Bogotá gets a bad rep most of the time. It is a capital city known for its violence, in a country known for its civil war and war on drugs, not to mention being the homeland of the wealthiest criminal in history (who, by no coincidence, earned his money through cocaine trafficking). We arrived in Bogotá, unsure what to expect besides, of course, a horrible, dirty, polluted, large city, which is what Colombians who lived elsewhere had told us to expect. Instead, something quite odd happened: we both really liked the city. Bogotá had something to it, the tumultuous, vibrant city with its air of urban sophistication was mixed with a grittier edge. It is a city with a lot of problems, such as an incredible gap in wealth and high levels of corruption, but it also has a hell of a lot of attitude.
Bogota’s street art undeniably plays its part in the character of the city. It seems the city was viewed, at some point, as a blank canvas, and now almost every wall, be it a house, beside a motorway, or a public building, was covered in large murals, or else layers of tagged names. After a couple of days, we went along to the free Bogotá Street Art tour, to find out a little bit about it. Our guide, Christian, was an Australian street artist, who has been painting in Bogotá for the last six years, and is married to a Colombian. He set up the tour with a Colombian friend several years ago.
The legality of graffiti in Bogotá is unusual: a grey area in the law means that it is not technically illegal. It is therefore far less dangerous to paint in comparison to other cities worldwide, where graffiti is usually done at night to utilise the cover of darkness. As a lot of painting happens during the day in Bogotá, this allows for longer, slower work and therefore larger, more artsy murals. In fact, hostels and houses will often commission an artist to create a mural, knowing that their blank wall is a free for all otherwise. These circumstances attract big international artists to the city, but as Colombia is still perceived as a dangerous country, the scene is still very much up and coming.
Another consequence of the legality is the fact that a completely different societal attitude to the graffiti is often exhibited. Christian told us that he has been in the act of painting houses and buildings before, and the owners have brought him coffee and cake as a thank you for making their wall more beautiful. On one occasion he was approached by a police officer who preferred it if he didn’t paint under his watch, but liked the work he was doing, so told him the hours of his shift and asked him to come back later to finish it off.Several of the walls we saw were charity walls, created during a painting event, when street artists, the community, and particularly the youth, all came together to paint a wall. These events were set up to encourage the creative, expressive activity of street art as an alternative route for youngsters who might otherwise become involved in criminal activity.
Unlike art, carefully curated in museums and galleries, street art is accessible to everyone; it is on the street, ever changing and immediately accessible. In many cities it has become a form of expression, a way of voicing opinions, and often anger, concerning socio-political situations. In Bogotá this is no different. Many street artists come from impoverished backgrounds, Christian told us, and view the system as having failed them, and therefore angrily express this by tagging public or governmental buildings.
Within this system, the police are often viewed as particularly malignant. In August 2011, police shot dead a 16-year-old street artist, whilst in the act of painting, later claiming that he was involved in the armed robbery of a bus. Though this cover-up held water for a while, public pressure meant that a reinvestigation was forced, and the police officer involved was eventually charged and found guilty following an independent investigation. Evidence of police corruption and brutality are certainly still a part of daily life throughout Colombia. During our journey through the country, we came across several low level instances ourselves and have heard of multiple other incidents from both fellow travellers and locals. Though this is anecdotal rather than empirical evidence, it does not surprise me that the police are mistrusted, and that graffiti uses its presence on the street to draw attention to the issue, whether it be paint bombs thrown at public buildings during student protests, or these posters stuck to lampposts across the city.In a country with many socio-political problems, the graffiti we saw often utilised the fact that it is on the street, and therefore seen by anyone and everyone, as a voice for the disadvantaged and marginalised, who have no other way of making themselves heard and so remain side-lined.
