For the few weeks I’ve been in Bogotá, I’ve noticed a lot of beautiful street art pieces scattered throughout the city. The bus I take most often goes through a tunnel that is covered in art. There’s so much that every time I pass through, I notice something I hadn’t noticed before. Intrigued by this subculture, and upon hearing from two cousins about a tour that explored the graffiti in the city, yesterday I decided to go for it and learn more. I was blown away by how interesting it was! The tour guide, Carlos, told us about the artists, described various artistic techniques, and explained the meanings behind some of the works.
Since I studied literature, I’m a huge fan of “searching for meanings” so it was really cool to do an urban art tour like this. I didn’t know much (cough, anything) about the topic but through the metaphoric imagery, I felt like I could still connect to a lot of the works nevertheless. Of course, a lot of art and literature are connected in the way they both use creative mediums to critique or subvert various social realities and ideologies. I am fascinated by this sociopolitical function of art, and where better to explore it than in Colombia, a nation with such a turbulent history.
This is a piece by DJLu, a professor and trained architect and artist who elusively never shows his face. To explain some elements of this mural:
Pineapple Grenades: Pineapples are very aggressive to the soil they are planted in; nothing else can be planted afterwards. Similarly, war is aggressive to the land — destructive, with incredible repercussions for the future.
Insect Guns: Insects carry diseases far and wide, just as war does.
People – In addition to images of war and violence, DJLu is known for his representation of people who live in the streets. The man on the far right is a man known as “Calidoso,” a well-liked street dweller who was burned alive in the street by an enemy in 2014.
Other than that, he may be alluding to victims of the False Positives Scandal – a scandal in which military figures were to be given financial rewards for the murder of guerrilla members, so they lured many poor and mentally challenged people out of the city with the promise of work. They then staged victims’ deaths as if they really had been guerrilla members to increase their body counts and make more money. According to a UN report, there were more than 3000 victims between 2002-2008, until the scandal was afterwards discovered and investigated.
This is another piece by DJLu. “Todos Contamos” means “We all count,” and he is referring to voting and abstention. Colombia normally has an incredibly high rate of abstention, and it was made evident in the recent October referendum for peace, where 62% of citizens did not vote. The figures DjLu has painted here represent those who are practically unable to vote since they live too far off the grid, needing to travel up to 15 hours to get to a polling station.
This is another part of the first wall shown, but painted by Lesivo. The message “La explotacion arruina la vida” means that “Exploitation ruins lives,” and the images all represent this idea:
Exploitation of labour: Coffee farmers undergo very difficult life and work conditions, including cramped space, inadequate access to toilets and hygiene, hard work with few breaks, and little pay. Coffee then sells for high prices, but farmers see a very small fraction.
Exploitation of land: Government and guerrilla groups moved people off their land to use it for their own purposes, displacing them largely towards the cities, causing a large-scale refugee crisis.
You also may notice Ronald Reagan with horns stenciled lightly in the middle. He was president during the start of USA’s war on drugs. The plan involved fumigating large stretches of lands with glysophate to kill cocaine plants. It killed the plants, but also innocent crops, and due to its carcinogenic properties, innocent citizens.
Exploitation of mineral resources: Illegal mining of gold causes the production of a mercury-cyanide compound, which is then disposed of in streams, contaminating drinking water.
These three pieces are just a taste of the social and political injustices that have faced many, but primarily the rural poor in Colombia in recent decades. By representing such problems through art, citizens and visitors alike can begin to question and critique these realities, encouraging positive social change.
Not all the graffiti art in Bogotá is politically driven however. A lot of it is simply aesthetically pleasing – not promoting any particular message, but just beautifying the streets and maybe telling a story. Here are some of my favourites:
Each cat in this restaurant’s mural was painted by a unique artist, and interestingly the street sign and post have been incorporated into the art!
A piece by Vera, a prominent Ecuadorian female street artist.
A natural scene depicting Bogota before the conquistadors arrived, when it was primarily the land of the Muisca people. The artist used concrete to make the art 3D.
I left the tour much more informed about the history of street art and its development here in Bogotá, as well as on social and political issues in Colombia that have inspired a lot of the art. It also made me reflect on my trip two years ago to Berlin, where I walked along the Wall and looked at countless pieces by countless artists critiquing the division of the city, and rejoicing in the wall’s fall. It makes me think about how art can speak to people from all walks of life, and unite them in a common goal against injustice.
My final impression is one of hope. After all, there are tours happening to show the art. These artists are permitted to paint these (as long as they ask), so clearly something is changing. I am optimistic about the future of the country. One day, just as people today walk along the Berlin Wall and see a Germany that has recovered from a harsh past, I hope people will walk along Bogotá streets and look at these artworks as pre-Peace relics.
Just as walls can be painted and repainted over and over with new images by new artists, I believe that one day Colombia will be able to paint over its painful past, in its place leaving something beautiful and new.
If you are interested in doing a Bogotá Street Art Tour, you can find more info here: http://bogotagraffiti.com/
Feel like staying local? Check to see if your city has its own graffiti tour – they’re increasing in popularity all around the world!
Thanks for reading!
“Hasta que nos encontremos de nuevo” / “Until we meet again”