Graffiteros give Bogota a colorful makeover
BOGOTA, Colombia — This gritty city of 7.6 million rarely gets respect. It often ranks near the bottom in “livability” surveys and near the top of the hemisphere’s ugliest capitals.
But in recent years, it has been getting an unintentional makeover. Weak laws and blank walls have made it a safe haven for local and international graffiti artists.
Now, this capital city seems to be in bloom. Everything from high-art to hurried scrawls spring from overpasses, storefronts and sidewalks. The splash of color is earning the city praise and recognition in the art world — even as some here wonder about the line between art and vandalism.
Bogota’s street-art scene is part accident, part design. The city was already becoming a hotbed for graffiti. Then last year, the mayor rolled out a law trying to regulate the practice. Now, graffiti is allowed everywhere except monuments, government buildings and public infrastructure, like bridges. And artists need permission before tagging their personal signatures on private property. But while fines and punishments do exist, some say the new rules have given graffiti a stamp of approval and turned Bogota into a street-artist Wild West.
Large Detailed Murals
“I can walk out onto the freeway right now and start painting and the police will just drive by and not say a thing,” said El Pez, 37, an artist from Barcelona, Spain.
El Pez moved to Bogota six years ago, attracted by the anything goes attitude. His work, which has been dubbed “happy style,” features wide-eyed, grinning animals and has found a global following; for the last three years, he’s exhibited at Art Basel in Miami.
“Five years ago, there wasn’t a lot going on here,” he said. “Now, there’s a lot of talent and a lot of freedom to communicate.”
For the most part, the city seems better off with the blind-eye policy. In Bogota, graffiti artists can work in daylight and often without police harassment. This allows them the time to create large, highly detailed murals, said Christian Petersen. He's an Australian artist who leads guided tours of the city's street art.
“It’s a unique situation here, and that encourages a lot of good-quality work,” he said. “Ironically, in places where it’s highly illegal, it encourages more tagging and bombing and stuff the general public dislikes and defines as vandalism.”
Mayor Gustavo Petro has called graffiti a way to overcome the differences between rich and poor people. He's even offered money to artists to paint in neglected areas and public markets.
“Art is also for the workers and the humble,” he said recently as he introduced a new mural to the public. “It’s a way to overcome our problems by looking at these colors and beauty.”
A Tempting Target Tagged
But some purists worry that the city is getting too cozy with the local graffiteros.
“Street art is like a virus that expands, which is good,” said Maria Elvira Ardila, a curator at Bogota’s Museum of Modern Art. “But when these acts of street art become institutional — are sponsored by the mayor’s office or other government institutions — they lose their character.”
The museum has debated having a show featuring local street artists. But to put them in a museum setting would destroy their position of being outsiders, Ardila said.
For others, the debate is more practical.
Milena Sandrea runs an auto repair shop. The large building with its high white walls makes a tempting target. It’s covered in graffiti tags and signatures.
“We used to paint every six months but the next day — or two at the most — it would be covered in graffiti again,” she said. “We’ve given up.”
Sandrea said the city’s relaxed attitude toward graffiti may be to blame.
“Because kids see it everywhere, they think it’s OK to do it,” she said.
Art Versus Vandalism
A turning point for the city came in 2011, when police gunned down Felipe Diego Becerra, a 16-year-old graffiti artist painting on a bridge. The officer claimed he mistook Becerra’s spray-paint can for a gun. Witnesses, however, say the teenager was shot in the back. The case is ongoing. But after that, police have given graffiti artists more freedom.
When Miami graffiti artist Israel Hernandez-Liach, 18, died in August after being tasered by Miami Beach police, it hit home here. Hernandez was born in Colombia and was tagging a shuttered McDonald’s when he was caught.
There are those who welcome “acceptable” street art, like murals, but dismiss tagging as vandalism. They just don’t understand the art form, said Stinkfish, 33. He's one of Colombia’s best-known street artists and is active here and in Mexico.
Stinkfish paints detailed portraits that have earned him invites to art festivals around the world. But he’s also covered the city with his signature and his tag — a toothy miniature person — including in areas that are illegal.
“The streets should be a space for free communication, but for a long time it has belonged to corporations, companies, the church, people with money,” he said. “For it to be free, you have to paint what you want where you want — whether that’s your name, a mural or a face.”