On our tour, we saw a number of small stencil images created by Dj Lu, a street artist and university professor, who uses pictograms to succinctly convey hard-hitting issues. The devastation of Colombian’s civil war, which began in the 1960s and is still ongoing, was conveyed in images such as ‘piña-grenades’ (pineapples with detonators), ‘war bugs’ (insects such as wasps armed with weaponry rather than legs), or the striking stencil above.The Colombian civil war has had a devastating effect. In response to violent left-wing guerrilla action calling for land reform, right-wing paramilitary groups carried out bombings, kidnappings and other terrorist activities, often funded by narcotrafficking, and were later found out to be linked to the Colombian National Army. Evidence such as this suggests that right-wing paramilitary groups have been encouraged and even aided by the government. As recent as 2010, a UN report detailed how the Colombian military were incentivised by the government to increase the bodycount of guerrillas, and as such, many innocent young men, usually from the countryside, were killed and dressed in guerrilla uniform.
Caught in the crossfire between the left and right wing forces, five million Colombians have become internally displaced, and it was only last year that Syria overtook as the country with the greatest number of refugees in the world. For those who have become displaced, obtaining new land is near impossible and many become involved in crime or addicted to drugs. Though laws have been introduced to compensate and return land to those displaced, only time will tell as to whether it will have any impact. Meanwhile, homelessness is a very real and evident issue, throughout the country, and particularly in large cities such as Bogotá.
The photo above is a section taken from a wall painted in one week by four artists who make up Bogotá Street Art Collective. The four artists, from different backgrounds, used the space to express whatever they choose; in this section, Lesivo explores the effects of the civil war, as well the role capitalism and neo-colonialism have in his country.The biggest victims of the para-military violence were marginalised people. As such the indigenous population of Colombia have often been subjected to massacres and other acts of violence. They are also woefully neglected by the political system. The struggle for rights and the affirmation of identity was evident in pieces created by various street artists, such as Guache, who uses indigenous imagery as well as the faces of indigenous and Afro-Colombian people both to empower and draw attention to their plight. Another consequence of the legality of graffiti in Bogotá, and therefore the safety of painting during the day, is a higher proportion of female street artists, and therefore the expression of female issues. The city is home to Bastardilla, one of Colombia’s most internationally famous artists, who often depicts issues related to being a woman, such as domestic violence and the consequences arising from the machismo still evident in Colombian society. In the huge piece in the photo above, she represents what is considered a great hypocrisy of Colombian’s ostensibly religious society: the notorious infidelity which occurs. Though part of the piece has been painted over by another artist, you can still make out the two faces. Originally the words of the man could be seen leaving his mouth as daggers, the woman crying as she listens to his lies. This entire piece was painted from the ground, using rollers and brushes on extendable poles. As well as socio-political issues, the street art of Bogotá also brings to light other problems, such as the destruction of habitat and subsequent danger of extinction that many species of animals face, both in Colombia and internationally. The street art we saw had many forms; a tag, a mural, stickers on a lamppost. MRtoll creates sculptures out of a cooking clay, often depicting animals to visually represent the consequences of human activity, such as a budgerigar with its wings bound to its body by a tight bandage. We saw several of his sculptures during the tour, always showing animals with a halo, their innocence and purity striking when compared to man.
Though street art has begun to be valued over the last few years, with some artists such as Banksy becoming very high profile and making millions, it is still an untraditional art form, often looked down on as vandalism and not widely accepted. Whether it be the working-class neighbourhoods in the south or the slick ritzy areas in the north, there was evidence of street artists trying to raise their profile, get their presence felt and act as a voice for the voiceless. As a consequence of the death of the 16-year-old street artist in 2011, the mayor of Bogotá, Gustavo Petro, decriminalised graffiti and even offered several public walls to be painted. It was great to see the public spaces in Bogotá being used to start a dialogue about issues often ignored by the government or media and their art succeeded in completely changing my perception and understanding of their country.
Out of respect for Christian, we’re not going to disclose which artist he is, but we will be mysterious and reveal that he is featured in this article! For more information about Bogotá Graffiti Tour visit their website and if you are interested in seeing more photos of street art from our visit to Bogotá, please visit our extra gallery.