home, the wall, along with the cats, has been restored twice, the last time being in March 2015.

Dating back to that 1998 Sant Jordi day, the mural has become yet another iconic staple of a city that has a close relationship with not only the arts, but also street art.

Curiosity didn’t end up killing these cats. On the contrary, it’s made them immortal.

Lucky for us!

By EMILY BENSON

Photos by ISABEL TROYA

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Information gathered from:

La Vanguardia

ArnalBallester.com

El Jardinet dels Gats

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