The word “graffiti” usually conjures images of Bart Simpson vandalizing the side of the Kwik-E-Mart with his infamous “El Barto” tag.
This non-flattering stereotype is being put to the test in Bogotá, where graffitists are challenging what constitutes acceptable forms of art. They’re using bare walls as their canvasses to transform Bogotá’s urban landscape into one big open-air modern art exhibit.
The international press has taken notice and is praising Bogotá’s spray-can Picassos. The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, Fusion television network, and dozens of travel blogs have heralded Bogotá’s street art as the next trendy thing.
Thanks to the city’s relaxed attitude toward graffiti, artists are able to take their time and produce quality work, rather than having to rush their efforts under cover of night. Communities are embracing the art form, and businesses are commissioning artists to beautify their buildings. Even national cultural organizations and politicians have gone pro-graffiti.
The writing on the wall is clear: Bogotá doesn’t want its artwork confined to galleries.
Renowned local and international artists as well as amateur and up-and-comers are painting this town red, blue, yellow, green, orange, and purple.
One of the best-known local graffiti groups is MAL Crew, an artist collective formed in 2009 (though some of the members have more than 10 years of experience). The artists behind MAL go by the names Fonso, Río, Raíz, Terms 73, Ghore, Sátiro, Somos, and Cuervo 21.
They explain that the collaborative work allows for “many points of view in one concrete image.” And though the group appreciates the attention they’ve lately been getting, fame is not their objective. They’re looking to make change, not a name.
One of their best-known paintings is a mural honoring Colombia‘s journalist, comedian, lawyer, peace activist, and political satirist Jamie Garzón, who played a key role in FARC hostage negotiations in the 1990s. That role earned him some enemies, and, in 1999, he was murdered. Details and testimonies that have surfaced since the murder indicate that politicians and the military were likely involved. Still, the case remains open.
Much of Bogotá’s street artwork has historical themes and underlying political messages. Tribute is paid to the struggles, revolutionaries, and injustices of the lower classes. Street art tends to relate to street life.
The multistory murals are helping to rejuvenate Bogotá’s streets, but, of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and not everybody painting Bogotá’s city walls is a pro. Haphazard tagging by kids simply looking to make their mark has caused pushback from the authorities, with tags being painted over and fines being issued. Regulations exist for what is and isn’t allowed, though they’re not always enforced.
By and large, the devoted artists are distinguishable from the slap-dashers, and the art is permitted accordingly. That is, unless you’re Justin Bieber.
In Bogotá in 2013, Bieber thought he’d cash in on the popularity of the city’s rising street-art scene. Under the protection of his police escort, he hit the streets with a spray can, enraging local graffiti artists struggling in the face of police harassment. Within a day, fresh graffiti from local artists had disappeared Bieber’s painting.
Seeing Bogotá’s graffiti is easy enough on your own, but, if you’d prefer, you can arrange a guided tour. Guided tours are cheap or free, and guides know where to go and where not to go, both for seeing the best artwork and staying in the safest areas.
Not that tourists should be worried about safety. Violent crime in Bogotá is on the decline. The city’s homicide rate is four times lower than it was in 1993 and lower than that of several major U.S. cities.
Bogotá’s red-light district of Santa Fe is still a no-go zone, though. Expect a completely different type of exhibition there. Even your tour guide probably won’t want to stop here, and photos are strictly prohibited.
Photos of the street art, however, are encouraged. No need to worry about appearing inconsiderate of the artist. Public accessibility and enjoyment are the whole point.