Chaotic and loud, Buenos Aires has become an eclectic city, home to the different cultures that converged in southern South America at various moments in world history. Mixing architectural styles like Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Neo-gothic and French Bourbonic, the Argentine capital spreads over a surface area of 2,000 square kilometers. The urban landscape continues through the suburbs, stretching to form the second largest metropolitan area in South America and the third in Latin America, right after Sao Paolo and Mexico City.

A daily three million people navigate this ambling city using the 150 local bus lines — popularly named colectivos. This homegrown form of transportation was born in 1928, when a group of taxi drivers offered set routes and prices to their customers. The service grew, and with it a style of identification and decoration: since the 1930s, each line has used a color combination and a number painted on each bus. While the color combination tends to cover the entirety of the bus, the name of the bus company and the vehicles’ numbers are usually written in gothic letters, painted in fileteado style.

Fileteado porteño is a decorative art that has become synonymous with Buenos Aires and joy. Painter Ricardo Gómez said that if “tango is a sad thought to dance to, then fileteado can be described as a happy thought that gets painted.”

Buenos Aires' urban buses

As with most folk arts, fileteado’s 20th century origins aren’t well documented. But testimonies assure that Italian workers developed the aesthetic spontaneously while working in cart factories. Originally, the horse-drawn carts for carrying vegetables, milk, bread and other goods were painted grey. Then, according to the legend, two young boys, helping out with simple tasks at one of the cart factories on Paseo Colón Avenue, added colors to the side panels, maybe just for fun. The owner liked it.

The trend escalated, and soon the designs incorporated strong colors, different backgrounds, and spirals, along with the use of symmetry, plus shading and highlighting to create the illusion of depth. The motifs evolved into acanthus leaves, bells, landscapes and highly stylized flowers, real and imaginary animals like birds and dragons. Patriotic and religious symbols, the portrait of tango singer Carlos Gardel, and the Virgin Mary often accompanied the drawings, adorned by ribbons and filigrees, usually mixed with inventive mottos and aphorisms in gothic and italic letters. Writer Jorge Luis Borges even devoted a chapter of his book Evaristo Carriego (1930) to the inscriptions on the carts, to the wise and brief phrases transported through the city along different delivery routes. This tradition has persisted and now livens the city’s delivery trucks.

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For a period of time, however, this style was submerged in complications. Political posturing and regulations in the 1940s were the start of a period of public confiscation and vehicle hiding. When the taken and hidden vehicles reemerged in the favorable political climate of 1952, many of the buses were in dire disrepair.

This, however, began a renaissance for the buses. The old ones were sold off cheaply, and workers from different trades participated in rejuvenating them—prompting the height of fileteado’s use on bus exteriors. The painting made buses beautiful and extolled the pride of the bus drivers.  Some technical changes also occurred in the first half of the 1950s that have remained. In 1951, diesel-fuel started to replace gas and, in 1954, the first Mercedes-Benz buses, produced in Argentina, glided down avenues. They soon became the dominant bus brand in this city.

Gothic font in Fileteado style, Club Amigos del Bondi (Friends of Bus Club) exhibit in San Isidro

Again in 1975 though, the use of fileteado style on buses came under attack; a city ordinance forbade it, arguing that it generated confusion when reading numbers and routes. This measure forced fileteado fonts and images to move from trucks and buses to cultural spaces like museums and galleries. In this space, they thrived. And in 2006, the Buenos Aires legislative body declared the style a Cultural Patrimony; its use on buses was again allowed and actively promoted. This inconsistent attitude towards bus exteriors has, however, fostered an inspiringly diverse assortment of decorative styles.  Some lines, like 68, decided to decorate their vehicles with geometric and more contemporary design, prioritizing legibility and handiness over tradition. Others have incorporated lights to highlight the line number. Sometimes, the colored gothic fonts were molded into shiny block letters.

In a display of this story’s cultural resonance, Club Amigos del Bondi (Friends of Bus Club), gathers bus drivers and enthusiasts to celebrate the variety of vehicles, showing off and discussing them. The origin of local buses began as a novel idea at a bar table. In less than a century, though, bus lines have evolved into the main transport means in one of the world’s great cities.

All photos by Lena Szankay.