To promote the artists to an international audience and help visitors decipher many of the messages contained in the art, the Bogotá Graffiti Tour was started. The twice daily 2½-hour walking tour through the city is thoroughly rewarding. Simply show up at Parque de los Periodistas in the city center and join in the street art crawl.
A crime no longer
Until 2011 graffiti was a crime in Bogotá, with artists working in fear and under the cover of darkness. Then on August 19, 2011 a 16-year-old street artist by the name of Diego Felipe Becerra was shot to death by police while spray-painting his trademark Felix the Cat on Boyaca Ave. Despite paint on his hands and a bullet in his back, police accused him of robbery and reported that they had killed him in self-defense. The outcry, which included condemnation from the United Nations and the eventual arrest of the two officers, triggered a massive shift in the city's tolerance to street art. The establishment, including the mayor, outwardly shifted their views and graffiti became an acceptable form of cultural and artistic expression rather than a crime.
The local government have since provided grants to artists, as well as commissions for murals on large walls, which climb up to seven stories in height. There were to be some boundaries, however, with monuments and public buildings out of bounds to street artists. This led to two artists being picked up for spray-painting Christmas graffiti on a police station in a wealthy neighborhood of the city, though as The Guardian reported at the time, there were no arrests – the pair had been hired by senior officers to add some holiday zest to the building's drab walls.
The unwritten code
Graffiti has always been a dark art, with rich traditions in rule breaking, so telling street artists where they can or can't paint will never be met with perfect success. That said, there is an unwritten code among Bogotá artists that is more thoroughly adhered to, and this is to not paint over others' works. This has led many home and shop owners to happily accept, or even request artists to create large murals on their properties as it radically reduces the amount of less attractive tagging on their properties.
Many international street artists have been lured to the scene by Bogotá's reputation, and it's become the norm for them to reach out to local artists, either to learn the lay of the land or to work on pieces in collaboration. Australian street artist Crisp actually decided to stay in the city, and has now called Bogotá home for several years. Besides portraits of wildlife, spray-painted freehand or with stencils, he places numerous death masks on walls – the guide on the Bogotá Graffiti Tour noted his masks are to represent reflections of society.
One of the most prolific street artists in Bogotá is DJ Lu, a fine art graduate, trained architect and professor who paints politically-motivated stencils across the city in his spare time. Perhaps because of the pointed messages in some of his work, he still keeps his true identity secret. One small stencil features a person hung to death from an industrial oil pump, and is thought to highlight the conditions Colombians face working in the oil industry as well as the harm foreign investment in natural resource extraction is having on the environment. By painting a large and detailed portrait of Marco Tulio Sevillano, a man who was burned to death while sleeping rough on the street, DJ Lu also put the country's historical treatment of the homeless into sharp focus. We're told his stencil of a pineapple fused with a hand grenade is meant to shed light on the issue of landmines still lurking beneath the fertile soil of Colombia's farmland. Some of his other works – roses coming out of machine gun barrel or soldiers shooting hearts – are less controversial and simply call for peace.
Animal Poder Collectivo (APC)
Also known as Animal Power Crew/Cult, this street art group (along with the Bogotá Street Art Collective) is one of the two most productive collectives in Bogotá. Formed in Colombia more than a decade ago, APC has since taken its work around the world. Some of its key players in the Colombian capital include Stinkfish, Pez, Franco and Temor. Each artist has varied styles and techniques, but they often follow similar themes when painting side by side – unsurprisingly, animals are a key subject.
Stinkfish, one of the founders, has family links to both Colombia and Mexico. His work, famous for face stencils and dynamic freestyle spray strokes, has been shown in LA, New York, London and Paris. His work in Bogotá also includes other techniques like paste-ups, stickers, and characters.
Other Bogotá street artists of note
Guache, a member of the Bogotá Street Art Collective, is known for his evocative and detailed murals of Colombia’s indigenous peoples, flora and fauna. Rodez, a book publisher and visual artist, produces vibrant freehand murals that often feature enigmatic eyes. Two of his sons – Malegria and Nomada – are also making a name for themselves on the city's street art scene. In what is still a male dominated world, female street artist Bastardilla is more than proving her worth with numerous thought-provoking works that focus on feminism, poverty and the aftermath of violence – many are vividly colored and aimed at bringing color to the poor.
Matt Phillips traveled to Colombia with G Adventures (gadventures.co.uk). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.