“People that don’t like graffiti, just don’t understand it,” explains Camilo Fidel López, the unofficial spokesman for Bogotá’s illegal street art scene. “When you understand graffiti, you see many things happening — it’s a way that people talk to each other.”
López is something of a rare beast — a lawyer with infinite charm and a rascally sense of humour. After getting rejected by Harvard, he jokes, he decided to further disappoint his father by promoting graffiti and street art in his home city. For the last eight years, he has worked with eight artists as part of independent collective Vertigo Graffiti, proselytising the illegal art form as one of Bogotá’s most powerful weapons in the fight to effect social change and narrow Colombia’s historically colossal gap between its wealthy and marginalised citizens.
As part of his work, López offers guided tours in various neighbourhoods and our first stop this morning is the cocktail bar of the W Hotel in the upscale Santa Barbara business district. This is where Vertigo Graffiti has created a huge floor-to-ceiling mural.
Showing a beautiful woman lounging on her back, her modesty protected by vines of graffiti, the work riffs on the idea of El Dorado, a mythical city made entirely of gold. The legend has several versions; most involve a Muisca tribe zipa (or chief) being covered with gold dust and diving into the Lake Guatavita while his attendants throw treasures — trinkets of gold, emeralds, and precious stones — into its waters to either impress a queen or appease the god that had taken her. Vertigo Graffiti reinterpreted the story by depicting Bogotá as the queen and graffiti as the city’s treasures — a tool of communication and opportunity for its people.
While one of the city’s more exclusive accommodations initially seems a strange place to start, the fact that the W asked local graffiti artists to decorate its exclusive nightspot demonstrates the genre’s increasing legitimacy in the Colombian capital.
As in many other cities around the world, graffiti here is a tool of personal creative expression and political commentary, and evokes mixed feelings in the local populace. But to understand the significance of urban art in contemporary Bogotá, you have to consider Colombia’s long history of violence, which only recently abated.
Since 1964, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the armed wing of the Communist Party and better known by its Spanish acronym FARC, has been fighting one of the longest-running armed insurgencies in the world, largely in protest of the inequality between landowners holding huge swathes of Colombia and the impoverished farming communities working them. While fighting mainly besieged the country’s rural areas, it also led to civilian casualties in the cities; the well-documented feuding between Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and rival cartels in the 1970s and 1980s only added to the terror.
Now, Colombia is considered much safer. In December 2016 Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end 50 years of FARC fighting. The nation, and Bogotá especially, is on the up and up, and fast becoming a must-go for visitors keen to discover its burgeoning arts and design scene.
For those who live there, however, the pain of those years is still fresh and, like in any city, there are neighbourhoods to avoid. While some Bogotans are quick to draw a connection between graffiti and political or gangland conflict, López says the reality is the exact opposite.
Artist collectives have been among the first to welcome former FARC soldiers, many of whom were recruited as children and have spent their entire lives fighting in Colombia’s jungles. Instead of joining gangs, they are becoming artists, using graffiti as a means to process their wartime experiences and to help them adjust to a new life in a city for which they are ill-equipped.
According to López, artworks in both rich and poor neighbourhoods are usually by artists that have travelled there from another quarter. He says taking a risk for their art is an inherent part of it, and protesting segregation, whether that segregation is enforced by local gangs trying to protect their turf, or government-administered infrastructure, is another. (In Bogotá, people are ranked 1 through 6 according to their socio-economic status, designated by zip code; Group 1 has to pay much more for water, gas, Internet and electricity than Group 6.)
“Why do graffiti artists paint trains? Because they move from one neighbourhood to another. In New York when [mayor Rudy] Giuliani said kids had to go to school in their own neighbourhood, it was how they talked to one another — one day they’re tagging the seat, the next they paint the whole train,” he says.
As we jump into a car to head to our next artwork, López gives me a quick crash course in the different definitions within graffiti art.
A tag usually includes one colour and takes around 15 seconds to put up. Bumps, also called throwups, can include three colours and take a few minutes. Masterpieces take days to produce, and — given that graffiti is illegal in Bogotá — the city has an abundance of large-scale examples.
The siding of the Avenida El Dorado between the Santa Fe and Armenia neighbourhoods is literally covered with them. As we drive by I see a toucan, an Amazonian frog, and Colombia’s national animal the condor, each spanning 10m and brightening the otherwise grey concrete of the inner city.
When I ask López where public opinion draws the line between graffiti as vandalism and as art, he references the kaleidoscopic celebration of Colombia’s tropical fauna unreeling on either side of the car.
“You can think of it this way: Tags are to graffiti as mosquitos are to nature — they’re annoying, but without mosquitos you can’t have elephants, and without tags you can’t have murals like these,” he says, gesturing beyond the window.
As we pull into the red-light district that backs the Cementerio Central (Central Cemetary), Lopez continues his elegant monologue on how graffiti is combating consumerism and social inequality in the city. He believes that graffiti in the 1980s and 1990s saved the cultural expression of the city in the face of aggressive capitalism, and that graffiti continues to confront the advertising invasion of the city. He says that street art is providing a reason for people to visit other neighbourhoods and making the invisible, visible.
The fact that I’m standing in a rundown area known for its brothels, snapping iPhone shots of a two-storey structure that depicts a girl’s face in black and white, adorned with stylised flowers and geometric embellishments, underlines his point.
After several big stories in which graffiti played a pivotal role, Bogotá’s authorities are coming around too.
In 2011, 16-year-old Diego Felipe Becerra was shot in the back by the police when they caught him tagging and he tried to run. The police later tried to allege they had caught him robbing a bus at gunpoint.
Following public vitriol, a law was passed to prevent the police from using force against street artists, with Chief of Police Rodolfo Palomino going on record to say graffiti was important as it expresses “emotions and motivation”. Over the next 24 hours, 300 graffiti artists united to create 700 works in the city.
Another turning point was an address by President Santos about clearing out the ghetto and all of its social evils. As part of its report, rather than run a portrait of the President, local newspaper El Tiempo ran a photograph of a passionate kiss between two homeless people in the neighbourhood about to be cleared.
Vertigo Graffiti immortalised that kiss as a 23-m high mural El Beso in the centre of the city, giving the couple white hair so that people of all ethnic backgrounds can identify with their love.
As we stand beneath the mural on a concrete sidewalk ringed by beeping horns and imposing grey apartment blocks, López recalls the emotional impact of the work on the local community.
“When the couple, Diane and Hernan, walked by the artists painting the mural, they thanked them for showing that they exist. All these guys — you know, really tough guys that go into all the tough neighbourhoods — were sobbing,” he says.
Hopefully tours like this and the success of outfits like Vertigo Graffiti — which opened a bricks-and-mortar workspace-cum-gallery three years ago in the up-and-coming neighbourhood of Teusaquillo — will continue to blaze a trail for change in Bogotá, and offer many more creative reasons for visitors to get out and explore.