The death of a young artist in 2011 led to a renaissance of legal graffiti – but does legitimacy defeat the point?
When graffiti artist DJ Lu began leaving his mark on the walls of Bogotá, he did it under the cover of night, dodging police who he knew could harass him, shake him down, arrest him, or worse.
“When I started out eight years ago it was risky,” says DJ Lu, a prolific stencil artist whose images of a pineapple bomb, an amputee with an AK-47 as a crutch, and a soldier holding grenade balloons occupy walls citywide. “There were no real rules and anything could happen.”
But today, instead of hunting down graffiti artists, authorities in the Colombian capital are hiring them.
It was the death of a young artist, shot by a policeman in 2011, which sparked a new tolerance of street art that has exploded into a colourful free-for-all of artistic expression.
Diego Felipe Becerra was spray-painting his signature wide-eyed Felix the Cat image on the walls of an underpass when he was killed. The outcry over the incident – and over a police attempt to portray Becerra as a suspected armed robber – led to graffiti protests across the city as well as the arrest of two police officers. “His killing was a turning point for street art in the city,” DJ Lu says.
Partly in response to the outrage over Becerra’s death, the city government took an “if you can’t beat them, join them” stance. In February the mayor of Bogotá, Gustavo Petro, issued a decree to promote the practice of graffiti in Bogotá as a form of artistic and cultural expression while at the same time defining surfaces that are off limits, including monuments and public buildings.
With that blessing and sizeable city grants, selected street artists were given two-, three- and seven-storey walls along a main Bogotá thoroughfare as their canvases. There they have created colourful murals with political and social messages.
One is a portrait of an indigenous woman in earthy colours with the phrase “Tejiendo Esperanzas”, which translates as “weaving hope”. Another alludes to victims of the country’s half century of internal conflict that has left hundreds of thousands dead, displaced and disappeared. A third shows two homeless people locked in a kiss.
Recognition of street art as a legitimate artistic expression has led to an unforeseen spread in common everyday graffiti scrawlings precisely where the decree prohibits them. Near the government-sponsored murals, walls and underpasses are covered with tags and bubble letters that many Bogotanos have a hard time seeing as art.
Pablo Abril, an industrial designer, says he likes the murals but is appalled by the spread of what he sees as vandalism. “There are streets now where there isn’t a single storefront that isn’t defaced,” he said.
DJ Lu says authorities have a mistaken notion that if street art is officially sanctioned, people will “paint pretty” and play by the rules. “It’s the eternal paradox of street art,” he says. “Being told where you can paint goes against the spirit of graffiti.”
Still, Bogotá’s liberal attitudes have attracted some of the world’s top street artistswho leave their mark on the city. UK artists INSA and Mysterious Al were recently invited by a corporate sponsor to teach workshops to graffiti artists. An Australian artist who goes by the name Crisp has been living in Bogotá for four years and has seen dozens of international artists leave their mark on the city. “Visiting artists can’t believe how liberal the scene is here. It’s a unique situation,” says Crisp who offers a guided tour of street art in the Candelaria neighbourhood for tourists. “It’s becoming something of an international mecca for street artists.”
Even Justin Bieber could not resist. After a concert in Bogotá in October the pop star set out with his police escort to scrawl on city walls that in theory are off limits for graffiti, but police did not act.
Some local artists took this as a sign of the times and called a 24-hour graffiti-thon. Overnight, hundreds of new pieces adorned the walls of the underpass where Bieber had left his mark. When approached by police, artists challenged: “Why don’t you protect us like you did with Justin Bieber?”
Some police have gone one step further. This month two street artists were caught spray-painting Christmas-themed art on the breeze-block walls of a police post in a wealthy neighbourhood of Bogotá. There were no arrests, however. The artists had been hired by police officers to do their festive decorating.