Last year we made it to Colombia for the first time. One of the highlights of our trip was a walking tour of Bogota's street art scene with Bogota Graffiti Tours. On the tour, we learnt about the history, politics and artists which make Bogota's street art scene so compelling. Indeed, Bogota has embraced street art as a means of creative expression and consequently the city's scene has thrived.
Due to Colombia's turbulent history, it's no surprise that politics feature in much of Bogota's street art. The scene flourished in the nineties fuelled by the effects of the civil war along with the activities Pablo Escobar's notorious drug cartel. Colombia became not only a dangerous country, but also one that suffered from widespread poverty. The situation was reflected in the street art which consequently sprung up in the major cities. These days, in addition to work representing political struggles, there are also plenty of fun, colourful and entertaining creations to check out on the streets of the city.
Having arrived in Bogota, we couldn't help but be impressed by the abundance of graffiti and street art on the main drag of Avenida El Dorado. Indeed, the art along the stretch which runs from the airport to downtown is prolific and striking. Indeed, some of the largest urban creations in the city can be viewed here. Sunday is the best day to check out the art – traffic is banned and cyclists together with pedestrians take over the street, giving the area a more relaxed vibe.
This district is the historical heart of the city and it is rich with street art. Although it has a somewhat edgy vibe and caution should be taken, it nevertheless remains a popular place to stay for budget travellers and backpackers. As a matter of fact, we stayed in La Candelaria and really enjoyed it. Not only is it close to the Gold Museum and Botero Museum, but the hilly streets are packed with colonial buildings and are fascinating to explore.
Additionally, there is a high concentration of street art in the streets around Parque de los Periodistas, the starting point for the Bogota Street Art Tour. Colourful creations can be seen everywhere from storefronts and parks to hotels and doorways. In fact, the owners of many buildings commission artists to create images, as this tends to discourage tagging. There is also plenty of large-scale street art to enjoy in the nearby downtown area.
More recently, the industrial area of Distrito Graffiti (Puente Aranda) has also become a hotspot for street art. Two blocks of brick warehouses have been painted and were commissioned by the Colombian Secretary of Culture. Over fifty artists from all over the world have contributed and the result is impressive.
Until recently, street art was illegal in Bogota, but the situation has now changed radically. Diego Felipe Becerra, was a local 16-year old street artist, who was killed by police in 2011. One night, he was spray painting a wall in the Aguas Calientes neighbourhood with his signature motif of Felix the Cat. When the police arrived, he ran from the scene and was consequently shot in the back. The police attempted to cover up the shooting. They claimed that Diego had been involved in an armed robbery (which was untrue) and even planted a weapon. Demonstrations took place and street artists spread their protest across the city. Diego has since become a hero of the street art community.
As bizarre as it seem, Justin Bieber has also played a hand in the history of Bogota's street art scene. When he was there for a gig in 2013, he was escorted by police to a wall in the city. After dark, he proceeded to spray paint a picture of the Canadian flag, replacing the maple leaf with a marijuana leaf. Naturally, the street art community were furious. The pop star was permitted, even encouraged, to spray paint the wall when one of their own had been murdered for such an act. The following day, Bieber's creation was painted over by hundreds of Bogota artists.
Bieber's actions, along with the tragic death of Diego Becerra, unwittingly led to street art being made legal in Bogota. These days, street art is allowed with property owner's permission. The government even commission street art around the city. The election of centre-left candidate, Claudia Lopez, Colombia's first female mayor, in January 2020, lends hope that the street art scene will continue to be supported by the city.
Both Colombian and international artist contribute to Bogota's street art scene. Stinkfish is known as Colombia's top street artist. His work is noted for its freestyle spray strokes and face stencils. Gauche is a member of the Bogota Street Art Collective and creates colourful pieces relating to indigenous people and wildlife. Other artists include Pez, Crisp, DjLu and Rodez. Bastardilla, is one of the few female street artists. Her work focuses on feminism, violence and poverty. Many of the artists are also part of a group, such as Animal Powder Crew or MAL.
The tour kicks off in Parque de los Periodistas, Candelaria at 10.00 am and 2.00 pm daily. These tours are in English, but private tours are offered in Spanish, French and Dutch. Our guide was Jay, Bogota Graffiti's tour manager. Born in Colombia and raised in New York, he is a passionate expert on Colombian street art. The rest of the gang include Crisp, Monica, Ana, Jeff and Carlos. The tours are free, but donations are welcome. The amount of $7-10 US is suggested. Donations are reinvested in the street art community.
The tour was excellent and, without doubt, it was the best thing we did in Bogota. We wandered through the streets of Candelaria, making many stops. Jay explained about the history, politics and the artists that have contributed towards making the Bogota street art scene what it is today. We were in the city just after the country-wide, anti-government protests had taken place. Jay took us to the street corner where Dilon Cruz, the teenager who was killed at a student protest, was hit by a police projectile. A tribute had been paid to him in the form of a piece of street art.
If you ever find yourself in Bogota, we can highly recommend Bogota Graffiti Tours. Indeed, the tour was enlightening beyond the subject of street art. It gave us a glimpse into the heart and soul of this often misunderstood city.
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