The Painter from Dock Sud
By Alberto Julián Pérez
Translated into English by Rolando J. Diaz, Ph.D.
Carlitos Ballestrini lived in a tenement in Espejo y las Heras in Dock Sud. He
attended Jacobo Thomson Elementary School at Valle y Montaña. He was a very sensible
and restless boy. He was in six grade. In the afternoons, after class, he would take walks
through Isla Maciel. He watched everything with interest. The Riachuelo River was
bordered by Carlos Pellegrini Avenue. The storehouses and the factories captivated him. He
would stop and admire the old transporter bridge, with its fine and stylized lines, that rose
up near the Avellaneda Bridge, heavier and more modern.
When he gathered a few coins, he would cross to La Boca in a boat that went out
under the abandoned bridge. One day, out of curiosity, he went into the Quinquela Martín
Museum. He saw the great paintings of the master: the ships anchored in the old port, the
burnt vessel, the longshoremen walking along the gangways with bags over their
shoulders, the gleaming flow of water against the smoky background of the factories of Isla
Maciel. This experience changed how he perceived reality. He had always thought he lived
in a fixed world, limited, a type of prison without an exit. But when he saw the paintings of
Quinquela, he understood that the world was mobile, elusive, ever-changing. He had the
sudden intuition that time, which creates, also destroys, and transforms objects; it forms
and shatters colors; it blurs the subjects in the scenery; and it frees the self and dissolves it
in the work of art. He felt it was possible to live within an imaginary space that constantly
renews itself. He understood that he would be an artist. Reality was suspended in the space
between its four sides, much like a ship that sails in the sky, and he would be able to change
it to his liking, with the skill of a magician.
He returned to the tenement. His mother kept a ream of paper in a drawer. He took
out a few sheets. He held a pencil in his hand and let it slide across the paper in a sudden
flare of inspiration. He drew forms, lines, and felt the pleasure of seeing appear before his
eyes that which he had only envisioned in his imagination. He had found something new to
explore. He liked to learn. After a while, he got up and put everything away. His mother,
Mariela, would arrive soon.
Mariela was a young woman. She was thirty years old. The father of Carlitos had
abandoned them two years ago. She worked as a laborer in a plastic factory. Her boyfriend
was a corporal in the prefecture. Her son called him “the sailor”. There were times when he
would spend the night with them at the tenement. The room was large and had all the
necessary furniture: a double bed for the mother and a single bed for Carlitos, a large
rectangular table where they ate and where the child did his homework, a cupboard where
the mother put the bags and cans of food and where her son stored his books and
notebooks, a wardrobe where they kept their clothes and the old newspapers Carlitos
Juan Carlos, the sailor, was a nice guy and bought him candies and chocolates to win
him over. The boy didn’t like for him to spend the night, because the man and his mother
made love. He was bothered by the sounds of the box spring and the sighs they could not
contain. They didn’t let him sleep. He was also aroused by it all and would sometimes
masturbate when they had sex. The next day he felt ashamed and could not look at his
mother in the eyes.
He kept his drawings in a school folder. He would draw scenes of the tenement,
pictures of his neighbors, scenes from the banks of the Riachuelo River, the profile of La
Boca as seen from el Doque, the transporter bridge. His mother asked him why he spent so
much time drawing, and he said that he planned to sell his drawings at Vuelta de Rocha, the
artisan market in La Boca, very soon. The mother didn’t think this was a bad idea, even
though she doubted anyone would buy them. That weekend, Carlitos picked thirty
drawings, put them in a folder, crossed the Riachuelo in the boat and went to Caminito. As
soon as he got there, he tried to exhibit his drawings, when a man approached him, about
thirty years old, and told him that all of the stands were taken and to not try to act smart
about it. He was not allowed to sell there. If he didn’t listen, he would get a beating. Carlitos
was not afraid of beatings. In el Doque, the other boys had hit him so many times because
he didn’t like to play soccer, and the neighbors at the tenement would hit him when he
looked distracted or found him doing his homework. They hated that he studied so much
and told him that he thought he was better than them. But at that moment, he needed a
place to sell his drawings. If couldn’t do it there, that was that.
