Expert insight to Bogota
Colombia is attempting to change its reputation with cultural and artistic activities and events that will match not only its South American neighbours but many European countries too. Nowhere is this more evident than in the street art which adorns Bogotá’s walls, and which gives unfettered creativity to the capital’s graffiti artists.
When you think of Colombia, it is often negative connotations that spring to mind. Thanks to its chequered past, it usually conjures images of drug cartels, paramilitaries and violence. It is for this reason that it is overlooked or avoided by travellers. But Colombia is a vibrant country which is shaking off the shackles of its darker days by mainlining cultural richness. Events like the Hay Festival (Cartagena, 2015) the fabulous Museo Del Oro (which imaginatively depicts the country’s indigenous Indian past), the many dance festivals and cultural spaces like the Centro Cultural Gabriel Garcia Marquez have firmly put it on the international culture map.
But the most accessible delight of this new cultural landscape won’t be found inside any building and involves getting about Bogota City on a pushbike. And it’s free! Without doubt, the most vivid experience you will have here is engaging with the street art. Surprisingly relaxed laws surrounding the declassification of graffiti from a 'crime' to simply a 'violation' have led to the country's capital, Bogota, becoming a hotbed of global talent with home-grown and world renowned artists congregating here to practise their art. The ability to expand and experiment their styles with little fear of legal reproach has proved attractive, and as a result the city pulsates with international and native talent. In fact, many large graffiti pieces actually have Establishment blessing having had their works formally accepted by local councils prior to commencement.
The most famous example of this is a large mural created by Justin Bieber following his concert in the local football stadium. He had a Motorcycle Police escort to take him to and from his site. The episode is mostly scorned by local artists who don’t like the special treatment afforded to a visiting celebrity and who are secretly delighted that the work lies at the bottom of a busy underpass.
In a typically South American way, the official recognition of Graffiti was the result of a huge demonstration following the death of a 16 year old graffiti artist, Diego Felipe Beccera, who was shot in the back when police supposedly mistook him for an armed robber. The Mayor of Bogota appeased the protesters by enshrining Graffiti rights in law. The authorities have, however, defined the surfaces that are off limits so that it has protected public buildings and monuments.
However, this liberalisation doesn’t sit well with everyone. “It is the eternal paradox of street art,” says DJ LU, “being told where you can paint goes against the spirit of graffiti.”
But Bogota’s liberal attitudes have attracted some of the world’s top street artists who weave their magic on the city’s walls. World renowned artist Pez has resettled here from Barcelona and UK artists Insa and Mysterious Al regularly teach workshops to local artists.
While many countries treat street art as an obscenity usually perpetrated by belligerent youths with criminal tendencies, Colombia has embraced it as an artistic expression of its young people. Artists are often commissioned to create facades in a bid by businesses to promote themselves or their buildings, and advertising campaigns utilise the medium as a channel to reach their market. For the 'grafiteros' themselves, it is an unusual opportunity to create powerful social commentary about the nation’s politics, to champion their heroes or simply to brighten the days of people who have suffered during Colombia's somewhat murky past.
There is an unwritten code amongst these grafiteros that forbids the painting over or defacing of another’s work. “There’s a code of respect amongst us,” says Crisp, “no one wants to start a graffiti war.” The community abides by this rule with a few exceptions, most notably a female artist going by the name of ‘lik mi’ who likes to place stickers of copulating dogs and Kama Sutra couples on the work of her peers.
Not all mural decoration contains meaning. Many surfaces still contain the ugly random scribblings of lesser artists that we are all too familiar with around the London railways. But even this has a tolerance. “Who decides what’s art?” comments Pez.
Whilst you can always tour the city's gallery-walled streets independently, a unique introduction comes from a tour offered by street artist CRISP who moved to Colombia in 2009. Since then, he has exhibited in London, New York, Miami, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Alaska. His passion for street art is boundless yet, modestly, his tour focuses more on other artists who have inspired his work. As you meander along the winding paths of La Candelaria, Bogota's old town, Crisp explains the images and their inferences which you would normally pass by without noticing and, even should they catch your attention, would be meaningless without an extensive knowledge of South America’s internecine political history.
Alternatively, the Bogota Bicycle Company offer a half day Graffiti tour that will take you to neighbourhoods that would usually be no-go areas for tourists. Nico, a pedalling grafitero himself, proudly shows off work completed by his commune of artists and even introduces his customers to Allbo, a homeless artist who lives in cardboard boxes underneath one of the murals.
Finally, whilst absorbing your diet of Graffiti, don’t forget to look skywards to another unique art project peering down from rooftops, ledges and balconies of homes in La Candelaria. Made from recycled materials, a myriad of green figures depicting local comuneros (commoners) watch the world pass below. These are the work of Jorge Olave, a local artist, and are a lovely example of living art working for the community.