Colombia is throwing off its negative reputation with a cultural and artistic renaissance to match any of its South American neighbours. Nowhere is this more evident than in the street art which adorns Bogotá’s walls, and which reveals the untrammelled creativity of the capital’s graffiti artists. Liana Mellotte celebrates the best of those artists, and shares her impressions of Colombia’s street art renaissance.
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 oft overlooked by travellers, its eyebrow-raising reputation preceding it. But Colombia is a vibrant country which is shaking off the shackles of its darker days by maintaining its cultural richness. Events like the Bogota Book Fair and cultural spaces like the Museo Del Oro and Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez have firmly put it on the international culture map.
But the accessibility of their cultural landscape doesn’t end there. One of the most vivid experiences you will have here is by engaging with the street art. Incredibly relaxed laws involving the declassification of graffiti from ‘crime’ to ‘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 with their styles with little fear of legal reproach has proved attractive, and as a result the city pulsates with international and native talent.
While many countries treat street art as an abomination often carried out by belligerent youths with criminal tendencies, Colombia has embraced it as the artistic expression of its people. Artists are often commissioned to create facades in a bid by businesses to avoid mindless tagging, and advertising campaigns utilise the medium as a channel to reach their market. For the ‘grafiteros’ themselves, it is a chance to create powerful social commentary about the nation’s politics, to champion their heroes or simply to brighten the days of the people who have suffered at the hands of Colombia’s somewhat murky past.
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. Booked via bogotagraffiti, the two and a half hour tour starts at 10am on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at the Parque de los Periodistas under the watchful gaze of one of the city’s numerous statues of national hero Simón Bolívar. As you snake through the winding paths of La Candelaria, Bogota’s old town, CRISP explains the images and their inferences which you would likely miss without extensive knowledge of the nation’s rhetoric.
CRISP was born and raised in rural Australia to artist parents, and after creating art through sculpture, carvings and photography across the globe over 10 years, it was a trip to Bogota that beguiled him into street art and the use of less traditional mediums. Since then, he has exhibited in London, New York, Miami, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Alaska. His passion for street art is abundant yet, modestly, his tour focuses more on other artists who have inspired and motivated his work.
Colombian-born artist Rodez is 50 years old and is also father to street artists Nomada and Malegria with whom he works the streets’ walls. Both his sons studied at the University National in Colombia, a centre for intelligence and leftist thought in the country. Together they often travel to Buenos Aires in nearby Argentina to paint and to teach. His surreal creations are often creatures with multiple eyes, his ‘animales fantasticos’.
Fine art graduate DjLu is another product of the University National, and the 37 year old has become known for his politically-charged pictograms stencilled across the city alongside their signature ‘Juega Siempre’ (‘Always Play’.) His work is impactful, delivering its message to the beholder in seconds, and he has constantly fought against brands who have tried to monetize his work, rather hoping to open the eyes of people to Bogota and to life’s opportunities.
APC (Animal Poder Crew) are one of the most prolific street art collectives, reclaiming the street aesthetic with multiple murals across the city. First started around 10 years ago by Stinkfish, it has since grown into a truly international collective encapsulating graffiti writers and street artists alike from Latin America and Europe. APC includes many talents including Gris-one, Ark, Pez, DEXS, Chirrete Golden, FCO, Saks, Sabor and Temor to name just a few. Their styles are varied and dynamic but are predominantly freestyle techniques and characters with strong graffiti writing influences.
Stinkfish himself, with a dual heritage incorporating Mexico City and Bogota, is world renowned and has exhibited in London, New York, LA and Paris. He is best known for creating large scale face stencils with dramatic freehand spray can work embellishing them. But he is a true all-rounder, also working on stickers, paste-ups, tags, characters and stencils.
Hailing from Barcelona, Spanish street artist Pez also currently exhibits in Bogota, flying solo and as part of APC. His concrete canvases, peppered with the smiling fish motif, have made him globally famous and he has based himself in the city where he lives with his Colombian wife and child.
Toxicomano is a Bogota-based collective that mix punk and propaganda in their statement stencils that poke fun at advertising techniques and mass media.
Corrosivo Carsal paints independently and in the collective Schablone in his hometown of Bogota, focussing on stencils and paste ups.
Other prevalent grafiteros and collectives to watch out for as you tread the city’s paths include Miko, Zudoco, Bastardilla, Guache, Zancudo and Ledania. The length of these exhibits is impossible to calculate, a mural or stencil can last five days or five years. What can be relied on is that this effervescent city will always be teeming with home-grown and international talent who will constantly challenge perceptions through exquisite world class graffiti.
By Liana Mellotte
Images courtesy Liana Mellotte