He walked through la Vuelta de Rocha. There were stands where people sold music,
clothes, food, handicrafts, and paintings. The vendors would set up their boards and put up
signs to attract the visitors and tourists that swarmed throughout the zone. He didn’t dare
set up. He knew that as soon as he put up his drawings, they would kick him out. Finally, he
went into a food market that was inside a warehouse, in Pedro de Mendoza. There was a
produce store, a butcher shop, and a grocery store. He sat down at one side of the grocery
store, and when a customer arrived, he would open up his notebook and show him or her
one of his drawings. By the end of the afternoon, he had sold two renderings of the
transporter bridge and two profiles of La Boca as seen from el Doque and had earned
fifteen pesos. The shopkeeper took pity on him, asked him if he was hungry, made him a
sandwich of queso y dulce1, and gave him a can of Coca Cola. The drawing that drew the
most attention was the profile of La Boca from the perspective of Dock Sud. The locals
rarely crossed over and never saw themselves from this perspective. His drawing provided
a surprising point of view. People also liked his drawing of the building where the painter,
Quinquela Martín, had lived and worked. It was a museum and a school. It looked like a
ship. The customers at the market had not observed the careful attention to detail that his
During the week, he went to the bank of the Riachuelo River, to el Dock, and began
to draw La Boca. He carefully observed the levels and the colors. Imitating Quinquela, he
started dividing volumes and tilting them on the plane. That weekend, he crossed over on
the boat and returned to the market. He sold ten profiles of La Boca and earned forty pesos.
More importantly, a man looked at his drawings and spoke to him. He said he was a painter
and taught art classes. He assured him that he had talent, but that he had much to learn. He
invited him to visit his workshop, to find out more about it. The boy explained that he had
no money to pay for classes. The man, Verónico del Bosque, said that he could pay him
when he had it.
1 A sandwich made of cheese (pategrás) and quince paste, often served as a dessert.
From then on, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, after school, he crossed to La
Boca and went to study with the teacher, who lived in an old house on Suárez and Martín
Rodríguez, where he rented two rooms, one in which he lived and the other that served as
his workshop and school.
Carlitos quickly became his star pupil. The teacher encouraged him to change his
name, or to get a suitably artistic name as a painter, because the name of Carlitos in Buenos
Aires had already an owner. If anyone mentioned that name, they would think of Carlitos
Gardel, the legendary tango singer. It was like the soccer t-shirt with number 10 on it2.
Finally, he chose to call himself Martín, in homage to Quinquela. He also modified his last
name: instead of Ballestrini, he went with Balestra, because it sounded more criollo. La
Boca had had many Italian painters, now there was a need for criollo painters. The majority
of the Italians living there before had left La Boca and el Dock. They all moved to Palermo.
La Boca and el Dock was the land of the black heads3, the cabecitas negras from the interior,
the Bolivians, the Paraguayans, and the Chinese. Now there was a new La Boca and a new
Two years went by, and Martín evolved much in his art. In addition to drawing
classes, Verónico gave him painting classes as well. He even bought him a box of
watercolors. Martín used the colors with great talent. They decided that once a week, they
would go to paint the soccer field of Boca Juniors at La Boca. They would portray the
exterior of La Bombonera4, from its diverse angles. On the weekends, Martín would return
to the marketplace to sell his drawings. When there was a soccer game, he sold his
watercolors of La Bombonera. One day a North American tourist gave him ten dollars for a
watercolor. He felt rich and truly fortunate.
Mariela, his mother, was proud of her son, Carlitos (she didn’t accept the name
Martín). The sailor, who was a married man, had left his wife and had come to live with her.
