Atlas Lima: The Map and the Typography

Pedro “Monky” Tolomeo, an artist based in Lima, hanging chicha posters along the side of the road in the San Juan Lurigancho neighborhood. Courtesy Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Washington, D.C. Photo Joshua Eli Cogan.

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The Metropolitano, Lima’s rapid transit bus line, snakes along the city’s north-south axis. In recent years Lima has profited from economic growth, and nowhere is this more apparent than toward the southern end of the Metropolitano’s route, where it passes through the major commercial and financial artery connecting the districts of San Isidro and Miraflores. Last year, I rode through the area every day on my way to work, and from the crowded bus I could glimpse the logos of banks, corporations and superstores plastered on the sides of skyscrapers or affixed to metal advertising posts. Amid this forest of brands, which seemed to grow thicker every week, one thing was conspicuously absent: serifs. Nearly all the logos employed rounded, sans serif typefaces, most of them rendered in friendly lower-case letters. The sans serif revolution is rebranding corporate Lima for the 21st century. 

This typographical homogeneity is most evident in Miraflores, a well-to-do district that caters to tourists and yuppies. Municipal signs in the area use a distinctive sans serif that features sturdy strokes but softened corners and shaved edges so that official directives appear at once authoritative and playful. After several encounters with the district’s branding, I started to notice variations of this font everywhere: adorning the bottle of hand soap in my office, printed on the plastic bags doled out by my local grocery store, emblazoned on an emergency medical vehicle, publicizing a local bus company in a magazine advertisement, selling spit-roasted pig at a food festival. Mirafont, I called the typeface. It had spread through the neighborhood and seemed poised to infect every part of the city.

Mirafont’s real name, I learned later, is Harabara Mais. It was designed by André Harabara, a freelance Brazilian designer who released his namesake typeface in 2009. Since then it has been widely used and roundly criticized. A Spanish-language blog disparagingly proclaimed it the Comic Sans of the second decade of the 21st century.1 One Twitter user dubbed it a “bad knockoff of Helvetica.” And it’s true that Harabara Mais feels clunky and unbalanced: the arcs of certain letters’ stems have been truncated and—at least in the original release of the font—scant attention was paid to kerning, the spacing between characters.

Despite its detractors, the font has skyrocketed in popularity and attained a global reach. The year Harabara released his signature design, representatives from the Philippines department of tourism contacted Harabara to use the typeface in their national tourism campaign (“It’s more fun in the Philippines”). The typeface of choice for one of Lima’s most affluent neighborhoods also appears on advertisements for an e-commerce site selling athletic gear in the Middle East, physical therapists in Norway and dental clinics in Brazil. Mirafont, it seems, signifies a kind of feel-good globalism.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Harabara Mais has gained such popularity, since it is indeed something of a knockoff of Helvetica, arguably the world’s most common typeface. The Harabara Mais that dots Miraflores’s streets eliminates Helvetica’s harsh edges while leaving its core form. If Helvetica originated in a modernist belief in the transformative power of rational design, soon becoming the mid-20th-century corporate world’s go-to typeface, Harabara Mais offers a self-deprecating style. It suggests a cloying, all-for-one disposition that can mask corporate power and disguise expressions of authority. One sign in Miraflores particularly stood out to me. Reminding denizens to keep their dogs on leashes, Mirafont’s rounded letters are used to suggest that what the municipality wants is surely what we want as well: “La ciudad que todos queremos ordenada” (“The orderly city we all desire”).

No matter where I was in the city, it was difficult to avoid a second typographic motif: the Marca Perú logo. The logo renders the country’s four letters in a laid-back handwritten script, and a spiral forms a prominent “P.” PromPerú, the national tourism promotion agency, commissioned international design firm FutureBrand to design the country’s graphic identity, which was unveiled in 2011. The spiral, PromPerú explained that year, is a motif derived from Peru’s diverse cultures, drawing inspiration from the ancient Nazca lines and the even-more-ancient geoglyph at the settlement of Caral. And as then-minister of exterior commerce and tourism Eduardo Ferreyros Küppers explained, the center of the spiral forms an “@” sign, symbolizing the country’s embrace of modernity. With the launch of the logo, PromPerú opened it for use on all kinds of products, whether exported or sold domestically, although they prohibit certain uses, including printing the logo on political and religious materials or on any items deemed “contrary to the image of the country.”

