Running away from police patrols and waking up to find the rival gang tags on a newly painted wall are daily annoyances for graffiti artists around the world. But those living and painting in Quito, Ecuador, now have to watch out for another danger in the city's streets: Acción Ortográfica Quito, a vigilante collective that has been going around correcting spelling and grammar mistakes in graffiti.
“There’s a big difference in saying: ‘No quiero verte’ (I don’t want to see you) and ‘No, quiero verte’ (No, I want to see you),” one of the members of Acción Ortográfica Quito says, “Many times, someone does not realize how a comma or an oversight can completely change the meaning of a sentence. It can change your life”.
Active since November 2014, the group is composed of three boys in their thirties. One takes care of their social network pages. The other two, who agreed to meet with COLORS but asked to remain anonymous, do the actual corrections. First, they drive around to spot mistakes and take a picture of them; then they stop somewhere for a beer to discuss the copyediting at hand; eventually, they go back and do it. Sometimes it’s a matter of adding a full stop or an accent, but sometimes the graffiti is simply incomprehensible: Acción Ortográfica’s first job had thirteen mistakes in two lines.
“Somehow, correcting the spelling mistakes in graffiti is a way to take a vandalistic act and put some order in what’s anarchic by nature. It’s a critical act about what’s right and wrong,” they specify. But explaining that to a policeman may be difficult and dangerous: in Quito, anyone caught painting in the streets risks three days of prison and a fine. So, despite claiming that spelling rules should stand above municipal laws, Acción Ortográfica schedules its raid for the cover of the night.
“It’s a public service and a moral obligation,” they continue, “We’re against spelling vandalism and we won’t break nor give up until we see a society free of spelling mistakes.” The collective has recently expanded its battle from the walls of Quito to Twitter, where they sneaked into existing threads to correct tweets by Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa, who is known, among other things, for having curtailed freedom of speech in the country (Ecuador rates 95th in the World Freedom of Press Index 2014 by NGO Reporters Without Borders). Acción Ortográfica clarifies that their act was linguistic, not political.
The collective’s name is inspired by Acción Poetica, an urban poetry movement that started in 1996 in Monterrey, Mexico and spread to the rest of Latin America and beyond, filling public walls with love poems and quotes about friendship and optimism. Acción Ortográfica deliberately chose the name so their signature would be both a joke for those who had made the corrected graffiti and a way to mock Acción Poetica, whose murals were also a target of their actions.
“The goal is also to bring more fun in the streets,” they say, “It makes the city less serious and more pleasant and cosmopolitan. It shows that there are alternatives.” When asked about their future plans, Acción Ortográfica say they plan to geographically expand their action, so far focused on La Floresta, a Quito neighborhood. They also plan to open a hot line for citizens who want to inform on existing mistakes. “We recently received a complaint about a nice graffiti that talks about how unbelievable a mom’s love is. We think it’s important that the message get through.”
Two more Acción Ortográfica collectives have already appeared online in Madrid, Spain, and in Colombia. In the US, where copyeditors are the first to be shown the newsroom's door in a shrinking newspaper industry, citizen copyediting may be desperately needed: in February 2015, the largest US newspaper publisher Gannett misspelled its own name in its quarterly newsletter.
Reporter: Carmen Rosa López
Photos by Belén Velástegui