On Sundays, Carlitos gave his mother almost all of the money he earned. He only kept a part
of it for himself, what he needed to cross to La Boca, to buy his drawing supplies, and to buy
his afternoon snack. On his fifteenth birthday, his mother told him he was going to have a
2 It is the t-shirt worn by the international soccer star Maradona; refers to something that is already owned by
3 A pejorative term used to refer to poor people, most of them followers of populist President Juan D. Perón.
4 La Bombonera is the soccer stadium of the club Boca Juniors, located in the La Boca district of Buenos Aires.
little sibling. Martín had already thought about leaving school. He was in ninth grade at
EGB5, and he seemed to be learning very little. His real school were the classes he took from
Verónico, the painter. He spoke with the teacher, and he proposed that he go live with him
in his tenement. At that time, they had a room available. He told him he would lend him the
money for the rent, and that he could pay him back with the money he made from the
drawings he sold at the marketplace. He was already established there. They called him the
“Artist of the Marketplace”. Also, he could help him give art classes to those who were just
starting out. Martín was a very good sketch artist. However, his use of color was not yet
perfect, but he had progressed a lot. He accepted. His mother approved of his decision. She,
too, wanted to make life changes. Her son would be all right in the Capital, and she only had
to cross the Riachuelo River to visit him.
Martín added to his repertory the scenes from the market where he sold his works.
He drew and painted watercolors of the streets of La Boca, La Bombonera, and the market.
Then he had an interesting idea. He started to paint themes of Dock Sud: the streets of the
interior, the tenements made of plywood, the exit of Puente Avellaneda, the towers of the
Polo Petroquímico. He included scenes of everyday life in Villa Inflamable, the villa miseria
that was next to the fuel tanks. Martín had walked the streets of El Dock many times. By
then he already lived in La Boca, and he did not go to paint in the streets of El Dock, like he
had done before in La Boca. He painted in his room, from memory. The images began to
transform and become stylized. His interpretations had dreamlike qualities. He still did not
fully dominate oils and acrylics. He preferred watercolors. He worked with fine
paintbrushes and colors that he himself prepared. Many times, he would finish his
paintings by superimposing human figures, life-like miniatures, drawn with a pen nib and
Chinese ink, over the volumes of color. He was looking for his own language, his own style.
His teacher had in his studio an encyclopedia of universal painting that had been
released in weekly booklets that were sold in the newsstands, and that he had bound. It
was ten volumes long. Martín spent a lot of time looking through the reproductions of
famous works and reading the explanations. His teacher also spoke to him about painting
and about art in general. He had studied in Rosario with master painter Antonio Berni. One
5 Educación General Básica, equivalent to Junior High.
time he took him to the Malba Museum to see a retrospective of Berni, and this fascinated
him. Martín, despite his youth (he was an adolescent), had a great social sensibility. It was
poverty that pained him the most. He had been born in poverty. Not only his family was
poor but also his surroundings.
When he was sixteen years old, his teacher rented a room in a recycled tenement
close to the popular art district Caminito in La Boca to have an exhibit for his best students
and disciples. Three youths participated. Martín displayed ten of his watercolors. By
chance, on the second day of the exhibit, Eduardo Carlucci, and art critic from the
newspaper Clarín, went to Caminito. The Proa Foundation had inaugurated an exposition in
La Boca, and he went to cover it. When he was done, he went to take a stroll through the
neighborhood, always full of visitors and tourists, and happened to enter the recycled
tenement, very eye-catching and colorful, where Verónico had his exhibit.
When he saw Martin’s paintings, he couldn’t help but exclaim his admiration. “Villa
Inflamable” called his attention. In the center of the painting, on the first plane, one could
see the face of a ten-year-old boy with large dark eyes. It was Martin’s face. He had painted
a self-portrait. Behind the child, in the background, one could see the shanties of the villa.
In the center of the eyes, in Chines ink, Martín had drawn a couple of miniature figures. It
was a couple of North American tourists that looked at the painting. The insolent spectators
were reflected in the eyes of the desperate child. The next day, he published a special note
in Clarín about the painting, with a photograph included. The title: “An Artist of Hunger”.