More generally, PromPerú’s campaigns have been criticized for promoting an ideal of diversity removed from political and historical context. Along with the design of the logo, the ministry produced a 15-minute video in which Peruvian celebrities visit the town of Peru in Nebraska—population 569—to show them what it really means to be Peruvian. The video is fun, whimsical and intentionally meme-worthy, but, as critics pointed out, it glosses over the realities of contemporary Peru. “You have the right to eat good,” a chef yells out to the Peruvian-Nebraskans, ignoring the fact that many Peruvians are impoverished.

The Marca Perú logo, with its spiral and scrawls, reflects what tourists expect of Peru: a country of ancient wonders. From alpaca wool scarves to the packaging of Doña Pepa cookies, the logo is everywhere in Lima, but nowhere more present than at the Mercado Indio craft bazaar, the number one destination for visitors looking to take home a few souvenirs. The items sold at the market vary in quality, price and authenticity—if you believe in that sort of thing—and many of them bear tags with the country logo. Some objects, such as reproductions of ancient vases, are overly commodified. These “crafts” continue to be produced not because the tradition continues within communities but because external forces demand them, much in the same way that the logo represents a romanticized view of indigenous Peru. At the same time, for many artisans selling their crafts in the Mercado Indio, the logo represents their country’s progress. As Soto Cano, who at age 77 has worked in the market for 45 years, explained to me: “It makes me proud that foreigners from the United States take with them the Marca Perú.”

When you travel by microbus eastward to the working-class district of Ate, the landscape is markedly different. Skyscrapers give way to illicitly constructed houses with their second or third floors often left unfinished. And if neutralized sans serif corporate logos are plentiful in Miraflores and San Isidro, here roads are lined with brilliantly hued silkscreened signs in boisterous fonts announcing local concerts. 

This street-art style, characterized in part by neon-colored bubble letters occasionally punctuated by stylized calligraphy, is called chicha. The term comes from Peru’s particular kind of Andean-influenced cumbia, a dance music also known as chicha, which in turn derives its name from chicha morada, a typical sweet beverage made of purple corn. More generally, the term “chicha” reflects an underlying attitude: the fusion of indigenous groups from the Andes with the mestizos of the urban working class. Both the chicha musical style and the lettering style originated in the highlands of Peru but later thrived in the outskirts of Lima as economic and political hardship spurred migration to the capital. The posters’ fluorescent colors reflect the pulsing beat of the musical genre and the chromatic spectrum found in Andean textiles. 

Chicha—the music and the art—was initially disparaged by the elite, but both became symbols of identity for migrants. As chicha posters became more popular among the working class, a handful of artists opened large print shops to meet the demand from clients. Elliot Tupac made his name designing concert posters—his graphic work has perhaps earned more renown than the concerts themselves. The style spread to other art forms, from neighborhood murals to silkscreens on cloth proclaiming defiant statements like, “Tu envidia es mi progreso” (“Your envy is my progress”). 

In recent years, the visual form’s popularity has extended beyond its roots. Chicha design has achieved global recognition as a cherished folk art. This past summer, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival featured workshops with one of the pioneers of chicha, Pedro “Monky” Tolomeo, who told me that museums in Brooklyn and Boston have offered to fly him out as well. Elliot Tupac has run printmaking workshops in Argentina and the U.K.. 

Chicha has also seeped into other parts of Lima, from the affluent to the hip (and those that are both). Chicha calligraphy embellishes menus at cocktail bars; the design firm where I worked had a mural by Monky in its stairwell; Dengue Dengue Dengue!, a Lima-based musical duo that spins Amazon-inspired electronic tracks, uses chicha lettering on its show posters; the bank BBVA Continental enlisted Elliot Tupac for an ad campaign. Chicha’s current dominance may be, in part, aesthetic: with its neon hues, hand lettering and bold gradients, it surprisingly has many points of intersection with graphic design trends today. 

Just south of Miraflores, Barranco is a divided district: the affluent half that borders the Pacific Ocean is what all guidebooks proclaim as the “bohemian” enclave of the city, dotted with bars and historic homes and boasting a stunning central plaza. Boutiques in the area carry tote bags, note cards and books adorned with elements of chicha style, but marked-up for hipster consumers. The half of the neighborhood on the other side of the Metropolitano tracks is working-class and the well-to-do wouldn’t dare enter; chicha lettering is visible mostly on posters affixed to walls. Still, the neighborhood-wide, and perhaps Lima-wide, embrace of chicha might be a sign that divisions are dissolving. An art form that arose from the proletariat and has come to represent the entire country, it is an authentic craft for the modern age.   

 

 

1.  “ihateharabara,” Nov. 2, 2012, tipo-grafica-mente.blogspot.com