Aiming For Peace - Guns Transformed Into Art

The barrel of a gun is not typically a source of creation. Art and music are not usually composed of so much destruction. Pedro Reyes uses his artistic gifts to show the positive potential in even the most negative, painful, and deadly materials. Palas Por Pistolas and Imagine are two of Reyes' project which take a sociopolitical stand against gun violence and trafficking by raising awareness and inspiring thought.

Seized Guns in Juarez, MexicoSeized Guns in Juarez, Mexico

The gun control debate has reached a fever pitch in America over the past few months, but there are some places in the world whose gun crisis dwarfs the tragic figures and statistics of the United States. Pedro Reyes is an artist from Mexico City, the capital of the country where gun violence has claimed more than 70,000 lives in the past six years. In the face of that staggering number, Reyes, as a modern, conceptual artist, has dedicated part of his career to addressing the chronic issues of drug trafficking that plague not only Mexico, but countries all around the world.

Palas por Pistolas

Every year, thousands of guns are taken by the authorities, and the sheer number of these seized guns means that many of them are simply thrown away or melted down. Instead of allowing these tools for death and destruction to be disposed of behind closed doors, Pedro Reyes thought to reinvent them, or transform them into something that would inspire hope and joy, rather than fear and pain. Thus, his project, Palas por Pistolas, was born.

Palas por Pistolas (Courtesy of the Artist)Palas por Pistolas (Courtesy of the Artist)


In 2008, in the city of Culiacan, Reyes organized a campaign to voluntarily turn in weapons from around the area. As an incentive, weapons would be traded for a coupon, which could then be exchanged for a home appliance at a local store. 1,527 guns were donated, publically crushed by a bulldozer, then taken to a factory for shaping. From that transformed metal, 1,527 shovels were made, with the story of its' origins and creation on the handle. Those shovels were then sent to art institutions and public schools, where they were used to plant 1,527 trees.

The shovels have traveled all around the world, and the project has continued to grow, attract attention, and spread awareness of the tragedy which guns represent. The shovels have helped to plant trees in Mexico, Vancouver, Jamaica, San Francisco, London, France, and many other places in the years since this project began. Reyes' work showed the redemptive quality of art, and it's ability to transform weapons of destruction into tools for positive change. In the form of a shovel, the guns are, for the first time, helping to create new life, rather than to take it away.


Palas por Pistolas - Shovel BladesPalas por Pistolas - Shovel Blades


Palas por Pistolas (Courtesy of the Artist)Palas por Pistolas (Courtesy of the Artist)


Palas por Pistolas (Courtesy of the Artist)Palas por Pistolas (Courtesy of the Artist)


Imagine and Disarm

 In the spring of 2012, Reyes received a call from the Mexican government informing him that a cache of seized weapons was set to be rendered useless and buried.  Given his previous work in the transformation of weapons into thought-provoking art, officials recognized that he might want some part of the 6,700 guns to use as material. The call had come from Ciudad Juarez, which had infamously held the title of most dangerous city in the world from 2008-2010. Ciudad Juarez is also located directly across the border with the US, and is notorious for bloody battles between drug cartels and gun traffickers. Reyes, eager to branch out from his earlier work in Palas Por Pistolas, decided to move in a different direction and create musical instruments in a project titled Imagine.

Disarm - Stringed instrumentDisarm - Stringed instrument


Disarm - Flute (Image courtesy of the Artist and Lisson Gallery, London)Disarm - Flute (Image courtesy of the Artist and Lisson Gallery, London)

Having the material of more than 6,700 guns to work with, and the help of six musicians over a two-week period, Reyes was able to create a veritable orchestra of fifty musical instruments, including winds, strings, and percussion. As Reyes explained, transforming the shape of the guns was not the full extent of the project. Many of those weapons had taken life or had been used for other evil deeds.  Melting, shaping, and twisting them into something which could create beautiful music was "a sort of exorcism", and "the music expelled the demons they held, as well as being a requiem for lives lost."

The instruments, though understandably battered in appearance, were functional, and they were even used to perform a version of "Bullet in the Head" by the band Rage Against the Machine, who is well known for their outspoken political views and beliefs regarding responsible gun control policies. 

Wanting to share the powerful and visceral experience of his "Imagine" project with a wider audience, Reyes is is now exhibiting the instruments internationally in various art galleries. The Lisson Gallery in London will be hosting Reyes' work in an exhibit entitled "Disarm" starting this month, March 2013. The exhibit is expected to cross the pond into the American art scene by the end of this year. 

Disarm - Guitar (Courtesy of the Artist and Lisson Gallery, London)Disarm - Guitar (Courtesy of the Artist and Lisson Gallery, London)


Disarm - XylophoneDisarm - Xylophone


Disarm - Cello (Courtesy of the Artist and Lisson Gallery, London)Disarm - Cello (Courtesy of the Artist and Lisson Gallery, London)


The juxtaposition of guns and instruments is a fascinating one, perhaps because musical instruments are the total opposite of guns. One creates, while the other destroys. That is perhaps the ultimate dichotomy. Hopefully the project will inspire more awareness, more activism, and more open-mindedness about eliminating the toxic industry of death that surrounds guns. Most artists have some intention behind their art, or a message they wish to share, but it is rare to have that message be so accessible, urgent, and vital to the lives of millions of people. 

Keep your eyes open for the exhibitions in America in the coming year, and keep your mind open to Reyes' striking message of change.


Want More Art With Meaning? Keep reading about my favorite Art Outside The Lines.


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