Martín was only sixteen years old. He had a promising career as an artist. It was a
good start. For the rest of the year, under the advice of Verónico, he dedicated to painting
so he could have his own personal exhibit. The art reporter from Clarín, Eduardo Carlucci,
visited him again. He spoke with him for a while, asked him about his life, his education. He
didn’t seem to respect his teacher, Verónico. He advised him to enroll in an art school in the
city. The most appropriate one for his skill level was Escuela Superior de Bellas Artes. He
needed to train himself. If he presented a good portfolio, he could get in. He was willing to
write a letter of recommendation on his behalf.
He recounted all of this to his teacher, who said this man was jealous and
untrustworthy. He was only interested in money. He was looking for new artists to
represent. The world of the art critics and the art dealers was like that. A real travesty.
Martín went to visit his mother. She had had a daughter. He took her one of his
framed paintings. He told her to keep it safe, because one day it would be valuable, and they
would give her a lot of money for it. He had grand plans. He thought it was not a bad idea to
enroll in the Escuela de Arte. He liked to learn, and he needed to do this.
But destiny has its own plans. At the end of the year, Verónico began to feel bad. By
January, he was admitted to Argerich Hospital. They found a tumor in his brain. He was
fifty-six years old and was like a father to Martín. Three months later, he passed away.
Martín thought this tragic occurrence would not impact his art, but he was wrong.
Martín had a great, natural talent, but he was an emotionally deprived young man.
He had grown up in El Dock, had had a superficial relationship with his father who was
almost never home. After he left, they found out he had another woman. This abandonment
was very hard on his mother. Martín grew up on the streets of El Dock and La Boca.
Drawing and painting had saved him. Verónico had been his spiritual father, the one who
looked after him, and the one who guided him through the world of art. He felt a great
emptiness and fell into depression from which he could not escape. His depression got
worst. The owner of the rental where he lived went to see him. The rent had not been paid.
Martín apologized and offered her one of his paintings. The lady refused. She told him it
was worthless. He had to either pay up or leave. During that month, he was able to borrow
money from his mother to pay the rent. At the start of the next month, when the old lady
went to collect the rent, she found him lying on the floor. He smelled bad. It had been many
days since he had bathed. He was surrounded by waste and filth.
Against the wall, in a corner, there were a great number of drawings and
watercolors. He had also completed various paintings in acrylic, in strong colors. He had
spent the entire month working ceaselessly. The paintings showed expressionist
landscapes of La Boca and El Dock. His color palette seemed to have been taken from the
paintings of Quinquela Martín. In the largest of all, he had painted a version of “Sin pan y
sin trabajo6,” by Ernesto de la Cárcova, superimposed over an image of the streets of Dock
6 “Without bread and without work"
Sud seen from above. It was an extremely original painting. Postmodern. A new synthesis.
He titled it “Nuestra miseria7”.
Other paintings showed torn and grotesque images of beings suspended in the air or
escaped in space. The Riachuelo River and the Transporter Bridge flying over the Obelisco,
with a man (that was him) hanging, chained to the bridge. Christ flying on His cross with
His head down over the Boca stadium, while in the center of the field, they rip out the heart
of a player with a knife. A five-year-old girl in a butcher shop, waiting for her turn to be
sacrificed, before the longing gaze of a rich lady who waited for her share. Horror and
solitude melted into marginalization and hunger. The last painting that called her attention
was about Villa Inflamable. He had superimposed scenes of a few shanties of the villa over
an aerial perspective of the shanties of Villa 31 de Retiro that served as a background in the
composition. In the center of the painting, over Villa Inflamable, an eye pierced by a knife.
The owner of the rental did not know what to do. Martín had a lost look in his eyes
and did not respond when she spoke to him. She found a notebook with a telephone
number. She thought it was probably someone he knew, so she called it. It was the art critic
from Clarín. He went there immediately. He told her not to make any trouble, that he would
take care of everything. He gave the woman the month’s rent and began to clean the room.
