In the downtown La Candelaria neighbourhood of Bogotá you’ll find an eclectic juxtaposition between the old and the new; where the Museo del Oro, the Museo Botero and resplendent colonial architecture sit in stark contrast alongside an urban environment of colourful plastered walls, murals and celebrated graffiti.
Competitive airlines have made Bogotá as accessible as Bognor and the likes of the government agency Pro Colombia now actively promote tourism. Many visitors are being drawn to the Colombian capital after the signing of a peace treaty between FARC rebels and the government. Until recently, the country carried a kidnap warning, but now it’s an up-and-coming tourist destination.
As the world moves to cities, so too does the art, and Bogotá is considered to be one of the world’s great graffiti cities, blasted with colour and full of surprises.
I arrived early, during darkness. In a few hours the buildings would reveal themselves, emerging from their forms of black concrete silhouettes, as the sun came up and the lights flickered on. The sides of restaurants and office blocks were suddenly illuminated by colour, a myriad example of designs, all reflecting the city’s diverse culture.
The Colombian capital is one big canvas for street artists with much of the work exploring the country’s tumultuous history and the devastation caused by drug trafficking; from corruption and kidnapping, to murder and the controversial US interventions, popularised recently by the Netflix series Narcos.
Things reached a head in 2011 after police murdered 16-year-old Diego Felipe Becerra while he tagged his signature, Felix the Cat, on the walls of an underpass
I booked myself on a tour of downtown Bogotá with Bogotá Graffiti Tour. I met my tour guide, Jeff, in Parque de Los Periodistas (Journalists’ Park) under the statue of Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan military leader who was instrumental in the revolutions and Latin American independence against the Spanish. Soon we were joined by fifteen or so other visitors. The square is popular with students and the young creative riff-raff of the city. There are students practicing circus skills and others selling jewellery and second-hand books from tatty rugs, and while marijuana is illegal in Colombia, the square had the evident and identifiable whiff or nearby doobies.
We left the square and walked towards the Church of La Candelaria, through backstreets as tidy as any in Notting Hill, seeing graffiti by the Australian artist, Crisp, who uses stencils and paste-ups to promote political works, as well as the colourful and distinctive caricature fish tag of El Pez, an artist from Barcelona.
“Visiting artists can’t believe how liberal the scene is here,” said Crisp in an interview. “It’s quite unique.”
Tags began to emerge in the city around the late-80s, but petroglyphs and rock art have appeared in Colombia since the indigenous Muisca people. Today, works have spread from concentrated suburban areas into the wider city, appearing in the form of stencils, stickers and wheat-pasted posters. Graffiti as an art-form and and cultural significance continues to thrive.
Things reached a head in 2011 after police murdered 16-year-old Diego Felipe Becerra while he tagged his signature, Felix the Cat, on the walls of an underpass. What made things worse, explains Jeff, was that initially the police invented a story that the boy had robbed a bus, to justify the shooting. When the truth was revealed, the city came out in protest. Media coverage followed and City Hall decided to act to regulate street art and it is now no longer considered a criminal act, but a cultural practice. That is not to say that street art is legal, but it’s not illegal, either. While it is okay to paint a wall if you have the owner’s permission, for example, tagging, unsolicited works, or graffiti on public buildings or monuments, can still lead to fines.
“Historically, the police here are renowned for corruption and physical violence against graffiti artists,” said Crisp. “So the element of illicitness and the adrenalin rush still exist when painting here.”
The Colombian stencil collective, Toxicomano, have perhaps some of the most political works. Influenced by punk rock, they use graphics to illustrate many of the country’s social problems, including poverty and homelessness – a rife issue across the city. Personally, I found the works of Stinkfish to be some of the most striking in the city, mostly in locations chosen for their high traffic and strong viability. His unique style is to create stencils from photographs he’s taken or found in Bogotá’s streets, such as Ninia Gukumatz 19*62 and his Portrait of a Boy mural collaboration with Empty Boy. I have also seen his work in London at the Crossroads Portraits exhibition in 2015.
Artists in Bogotá are unified and celebrated, but many still choose to remain anonymous, using tags instead of real name. Around 300 came together to protest in 2013 after Justin Bieber was filmed painting a wall in the city with a police escort, in an area not within the mayor-sanctioned graffiti zone. The next day, the painting was covered over by hundreds of artists who, when approached by police, challenged, “Why don’t you protect us, like you protected Justin Bieber?”
I visited the wall with Jeff, now just a painted white stretch behind a children’s playground, and asked him what Bieber had painted. Jeff groaned, “It was a Canadian maple leaf within a marijuana leaf and a tribute to his dead hamster,” he said. “Not terrible, but it lacked creativity.”
Following the Bieber incident and the retaliation by local artists, the head of the Colombian police, general Rodolfo Palomino, spoke of graffiti as a positive art that expresses “emotions and motivation”, and of the need for society and the police to evolve.
While for some the line between graffiti and vandalism is a thin one, many locals in Bogotá are embracing the cultural proclamation and celebrate it for it’s aesthetic qualities and unique tone of voice. The freedom allowed to artists has meant even greater expression and an open canvas for communication, directly targeted at government and the general public. The result is a kaleidoscope city, a tapestry of colour and a calling card to the world. Like the high-school art department that’s open to all students, regardless of their abilities, Bogotá is inviting you in. C
Bogotá Graffiti Tour, Bogotá, Colombia, + 57 321 2974075
Tours are twice a day, starting at 10am finishing at 12.30pm and starting at 2pm finishing at 4.30pm