Bogota is a sprawling expanse, and a colourful one at that. When gazing over the capital city of Colombia, perhaps from the peak of Monserrate mountain in the centre of the city, you bear witness to a tangle of skyscrapers, cobblestone streets, green spaces and the hustle of the lives of more than 8 million people.
While the city supports this vibrant population as the economic centre of the country, along with a recent national push towards innovation and entrepreneurship, another growing area lies in a different type of colour, with the expanding street art and graffiti scene.
There is currently a liberal acceptance of this type of public expression in Bogota, however this wasn’t always the case. In order to share their creative messaging, many artists worked cautiously at night, like leopards slinking through the inky darkness. This approach was effective for many, however police intervention was common, and sometimes turned deadly, as with the 2011 shooting of 16-year-old grafitero Diego Felipe Becerra.
The killing of Becerra triggered a wave of protest, resulting in charges against the officer, and new developments in the acceptance of this type of work, including the legalization of street art and graffiti in designated areas, which excludes monuments and public buildings.
With this in mind, I head over to La Plaza de Los Periodistas to meet up with Rey, a Colombian native and local creative, for an informative walk around the artistic enclave of La Candelaria. This historic neighbourhood is brimming with brightly coloured Spanish Colonial and Baroque architecture, a range of museums, and a bohemian population that is largely comprised of designers, artists, actors and musicians.
Trudging over loose cobblestones, we pause to peruse work by street art veterans like Rodez, who often collaborates with his sons (both accomplished artists in their own right). When creating his works, Rodez frequently incorporates a circular design that includes the names of all of the people that he spoke to while producing the piece. Local works also include pasties by graphic design graduate and jewelry designer Lik Mi, the dark undertones of Colombian artist Bastardilla, entire walls dedicated to the prolific APC crew (including intricate designs by Stinkfish), and perhaps the most moving, a collaborative piece by Guache, Juegasiempre (also known as Dj Lu), Lesivo and Toxicómano.
This highly detailed piece in tones of black, grey, white and red, speaks to massive class disparity, along with commentary on those who profit from forced militarization, political policy and a grim history of violence and oppression, which led to the loss of thousands of innocent lives under the false positives scandal. While the content is troubling, the works of these artists is done in a subtle way in order to stimulate conversation, and given that many of these artists also work within the public realm.
The latter collective also own and operate a shop called Amuleto in the nearby Chapinero district, where visitors can purchase t-shirts, buttons and various artworks, if they’d like a little piece of Bogota street art of their own.
Given the recent acceptance of street art and graffiti as a form of artistic and cultural expression, along with a friendly and inclusive local community, the city is also seeing visitors and transplants arriving from across the globe. A small selection includes Pez, a Spanish artist who developed the ‘happy style’ of street art in order to appeal to a wider audience and encourage greater marketability, and Crisp, an Australian native who creates graphic imagery and tiny 3D masks that adorn the city in the most unexpected places.
On the local street art and graffiti scene Crisp notes: “There are always challenges being a graffiti writer or street artist in any city you live and paint in — the main one being the general public not understanding the culture, especially graffiti writing, and incorrectly associating it with criminality and gangs, which is far from the truth in Bogota. Despite the laws being more tolerant, you still do get problems with police, security and the public.”
The street and graffiti art in Bogota is generally comprised of paint, applied in various ways, but there is a notable lack of wheat paste work, unlike in many other cities. The wheat paste method provides the luxury of time and safety as artists often work in studio, but also allows for a fast application process, which is applied in seconds in the public realm — an appealing option for artists who are working in cities that are less tolerant than Bogota. The city also regularly removes bill posters in La Candelaria, so if you’re after some wheat paste work, Chapinero is a better bet.
While it’s possible to glean bits of the storied history of the city and sneak a peek into the lives of Bogotanos and Bogotanas via staving off the meat shakes with a bit of feet shuffling at Andrés D.C. and visits to the gold and art museums, plus the city squares strewn with llamas and their handlers, the real stories can be found at street level. These tales are offered in the vibrant sweeps of paint and mixed media installations, in an accessible setting for all urban dwellers and adventurers.
The local community is incredibly active, but a friendly one at that, and the progressive approach towards this form of expression may well be noted by other cities. Crisp explains: “I have found Bogota and the community here to be very welcoming and supportive of urban art. In other cities where it’s illegal, it actually encourages more fast tagging and bombing, which is the type of graffiti the general public tends to perceive as vandalism.”
Words and photos ©Ehren Seeland