Grafitti writing and street art have spread through the walls of Bogota and other Colombian cities during the last decade opening an important space of creative participation and expression for urban youth. Although political graffiti had been performed in public spaces since the 1960s around the country, the stylization of grafitti writing with all its colors, stencils, tags, and variety of scales was something unexplored in Colombia until recent years. Nowadays, it can be said that there is a solid street art scene in the major cities and that even a unique Colombian graffiti style has been developed through the appropriation of aesthetic resources and practices from the global street art and hip hop cultures. Despite the positive outcomes of empowering youth and diversifying the urban landscape, Colombian graffiteros have been harassed by the police and condemned by conservative older generations. Those attacks have sometimes ended tragically as with the killing of the 16 years old artist Diego Felipe Becerra by a police officer in Bogota, August 2011. However, the condemnation and moral panics around graffiti in Colombia seem to have arrived to a turning point thanks to the unexpected consequences of the recent public actions of Canadian artist Justin Bieber and the declarations of the National Police Chief General Rodolfo Palomino few weeks ago.
“We have to evolve and see graffiti as an artistic expression of a feeling, of a motivation. Someone who paints graffiti wants to tell us something, and we have to listen,” said the General to La F.M, a national radio station. He tried to explain why four members of the police escorted Justin Bieber while he was making a graffiti of the Canadian flag and a leaf of marihuana at the Calle 26, Downtown, Bogota. As the video and pictures of the actions of the Canadian singer circulated online and the media covered Justin Bieber graffiti actions as an scandal, a big discussion emerged around the ambiguity of the law enforcement and the criminalization of street art. Colombian graffiti writers, members of the hip hop movement and the different voices from the public opinion criticized the ambiguity of the police that although it has criminalized Colombian street artists seems to offer protection to international members of the pop culture jet set.
Nevertheless, despite the initial anger that the scandal provoked, the Colombian street art community responded to the scandal in a very creative and productive way. Legitimized by the words of the Police Chief, they decided to make a call for massive participatory graffiti actions in major Colombian cities and performed several “graffiti writing 24 hours marathons.” Using social network sites for spreading the word and coordinating activities, graffiti writers organized the #tomagraffiti24h first in Bogota, and then in Medellin and Cali, in a very short period of time. They created facebook groups, circulated emails, and broadcasted tweets making a public call for rapid action. The result of these creative, participatory and non-violent actions was well documented in videos, photographs, newspaper and magazine articles, and showed an empowered Colombian youth that is highly engaged with street art.
For instance, bellow is a video clip summary of the 24 hours of graffiti writing in Medellin:
Here is another video of the #tomagraffiti24h in Cali, a city close to the Colombian Pacific coast where the hip hop movement has been consistently growing since the 1990s.
The significance of this public participatory actions needs to be highlighted given the context of violence and inequality in Colombia. Through these kind of practices urban youth demonstrates the power of new literacies for social organization both offline and online, as well as a clear desire for expressing peacefully and openly in public. In a country in which public communication has been dominated by few big media conglomerates and elite families, it is refreshing to see and listen to the new voices and symbols that are emerging from the urban grassroots. Following the traces of the Colombian hip hop and street art movements, both offline and online, can be useful for understanding productive uses of new media by non-dominant youth and alternative media makers.
PS: As a bonus track I would like to share some photographs I took in 2007 at the Carrera 30 in Bogota. Looking at them one can get an idea of the diversity of techniques and styles that have been developed by local graffiti writers.