I noticed the bicycle “graffiti” painted on the wall of the building. It clearly had been painted a long time ago as there were several new coats of paint that carefully outlined, but didn’t touch, the two wheeler’s silhouette. The building was a windowless, cement monster left over from an era of government efficiency that left no room for beauty or creativity. Edgardo, a bright fifteen year old native of the city of Resistencia and member of the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ in Argentina took me on a tour of downtown, pointing out the same bicycle painted on different walls around the city.
But it was that first bicycle I saw that I won’t forget. It was painted on the wall by the first step leading to an unobtrusive side- entrance to that massive building. Edgardo took me inside to what had been holding rooms, torture chambers and dungeons during the horrid years of the Argentine military dictatorship. The stark walls and bare rooms screamed painfully louder than words or photographs. I could not stand to look past the iron bars of a little gate, down the dark stairs to a water-filled basement, muddy hand-prints still streaking the paint. I escaped back out onto the street gulping in the cool air, filling my lungs with freedom and willing my soul and stomach to settle. Edgardo followed me outside.
We stood there beside the painted silhouette bicycle, and gently he explained. “You might say this is protest art. During the dictatorship, two friends met on the street, one riding his bicycle and the other walking. The friend on the bicycle did not greet his friend who was walking, but rode past and a short distance away, got off his bicycle and tied it to a tree. He never turned to look at or acknowledge his friend. The next day, the friend who had been walking, hurt by the indifference, found the bicycle still tied to the same tree. He never saw his friend again. Then he found out his friend had been followed by the police the day before and knew he would be arrested. He did not greet his friend so as to not put him into danger. We know that there were at least 350 bicycles painted around the city in places where people were kidnapped, detained or shot. The bicycle beside this doorway indicates the entrance to this detention and torture center right on the main square of my city. Everyone knew what happened here, but the police denied any wrong doing. After the dictatorship ended, and this and other buildings were re-conditioned and white-washed for new and less violent purposes, the painters have carefully avoided erasing the silent protest of the bicycle. This bicycle, and the others painted around town, reminds us that we still have many questions from the dictatorship that we must struggle as individuals and as a country to understand and answer. This is the silent appeal of the rider-less bicycle: “Where is my friend?”