Peep the Street Art That's Saving Bogota

In the capital of Colombia, spray paint and stencils replace drugs and guns.

Countless layers of graffiti plaster the walls surrounding a small park in Bogota's oldest neighborhood, La Candelaria. The Parque La Concordia is the starting point of a tour of Bogota's street art led by art collector and boutique hotel-owner Federico Ruiz. Ruiz is accompanied by Juan Garcia, an urban artist who's been making graffiti in Bogota since 1997. Back when graffiti was illegal, Garcia painted the walls of the park at night like "an extreme sport."  Ruiz and Garcia intend to start a much-needed conversation about Bogota's arts renaissance during a citywide tour of some of the its most memorable murals. The park is the meeting point.

In the '80s and '90s, hip-hop artists and skateboarders converged upon Parque La Concordia to create illicit pieces of graffiti. Since then, Bogota's civic leaders—such as leftist-rebel-turned-mayor Gustavo Petro—have found it favorable to have artists freely express themselves in the streets instead of committing serious crimes. Thanks to a liberal attitude toward permissions and grants, graffiti has become legal in Bogota. This freedom of creative expression—and its positive results—has turned the park into an evolving canvas of created, covered, and recreated street art. Bogota's groundbreaking attitude toward graffiti is  just one facet of a burgeoning arts scene that is helping the metropolis move past the days of armed conflict, paramilitary government, rebel uprisings, and drug trafficking.

Parque La Concordia

"They stopped persecuting graffiti artists and now, they promote them," Ruiz tells the Kind. "They give grants, they give a lot of money, and they give walls."

Ruiz believes there's "a Colombian art boom around the world," making the country a global center for Latin American art rivaling Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. In 2015, Christie's held an auction called Colombia Recounted: A Project of Contemporary Colombian Art. The same year, Colombia was invited to be the official guest country at the ARCOmadrid international contemporary art fair, bringing works from 250 artists and 12 galleries. "That opened a new era for Colombian contemporary art," says Ruiz.

"This couple, they were kissing and not caring about anything else at that moment."

Today, Bogota has a little more than 100 exhibition spaces, including museums, galleries, and ateliers. A decade ago, it had about 20. Ruiz attributes the increase to a series of homegrown art fairs held every autumn in the city, the biggest being ARTBO. He also notes that in Bogota, three major colleges are graduating around 2,000 artists each year. Thanks to entrepreneurs, galleries, and collectors, many of those artists have places to exhibit their work. In the event of any shortage of exhibition spaces, there are always the streets.

“The Kiss”

A few blocks north of the park at 26th Street and Avenue 14, sits a ten-story building with a huge vertical mural called "The Kiss." Garcia was part of the five-person crew who created it over the course of more than 60 hours, using two huge cranes to apply latex and spray paint. A photo of a homeless couple embracing, seemingly oblivious to the outside world, inspired the mural. The artists wanted to focus on "love in the city" and how it manifested in the couple's kiss.

"The picture was taken in a moment when there were riots and a lot of political issues," Garcia explains. "But this couple, they were kissing and not caring about anything else at that moment."

"The Kiss" was the result of a contest partially funded by the government, which the artists won after proposing the concept of the mural. "The money was, like, half of what we needed," Garcia clarifies. Other sponsors covered the balance through a collective called Vertigo Graffiti, which also took care of the overall logistics.

Not far from the now-famous mural, a pair of artists are listening to Colombian hip-hop. One of them puts the finishing touches on an image of a honeybee. They go by “ARK” and “Chirrete,” slang for someone who smokes a lot of weed and doesn't have a job. In fact, both men are professional graphic designers specializing in illustration. They've been hired by the Center of Memory, Peace, and Reconciliation in Bogota to paint a mural representing the broad cultural heritage of the city.

"They wanted to have something that would be symbolic in the sense of what is happening right now with Colombia," Ruiz says. "Their proposal was to paint the diversity of the human race."

Detail of “Meeting of the Styles”

Finally, at 80th Street and Avenue 30, Ruiz and Garcia consider a portion of a large mural called “Meeting of Styles,” named after a "graffiti weekend" originating in Germany that has spawned franchises in countries around the world, including Peru, Brazil, and now, Colombia.

"The whole concept of ‘Meeting of the Styles’ is uniting people from the city," Garcia says. "Also, they bring people from other parts of the world who are really important in the graffiti scene; so local people can learn about it."

Street art in Bogota is not as much about ego as it is about the creative process in general. The artists work independently, anonymously, in solid crews and as ad-hoc collectives. The objective is not necessarily to become famous. It is about the art being seen and enjoyed by as many people as possible, with no intrusion from the police.

Today, rather than persecute artists, the police are protecting them—at least, if Justin Bieber is any indication. According to Garcia, Bieber came to Bogota a couple of years ago and tried his hand at street art.

"He stopped the car—stopping traffic—and got out and made graffiti," Garcia says. "The whole community of graffiti artists in Bogota were pissed off because cops were guarding him."

(All photos by Tanja M. Laden)