National Geographic Traveller (UK)


The streets of the Colombian capital are awash with eye-catching art. But this is far more than just decoration, with designs rooted in identity and offering an all-important chance for political self-expression


“Policemen in Bogotá are art curators,” my tour guide, Luis Lamprea, tells me, as we wander through the Candelaria neighbourh­ood in the capital’s centre. “If they catch you but they like the art you’re making, they may turn a blind eye.”

Around me, bright painted shapes cover virtually every wall. Passers-by walk on seemingly nonplussed, but I stand transfixed. “Today, graffiti is not legal, but it’s tolerated. Police could fine you,” he continues. “So the best policy is to impress them, or not get caught.”

Things haven’t always been so lenient here. In 2011, the death of 16-year-old Diego Becerra started a dramatic shift in Bogotá’s relationsh­ip with street art. Becerra was illegally out spraying with friends, and was caught. Scared, he ran from the police, and was shot and killed. Police cover ups followed, and soon there was an outcry from the population.

“Bogotá residents didn’t want any more people killed. Becerra’s death moved people to have an opinion about graffiti and to start speaking publicly about it,” says Luis. As a result, graffiti was decriminal­ized in 2013. But the story didn’t end there.

The same year, while in town for a concert, pop star Justin Bieber saw the graffiti along the highway on the way to the airport and decided he fancied trying his hand at it. “It was a terrible piece of work,” Luis tells me, shaking his head. “But Bieber was allowed to do it.” Uproar followed: how could Bieber be allowed to graffiti a prohibited area with police protection, while locals had been so brutally punished? “People here felt everyone should be able to do it,” Luis says. “It led to a second decree. Not just that the government should allow it — but that they should promote it. Now part of the government budget goes on commission­ing street art.”

The result of this turbulent period is one of the most varied, layered and complex graffiti scenes in the world. Years back, graffiti artists used to work quickly and at night. But today, Candelaria, along with huge chunks of the rest of the city, is an open-air art gallery of pieces that have taken hours if not days to complete. Here, commission­ed murals (you can tell from the size and technique — roller brushes and paint brushes require much more time than spray cans, signalling a paid project) sit alongside small, stencilled works from Colombia’s answer to Banksy, DJ Lu. But you don’t just come here to appreciate the talent — you come here to learn about what makes Colombia tick.

My tour with Luis is thanks to Capital Graffiti Tours, a donations-only walking tour guided by artists that runs twice a day in the city, every day. What he instils in visitors isn’t just an appreciati­on of art, but one of the most interestin­g and vital introducti­ons to Colombia — its triumphs, its history and its struggles, from civil war to the ongoing fight for indigenous rights. “One of the best ways to protest now and remain anonymous is street art,” Luis says. “With this type of art, everyone can contribute, and everyone can have their work — and their thoughts — seen.”

In the three hours we have together, we see a fraction of what the city has to show. My favourite work is a collaborat­ion between Bastardill­a and her boyfriend, Wosnan, a piece that Luis describes as “both decorative and political”. To the initiated, this mural speaks of government failure and political protests — events plucked from Colombia’s recent past. The ‘PRIMERA LINEA’ etched in capitals on the back of a green bug signifies a protest group of the same name; the insect speaking of youth and pluckiness. “This mural is a homage to them,” Luis finishes. “Lots of people saw them as heroes, while others saw them as bandits.”

Nearby we see a powerful work by DJ Lu: a stencilled outline of an amputee with a rifle as a leg. “This can take months to design on Photoshop, and seconds to spray paint,” Luis tells me. Elsewhere is a mural of three stencilled faces: these represent three real-life men of the Indigenous Páez people, who struggled for their land in the 1960s. Around the corner is the work of Guache, one of the country’s most famous artists. His name means ‘warrior’ in the language of the indigenous Muisca people, his work easily identifiab­le by the block shapes and straight lines.

Not far away, a huge piece in bright mauves and magentas covers the entire side of a hostel. It was commission­ed by the owner to celebrate the most beloved icons of Bogotá: the Gold Museum, housing pre-Columbian treasure; hummingbir­ds, the types you see flying through the pretty gardens of San Francisco de Sales church; and the face of Salavarrie­ta Ríos, also known as ‘La Pola’, a woman who fiercely fought against Spanish rule in the 1800s.

Steps away, another mural covers the side of a small building. “It’s an illustrati­on of a páramo ecosystem, again by Bastardill­a,” Luis says. Patches of purples, teals and blues merge to form mountains and lakes. “It’s a symbol of Colombia,” he continues. “She makes it look like a living organism, a place full of life. These artists, they hold up a mirror to our whole country.”

How to do it: Book free tours with Capital Graffiti Tours, which currently meets at 10am and 2pm outside the Gold Museum. capitalgra­

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features world-class murals by local artists Guache, Rodez and DJ Lu, relating to social and political struggles in the capital
Walking tours of Bogotá’s Candelaria neighbourh­ood focus on the area’s street art, which features world-class murals by local artists Guache, Rodez and DJ Lu, relating to social and political struggles in the capital

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