Updated: Aug 14, 2018
This journey started in the sprawling and noisy capital of Colombia: Bogotá. I remember groggily getting into the taxicab, exhausted from long hours of travel, and awkwardly putting my backpack into the trunk. I had not gotten used to its many straps or weight. I felt like an unbalanced turtle and was acutely aware of how out of place my companions and I looked. The covered inside of the cab provided temporary relief as we set off into a very unknown city, people, and place.
It was a gray morning in the city and the 20 minute ride from the airport to our hostel proceeded to be one of the most sensory overloading experiences of my whole life. It was nothing that I had ever seen before. Smells of grilled food, car exhaust, sewage, and damp cement filled my noise. Motorbikes zoomed in between cars and buses, people dashed across three lanes of oncoming traffic. Half-built houses made of sheet metal and brick contrasted sharply with the glass and colorfully accented twenty-story apartment buildings. Trash mixed with the dirt on every corner and stray dogs ran to and fro. However, out of all of this, one thing in particular caught my eye. Covering every inch of wall space that was available, whether it was the walls that bordered the highway lanes or the fronts of the businesses in the side streets - there was graffiti. From the smallest of tags to murals that covered whole sides of buildings, it was everywhere! Bursting in color and hidden messages, I soon learned over the course of our stay in Bogotá that graffiti was more than just a way of art - it was a way of speech, expression, political opposition, and public dissent.
Graffiti has always been an interest of mine. During a time in high school, I collected books and conducted research on famous artists and graffiti techniques. Even going as far as creating my own stencils and practicing my creations on the walls of the basement of an abandoned house in my neighborhood. I would buy spray paint at the local art store and discreetly bring the cans back home, hiding them under my bed or in my closet to avoid suspicion. I would always feel a rush of adrenaline, shaking up the can and sequentially leaving my mark, because it was an act done in anonymity but in defiance. The significance of the whole act was that my creation was now part of public space. It was vulnerable. Ideas would flood my head when I was creating a stencil but they were guarded more or less from criticism or destruction. The moment I would release the paint, I no longer had the luxury of mindful protection. My work was subject to scrutiny and that was what I found most exhilarating about graffiti art. That abandoned house has since been remodeled and sold but the memory, and my stencils, still remain.
The following morning of our arrival, we hit the ground running. The first thing on our agenda was a graffiti tour. I was excited. Not only was I about to walk around my first South American city but I’d be doing so while looking at an exceptional display of graffiti and street art - the good, the bad, and everything in between. I was eager to learn about it all.
Our guide was a well-versed Colombian from Bogotá Graffiti Tours. For the next 2 ½ hours he would proceed to tell us about all the types of graffiti that lined the streets of the surrounding neighborhoods; including its cultural and political significance, historical importance, and about the artists’ who made them.
My favorites was by far the politically and socially charged works of DjLu and of the collective Toxicomano. DjLu, a Colombian, is best known for his stencils (the pineapple grenades and bugs with guns for wings for example) and his work revolves on the political and social atmosphere of Colombia and the world. Toxicomano is a Bogotá-based collective, meaning that there are multiple artists in the group. Their work incorporates both propaganda and punk as they comment on mass-media and advertising techniques in society. Scroll below to see my favorite piece I saw on the tour. Try and discern for yourself what the artists' were commenting on.
Graffiti in Colombia is not legal in the strictest sense but it certainly felt like it was legal due to the sheer volume of it. An explosion of color and design at every turn. There are two things attributed to its popularity... 1) In the eyes of Colombian law, if you are caught, you simply get a fine. In contrast, for the United States, the situation is much different as one could serve jail time if caught. And 2) Graffiti has been particularly embraced by the members of Colombian society. So much in fact that people have protested against a proposed plan to erase all of the graffiti in La Candelaria, Colombia’s old historical district. Often, the grafiteros are even commissioned to spruce up walls and the facades of buildings.
Graffiti for many of these artists serves as their voice. Whether it’d be actively commenting on a relevant social issue (the government, poverty, materialism, war) or simply bringing a burst of artistic flare to a street, each piece is unique and commands attention. I had a hard time not stopping every 10 minutes to gaze at the works which sprawled over the bricks. Sometimes the message of the piece was clear and for other times it was not. I enjoyed thinking hard on the message of the former and coming to my own conclusions of the latter.
Since Bogotá, I have not seen as much artistic license on the streets in the other cities I've visited. Bogotá’s graffiti is thus a truly significant aspect of the city and I hope to go back one day and once again get lost in the streets surrounded by color, expression, and sentiment.