Street art or graffiti wasn’t exactly the first thing that popped into my head when I thought of Colombia. And yet… as soon as I sat down in the taxi, Colombia became forever linked with street art for me. The streets, from the airport to our hostel, were lined with massive, vibrant murals, many of which were commissioned by the government. The sheer size of these pieces, the impossibility of ignoring them, the in-your-face beauty is such an awesome experience. Standing before a massive mural, one that dwarfs you, that through the sheer force of the size is able to imprint patterns and colors and images into you… it was a reminder of how small I am and at the same time everything humanity is capable of. Standing in front of this kind of art, art on this scale, is so special.
Colombia has a very real history of cocaine, drug cartels, guerilla warfare and violence. Things went from bad to worse for the country with the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitanin 1948 and it has been essentially embroiled in civil war since. As recently as 2001 it was unsafe to drive in many regions as Colombians were caught between FERC guerillas and right-wing paramilitary groups. Plan Colombia, a multi-billion dollar programme of military aid from the US, came into play in 2000 and by 2010 when President Alvaro Uribe (of questionable repute) stepped down, the country had doubled its army and pushed the FARC back into the furthest reaches of the mountains and jungles. In the last several years an expanding middle class, political stability and a huge drop in the infamous murder/kidnapping rates have been accompanied by huge increases in tourism. The continued vigilance is evident in the heavy police presence, each holding a muzzled dog, on most streets.
Throughout the years of La Violencia street art was used as a form of social commentary and cultural practice. While it was in the rise, street art remained illegal and highly dangerous until a tragedy in 2011 changed everything. 16 year old Colombian street artist, Diego Felipe Becerra, was tagging his signature Felix the Cat on an underpass at night. Police interrupted him, Diego ran for it and was killed with a shot from behind. The Colombian police then turned in a falsified report that made Diego out to be an armed robber. The truth came out and in the ensuing city-wide protests, street art was decriminalized. The government has eased up on it’s harsh stance and street artists now face a fine comparable to a parking ticket in the US.
This legalization of street art brings us into today, where the country is becoming visually stunning. Graffiti is undergoing a renaissance as many business owners, the government, and the community commission works on buildings. Pieces are often done in daylight rather than under cover of darkness which allows them to be increasingly thoughtful and well done. Daytime activities also allow for the protection of the artists from the police force, which still has a reputation for corruption and violence against street artists.
The walls are constantly being reinvented. In some areas of La Candelaria communities will repaint buildings every couple of months to make way for new works. Artists come from all over the world to participate in the scene, creating images for the sake of art, showcasing their skils, as well as to continue to discuss important social and political messages.
Grafiteros are leaving their mark all over the country.
Street art seems to be representative of the Colombia of today. The sketchy history, the beauty, the invitation to look deeper and an undercurrent of uncertainty, change, hope.