Unexpected lessons on legacy, justice and empowerment from Bogota's graffiti artists

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During a recent scouting trip for trans:form:ed to Bogota, I joined a graffiti tour with the intention of learning about an art form that historically has had a love-hate relationship with local authorities and residents. What I wasn’t expecting was an in-depth analysis of the current socio-political situation in Colombia through the eyes of very talented artists. Without attempting to reenact the tour for you, here are some of my favorite nuggets:

Honoring legacy and tradition

Many local street artists pay tribute to the purity of Colombia’s environment and native people, raising awareness to the destruction caused by colonization and industrialization over the centuries, while celebrating some of the country’s beautiful and unique flora and fauna. For example, hummingbirds are featured in many urban art pieces as Colombia is home to 147 species of hummingbirds (nearly half of all species found on this planet!), 8 of which can only be found here.

 Graffiti artists pay tribute in countless places to hummingbirds. Colombia is home to more than half of the planet's hummingbird species.

Graffiti artists pay tribute in countless places to hummingbirds. Colombia is home to more than half of the planet's hummingbird species.

Guache was one of the artists that stood out the most for me. His pieces are large representations of the country’s native people, displaying an incredible depth of emotion in amazing detail. His artistic name is a tribute itself: The word “guache” comes from the word “güecha,” which meant “warrior” to the local Chibchas in pre-colonial times. One way in which the Spanish colonizers worked to destroy native cultures was by appropriating very meaningful words from their languages and giving them a dismissive meaning. As a result, locals today use the word guache to refer to someone who is uneducated or not well-mannered. This artist has embraced the pseudonym “Guache” to celebrate a once powerful local tribe that vanished centuries ago.

 The local artist Guache honors the ancestral people of Colombia through his art. In the ancient language spoken by the local Chibcha people, Guache was the word for "warrior."

The local artist Guache honors the ancestral people of Colombia through his art. In the ancient language spoken by the local Chibcha people, Guache was the word for "warrior."

Female empowerment

Graffiti artistry is by no means a safe activity, as artists face constant harassment and attacks, especially at night. This is particularly true for women in the urban art world. One of the most recognized female urban artists in Bogota is Bastardilla, whose pieces typically center on the topic of female empowerment, and aim to raise awareness about gender equality and women's rights. Not only is her work a visual representation of the struggle and empowerment of women. She is living proof of this struggle, having to fight stereotypes and standing up for herself to the abuse of men – whether police officers or attackers who try to intimidate her when she’s working outside alone. Check out this video of her mural COMETAS, the amazing backdrop to a kids playground, which we had the opportunity to enjoy during our tour.

 Bastardilla's playful piece "COMETAS" serves as the backdrop for a children's playground.

Bastardilla's playful piece "COMETAS" serves as the backdrop for a children's playground.

Standing up to injustice and violence

In 2011, 16-year-old artist Diego Becerra was painting a figure of Felix The Cat a couple of doors down from his house, when police arrested him. Scared, he tried to flee the scene, and was shot in the back by a deadly bullet from one of the officers. What followed was months of cover-up’s and accusations to make it look like the teenager was an armed thief and junkie who posed a threat to the officers. This terrible episode, however, sparked the first real conversation between graffiti artists and authorities, which resulted in legal cases being opened against more than 10 members of the police force and new legislations being passed. Under the new legislations, police in Bogota can’t arrest someone for tagging walls. If the person can’t produce proof of permission, they are given 72 hours to paint the wall back to the way it was or otherwise they are hit with a fine. Diego’s father also started a hotline that provides legal advice and support to graffiti artists who are dealing wit legal issues related to their art, and who believe that they are being treated unfairly.

 Five years after Diego’s death, 130 graffiti artists spent a weekend painting the walls under a bridge in Bogota in his honor.  Photo: Diego Santacruz / EL TIEMPO

Five years after Diego’s death, 130 graffiti artists spent a weekend painting the walls under a bridge in Bogota in his honor.

Photo: Diego Santacruz / EL TIEMPO

Changing the face of the place

Rodez is a renowed visual artist who became a full time mural artist after caving in to a request from his sons Malegría and Nómada, both of whom were already street artists, to collaborate on a mural over a weekend.

In early 2018, the father-son trio was granted permission by the city to lead the clean up of Parque La Concordia. Situated between the neighborhoods of La Candelaria and Egipto, this place has been for decades a hub of theft, violence and drug dealing. The street artists spent a total of 1.5 months clearing the public space, and filling the walls with their art. Without adding any police presence and without any new amenities, the park started to attract families from nearby areas when it re-opened to the public. As it turns out, parents were desperate for a space where their kids could run and play and where everyone would feel safe. And the beautiful art created by Rodez, Malegría and Nómada became the main draw for parents and kids to reclaim and protect the park.

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 The art of Rodez, Nómada and Malegría transformed Parque La Concordia from a hub of violence and drug dealing to a safe haven for kids and families.

The art of Rodez, Nómada and Malegría transformed Parque La Concordia from a hub of violence and drug dealing to a safe haven for kids and families.

These are just a few of the lessons I learned during this tour, but I could keep going! I finished the tour convinced that street artists can teach us so much about what’s going on in the world around us, we just need to stop and look at their art with open eyes. We look forward to giving trans:form:ed participants a taste of this experience when we visit Bogota with our program in February 2019.