Painted by Default: Public Shaming and Graffiti on the Homefront

By Susan Ellison

ABSTRACT Across El Alto, Bolivia, a particular kind of graffiti stands out on the walls of household compounds: startling letters proclaiming deudor moroso (defaulting debtor). These public accusations of insolvency join other expressions of households in crisis, disrupting any imagined public/private boundary between city streets and homes that are charged moral, material, and social configurations. As I show, defaulting debtor graffiti spatializes loan recovery efforts by implicating a broader constellation of relationships connected through the physical structure of the home, and in that implication, often fractures bonds of relatedness in the process. Yet the graffiti’s ambiguous authorship enables those branded to challenge any singular reading of its scrawl. As deudor moroso graffiti enters into the struggle over urban space’s inscriptions, it illuminates the ways home space is entangled with public space as a battleground over economic ruin and its meanings. [urban anthropology, graffiti, kinship, debt, microfinance, Bolivia]

“Suma qamaña es vivir sin tu machista patraña” – Mujeres Creando

Graffiti from the anarcho-feminist group Mujeres Creando (Women Creating) declares that the Andean concept of “Suma Qamaña (to live well) means to live without your massive macho/patriarchal lies.” Mujeres Creando’s graffiti incriminates the Morales Administration for using Andean concepts in its political platform without also addressing misogyny, decrying, as they do in other graffiti, that “One cannot decolonize without also dismantling patriarchy.” Photo by Susan Ellison, 2018.


“Mar para Bolivia. Evo, Mar, y Dignidad” or “Ocean for Bolivia. Evo, Ocean, and Dignity.” A stencil artist peppers La Paz, Bolivia with political slogans as Bolivia demands that Chile negotiate access to the Pacific Ocean with the landlocked country. Bolivia lost its port access during the 19th century War of the Pacific (1879-1884). Bolivia brought the case against Chile, championed by president Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, before the Hague. The demand was unsuccessful. Photo by Susan Ellison, 2018.


Layers of tattered posters and fading graffiti induce “ocular over-stimulation” (Armstrong 2006, 10) throughout El Alto and La Paz, Bolivia. Photo by Susan Ellison, 2019.


“Money in an instant” storefronts are ubiquitous around El Alto’s bustling 16 de Julio commercial district, and often provide people desperate to pay off formal bank loans, including from microfinance institutions, with opportunities to pawn items or get short-term loans. “Money in an instant” shops and large banking institutions advertise their services along major thoroughfares in El Alto, while smaller-scale moneylenders dot side streets with office spaces built into the outer-facing walls of people’s homes. As El Alto residents seek to avoid their lenders, they change their movements through their neighborhoods and nearby markets. Photo by Susan Ellison, 2019.


Another angle on the “Defaulting Debtor [woman debtor: deudora], Pay Up” graffiti featured in the article. The owner appears to have abandoned their attempts to cross out previous incidents of defaulting debtor graffiti and has added a doghouse (the photos were taken several months apart). Defaulting debtor graffiti serves as a spatialized mechanism of loan recovery by broadcasting insolvency and implicating a broader network of relationships connected to the home. Photo by Susan Ellison, 2018.

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