Mexican Artist Transforms 1,527 Deadly Guns Into Life-Giving Shovels To Plant Trees
A Mexican artist and activist embarked on a project to gather as many firearms as he could from Culiacán, Mexico, the city with the highest death by gun violence rate in Mexico, and transform them into shovels that would instead plant trees. Artist Pedro Reyes, a Mexico City native, has long been using his art to illustrate how evil can be transformed into good, with the right perspective. While the United States has, by far, the highest number of firearms per capita (120.5 per 100 persons), Mexico ranks 60th in the world. Pedro Reyes wanted to do his part in getting the deadly weapons off the street.
Reyes set out in Culiacán, Mexico, to trade civilian’s weapons for coupons for electronics, and residents traded 1,527 weapons.
Pedro Reyes’s project, known as “Palas por Pistolas” publicized the gun exchange on television ads and through local media.
All of this was made possible by the botanical garden of Culiacán, which has been commissioning artists to perform social impact interventions for years. Reyes made a proposal to the garden to organize a city-wide campaign for a voluntary donation of weapons. The commission was able to pay for television advertisements and liaise with local media to promote the project. Soon, the whole city knew that residents were invited to give up their guns in exchange for a coupon. Those coupons were then traded at a local store in exchange for domestic appliances and electronics.
Of the 1,527 weapons collected, 40 percent were automatic weapons, “exclusively” used for the military.
The second phase of the project was put on public display. All 1,527 guns were taken to a military zone and were crushed by a steamroller in a public act. Then, the pieces were taken to a foundry and melted down to its original form. Once again, the same metal that was transformed into guns became a ‘blank page,’ available to transform into absolutely anything. Reyes worked with a major hardware factory to create molds that would create exactly 1,527 shovels.
Since they’ve been repurposed, 1,527 trees have been planted.
The shovels have been on display at a variety of art institutions. Admirers could read an inscription of the shovel’s origin story on the handle. Later, children and adults alike would feel the weight of what was once a gun in their hands as they dug up dirt to plant new life. Trees have been planted at the Vancouver Art Gallery, San Francisco Art Institute, Paris’s Maison Rouge, Lyon Biennial, Marfa, Texas, and Denver, Colorado.
“This ritual has a pedagogical purpose of showing how an agent of death can become an agent of life,” Reyes said of the project.
Like every other Reyes project to date, the gift is a change in perspective. For whoever might have been injured or died at the hands of those 1,527 guns, as many trees have been planted in their honor. Reyes breaks down the concept of a gun to what it is: human intention and scrap metal. With a simple shift in intention, that metal has created lasting memories for children and created oxygen-giving life on this planet.
Since “Palas por Pistolas,” Reyes has also installed “Imagine,” a similar concept that instead turns guns into musical instruments.
In April 2012, Reyes was given the opportunity to transform human intention once again. “I got a call from the government who had learned about Palas por Pistolas,” Reyes said. “They told me a public destruction of weapons was to take place in Ciudad Juarez and asked me if I was interested in keeping the metal, which would otherwise have been buried as usual. I accepted the material but I wanted to do something new this time. 6700 weapons, cut into parts and rendered useless, were given to me and I set out to make them into instruments.”
“A group of 6 musicians worked for 2 weeks shoulder-to-shoulder turning these agents of death into instruments of life.”
Reyes said it was far more challenging than simply turning the metal into shovels. The metal had to create sounds. “It’s difficult to explain but the transformation was more than physical,” Reyes writes. “It’s important to consider that many lives were taken with these weapons; as if a sort of exorcism was taking place the music expelled the demons they held, as well as being a requiem for lives lost.”
“Living in a community free of guns ought to be a human right. Many liberties that we enjoy today were considered utopian, and the first step taken into that direction was to Imagine.” Reyes continues to draw attention not only to where guns are used, but where they are made. It is an industry and one he continues to reclaim for life.