Though the main draw of Alegre and Concepcion Hills are the historic buildings, modern times have brought artists, filling the area with galleries and cafes. However, what really makes the streets come to life is how the past and present are joined through street art.
The hills are full of graffiti art, or rather "underground" murals. Though there is an unfortunate amount of tagging (something I feel is the spray paint equivalent of dogs peeing on things to mark their territory), most of the street art is beautiful and original murals across walls that were originally boring gray concrete.
By removing these spots of contemporary city gray and replacing them with whimsical, colorful murals, the artists add more color to the neighborhood, perhaps carrying on the traditions of the original house owners who built their houses and painted them to fill the neighborhood with a garden of color: blooming against the gray coastal fog.
There are also some stencil art, my favorite of which was a monkey head wearing headphones with "mono-stereo" underneath, a multilingual pun on "mono" being the Spanish word for monkey.
As we admired the murals, we began to recognize the styles of different artists: the cat artist, the artist who did black and white stylized line paintings, the artist who does lots of eyes, and the artists who does figures from odd perspectives.
I had to admire the philosophy of the artists who could spend so much time and energy on a piece that once completed was left to the mercies of time: to be covered up, scarred by tags, or sometimes, more interestingly, be added to and altered by other artists. With the last alternative, the work of art seemed to become truly public, a cooperative effort between artists who might not even know each other. The artists also seem to show respect for the historic buildings: mostly the murals seem to end up on dull concrete or abandoned buildings which would otherwise be considered an eye sore.
In many places we could see new murals painted over old and some completely reduced to a wall of peeling paint by the weather. The city walls are an ever changing canvas. Maybe in a year this art landscape will be changed completely and the unnamed artists, known only by transient images on walls will be forgotten.
Today we visited the "Open sky museum" a walk around a hill full of commissioned murals, though not without its share of un-commissioned work as well. Here the murals were more abstract with broad swaths of solid color. Some were high on walls (safely out of reach to graffiti artists).
These pieces were more "sophisticated" but I felt they were a bit distant from the life of the streets they were painted in and did not express the vibrancy of the city, as the guerrilla murals did. My favorite piece in the museum was not actually a legit part of it but rather a guerrilla painting of a "bee catcher."
Later a second artist added an angry giant queen bee and other designs, carefully leaving the original painting showing.
We walked around the hill, past Pablo Neruda's house (a museum that was closed on Mondays), passing a very satisfied looking cat.
As we were walking back down the hill, we heard drumming on metal. It turned out to be the gas delivery truck with one of the delivery guy drumming on the metal gas containers. I think he was whistling too.
At the bottom of the hill there were some more murals and painted metal poles. The street finished with a little plaza constructed from mosaics.
Perhaps some might be offended by the non-historic aspects of the street art, but for me, it really makes the streets special: a contrast between past and present and, in a sense, a quiet introduction of the viewer to the artists who live in the city and what they think, imagine and dream.