“There’s more to Colombia than cocaine and coffee.”
Rey Garcia is a tour guide on a mission. In his eyes, street art is not only a legitimate art form worthy of a wider audience, but a valuable means of self-expression.
Street art is not illegal in Bogotá. The maximum penalty is akin to a parking ticket. And since relaxing restrictions in 2011, the city has seen its walls explode with color and creativity. Artists come from around the world to participate; an estimated 5,000 murals now cover the city, and new ones go up every week.
It’s important work. Both Colombia and its capital are trying to present a friendlier face to the world. And for Garcia, each wall is palimpsest: read one closely and you’ll discover conversations about a country in transition and the voices within it that want to be heard.
It’s 10 AM and ours is the first tour of the day. We head into La Candelaria, Bogotá’s colorful historic district where many artists work.
The diversity of topics and styles we see belies the diverse backgrounds of the city’s most accomplished artists. The hallucinogenic images in bold primary colors are the trademark of Rodez, a children’s’ book illustrator with more than 50 titles to his credit. The comically smiling fish that dance across a corrugated iron fence are the trademark of Pez, a veteran whose works are sought by collectors worldwide.
Few works in this neighbourhood are overtly confrontational (we’ll see those later on), though many do depict sensitive topics. Guache, for example, calls attention to issues facing Colombia’s indigenous peoples with a blend of traditional iconography and modern techniques.
For the most part, artists in La Candelaria enjoy a positive and productive relationship with property owners. Many will commission works for their houses – the paint protects against the weather, and full-size murals help deter tagging. Government buildings and houses older than 300 years are off-limits, but once a property owner has given an artist permission to paint, he can do so without police interference.
The legacy of La Violencia and the perils of capitalism come through most forcefully at a construction site far from La Candelaria. Here, a mammoth triptych by Guache, Toxicomano, and DJ LU brims with cautionary slogans such as “Exploitation ruins life” and DJ LU’s “pineappleade” icons. “Piña” means “pineapple,” but it’s also slang for “grenade.” It’s one of DJ LU’s most well-known symbols. It’s also available on his own line of shoes – a novel blending of activism and commerce.
It’s now nearly 1 PM and Garcia has proven there is indeed more to the city than coffee and cocaine. Street art is a vital element in the city’s conversation with itself, and judging from both the local response and the international acclaim, there will be many more discussions – and many more tours – in the years to come.
All photos by Delaney Turner