It’s hard to wrap your head around a new megacity that you’ve just landed in at the best of times, let alone when your body is still adjusting to the altitude, your head is rattling with crime warnings and you’ve already had a run-in with the local police.
I knew that Bogota would be far too complex to get anything but a brief glimmer of when I spent a couple of days there ago on first arriving in Colombia. But I thought that one way to try and make sense of some of the themes shaping the city would be to go have a look at what had been painted, tagged and stencilled on to the city’s walls. Not usually one for big guided tours, I joined a group led by Bogota Graffiti Tours to get a lesson in social history via the city’s street art.
Bogota is unusual among big cities in that graffiti is technically legal. All you need to do to be able to paint without being hassled or fined is to gain the permission of the building owner. And while not all owners will give permission, they often do, sometimes just to avoid having their shop or house being tagged anyway, so explained Carlos, a local graphic designer and street art fanatic who led the tour. But many of Bogota’s grafiteros choose to ignore this, preferring to stick to the old-school traditions of graffiti as passed down by the original New York forebears: painting as an act of rebellion, done explicitly without permission.
While Bogota has in the past decade or so become a magnet for aspiring street artists from across the Americas, it wasn’t always this way. The acceptance of street art in the city came about following long-standing battles with the local authorities, particularly in the wake of the police shooting of an unarmed 16 year-old, Diego Felipe Becerra, who was gunned down after fleeing from two officers while he was painting his trademark Felix The Cat stencil in an underpass. The boy’s murder and the subsequent police cover-up (police alleged they were hunting for a suspect who had just robbed a bus) led to huge protests, which was in part what led to the lowering of fines and the eventual regularisation of street art in the city.
Unsurprisingly, in a country which is only just emerging from an internal armed conflict that has lasted more than half a decade (and which still lingers in parts of the country), social and political themes were very prominent in the murals and stencils I saw in the city’s downtown and La Candelaria neighbourhoods. Artists like Toxicomano and DJ Lu use the medium of stencilling to provoke commentary about consumerism, corruption, the impact of extractive industries on the Colombian environment and the effect that foreign intervention, (in particular Plan Colombia) has had on the country’s development.
But what stood out even more for me were the many indigenous faces staring out from the city’s walls, as painted by artists such as Guache and Guerrero. Beautiful, elaborate murals of indigenous men, women and children, often painted in bold colours, with psychedelic undertones, were peppered all over the city centre. Colombia might be less well known for its indigenous culture than neighbouring Peru, or other Andean nations like Bolivia, but indigenous people make up around 3.4 % of the population, and a staggering third of the country is made up of indigenous reserves – particularly in the Amazonian region. (Though this has not prevented these regions being plundered for their resources: indigenous people have often being disproportionately affected by violence and displacement and indigenous social movements continue to be targeted by paramilitary violence).
Many of these murals offered joyous, colourful visions of the future, in contrast to the prevailing greyness of much of the city and the bleakness of the social and political reality that artists are wrestling with. I recognised this aesthetic – a kind of indigenous psychedelia – from some of the album art of musicians I’d been listening to before coming to South America, artists such as Chancha via Circuito, El Buho and El Remolon, all of whom are working in the borderlands between indigenous and Andean folk music, cumbia and electronic music.
It wondered whether both visual artists and musicians, in striving to build an optimistic vision of Colombia’s – and South America’s – future, were doing so partly by trying to reclaim and reimagine the continent’s indigenous heritage, building an aesthetic in which indigenous symbolism, knowledge and iconography is central, and calling for a more balanced and equitable relationship between human beings and the natural resources they rely on.