He laid Martín on the bed. He left and came back later with several documents. One was a
contract that stated that Carlos Ballestrini, alias Martín Balestra, named him as his only
representative and ceded to him all rights to his works. In exchange, the painter would
receive ten percent of all sales. He made him write his name and sign as best he could.
Afterward, he called the psychiatric unit of Argerich Hospital and explained the situation.
Soon, an ambulance arrived and took him to be admitted. The critic stayed behind to
organize and catalog all of the works. In the side room, in what had been Verónico’s
workshop, he found several hundred drawings and paintings by Martín. The next day, he
brought a van and took all of the drawings and paintings that he could find. The only thing
he left were Martín’s old clothes.
The psychiatric unit at Argerich Hospital carefully evaluated the case. Martín had
just turned seventeen. He had suffered an attack of schizophrenia that turned into a
7 “Our Misery”
psychotic break. They took him to Borda Hospital so the evaluations could continue. They
soon submitted their results. Martín would not recover. He maintained his lost gaze and
spent all day sitting down without moving. He had gone insane. They left him hospitalized
in Borda, with the intention of eventually transferring him to an asylum for the mentally ill,
where he could reside permanently.
The critic, Eduardo Carlucci, organized an exhibit of Martín’s works at Centro
Cultural Recoleta, with the title “An Artist of Hunger”. The exposition was a success, and the
tragic story of the adolescent artist was an inducement for the critics. They spoke of the
influence of Antonio Berni, Quinquela Martín, and of the Irish expressionist Francis Bacon.
Carlucci had a professional evaluator assess the paintings. He found that the base price for
a public auction should be ten thousand dollars for each painting. Enthusiastically, Carlucci
convinced the authorities of the MALBA Museum to schedule a retrospective exhibit, with
the promise that the Museum would receive a painting. The city government supported the
initiative. All of the newspapers wrote glowing critiques. More than a hundred thousand
people visited the exhibit during the fifteen days that it lasted.
Carlucci prepared an auction of three of his paintings in a sale at the well-known
Galería Arroyo. Among the three paintings, he included “Nuestra miseria”. The attendees
were extremely excited. The base price for each painting was ten thousand dollars. The first
sold for seventy thousand dollars. The second one sold for fifty thousand. “Nuestra miseria”
was the last one to be auctioned. The auction began. Five minutes later, the bidding had
increased to one hundred thousand. Carlucci could not contain his happiness. At the end,
the bidding had reached three hundred and fifty thousand dollars. A local art dealer
acquired it, commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where it would
be added to their permanent collection.
Carlucci left his work at the newspaper and established himself as an art dealer and
exclusive representative of the works of Martín. The tragedy of his life and the impossibility
that he would ever paint again created an aura over the painter of Dock Sud. The Peronista
government named him the “Social Artist” of the year and they acquired one of the
paintings of Villa Inflamable for the art collection of Casa Rosada. That year, numerous
articles appeared in specialized art journals.
Carlucci presented himself in El Dock, at the house of Martín’s mother, and told her
that her son had left a small fortune. Given his mental state, the mother was his guardian.
She was the executor of ten percent of what had been raised by the sale of his paintings.
One year later, Mariela was able to move to a large apartment that she bought in
One day, they went with Carlucci to visit Martín (or Carlitos) at the asylum where he
resided. They found him sitting on a bench in the park looking at the sky. He did not
recognize them. The mother began to cry, but at the same time thanked God for the good
fortune that she had with the sale of the paintings. Carlucci took a picture of them. A week
later an article of his featuring the photograph appeared in the cultural magazine of Clarín.
Martín Balestra had entered through the front door into the history of painting in
Argentina. The painter of Dock Sud had been capable of communicating, in an original and
unique manner in his art, the horror of misery and abandonment, and the solitude of the
poor in the modern city.
Translated from Alberto Julián Pérez, Cuentos argentinos, Riseñor Ediciones, 2015.