La Tabacalera, as the name suggests, began life as a tobacco factory, where over 1,000 women worked shredding, chopping and rolling tobacco throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Built in 1790, the four-storey building was one of Madrid’s first examples of industrial architecture and was an important employer for many of the working class population of Lavapiés. It became the Tobacco and Snuff Factory in 1809, and remained so until the end of the 20th century. The factory was closed in 2000 when the tobacco company was privatised, and the building fell into disrepair.
The building was taken over by Spain’s Ministry of Culture in 2003 and became a thriving cultural space run by locals, who repurposed the building to showcase art and host workshops and concerts. A community garden was also created.
It brought together locals in the now multicultural and diverse neighbourhood of Lavapiés, a melting pot of different nationalities and one of the main centres of street art, music and international food in Madrid.
During this period, anyone could do more or less anything they wanted in the space. Street artists daubed intricate graffiti across the walls, performance artists held impromptu shows and DJs filled the cavernous rooms with tunes from around the world. La Tabacalera was like a huge artistic squat, its gardens tended by the local community, its peeling and crumbling walls showcasing different local artists each week.
The government, which classed the building as a Heritage of Cultural Interest, originally planned a €30 million refurbishment, but when the project was later abandoned due to lack of funds, the running of La Tabacalera was handed over to a local cultural association and thus back to the community.
These days, the DIY atmosphere and attitude remain, but La Tabacalera hosts a schedule of more curated shows, its maze of rooms showcasing temporary exhibitions by Spanish and international artists, with a focus on modern art, photography and visual arts. Only a third of the 30,000-metre (355,000-square-foot) space is currently used, encompassing the ground floor and basement. As well as exhibitions, the space is used for a variety of cultural activities, from film nights and concerts to poetry readings and workshops.
Highlighting its diversity, on one recent Saturday, La Tabacalera held art workshops for children during the day, and on the evening hosted a music night showcasing the best reggae, afro fusion and rap Madrid has to offer.
The space brings together Madrid’s diverse communities, allowing them to share their cultural experiences and letting locals get together to express themselves and learn about their fellow madrileños. Staying true to its beginnings as a democratic space where anyone from any background can experience art, admission is always free.
La Tabacalera, Calle de Embajadores, 51, +34 917 01 74 81
Tuesday–Friday 12pm–8pm, Saturday–Sunday 11am–8pm