Can Bogotá's state-sanctioned street art survive a crackdown by the new mayor?

The Colombian capital decriminalised graffiti after protests following the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old street artist at the hands of the police. Five years on, returning mayor Enrique Peñalosa believes graffiti is a blight on the city

Jeff gathers us all along one side of the road, which isn’t easy as there are around 60 of us and the street is narrow. A car drives by slowly, the windows open, two women leaning out.

“Welcome to Colombia!” they shout, as we all wave back.

“Bogotá is a mecca for graffiti artists,” Jeff explains, standing beside a wall adorned with a mural of a bright green chameleon. “There are over 8,000 active street artists in the city.”

I had imagined, turning up for a graffiti tour of Bogotá at 10am on a Friday morning in February, that there would be a handful of people at most. Perhaps I’d be the only one. But news of Bogotá’s street art has spread far and wide and it is a huge group of us that makes its way through the tangled back streets of the old part of the city, under the watchful eye of Colombian anthropology student Jeff.

Bogotá already had a thriving graffiti scene when in 2011 something terrible happened that changed everything. “It was the turning point in Bogotá graffiti history,” says Jeff.

Bogota street art
Painting street art is no longer a criminal offence in Bogotá. Photograph: Adharanand Finn

On the evening of 19 August, Diego Felipe Becerra, a 16-year-old street artist who called himself Tripido, was painting pictures of Felix the Cat on the walls of an underpass when the police turned up. Tripido ran for it and the police shot him dead. What made things worse, says Jeff, was that initially the police invented a story that the boy had robbed a bus, to justify the shooting. When the truth was revealed, the city came out in protest.

“After that, thanks to all the media coverage, City Hall decided to act to regulate street art, and it is now no longer considered a criminal act but a cultural practice,” says Jeff.

You now have a situation in Colombia’s capital where street artists are celebrated, where they can paint on walls in daylight without fear of being arrested. Where you can join a graffiti tour of the city.

Jeff tells us that on a recent tour he came across Bln Bike – one of South America’s best-known street artists – painting a new mural. Other artists tell of people bringing them coffee and cake while they’re working.

Bogota street art by Bln Bike.
Bogotá street art by Bln Bike, one of South America’s best-known street artists. Photograph: Adharanand Finn

Crisp, an Australian graffiti artist who moved to Bogotá seven years ago, says having time to paint results in more detailed, thoughtful pieces than those found in other cities in the world, where work is usually done hurriedly at night to avoid the police. Graffiti artists in Bogotá are often even commissioned by shops or buildings to paint murals on their walls before taggers scrawl all over them.

“It’s dangerous to have a plain wall around here,” says Jeff. “A commissioned mural is better – then you don’t get all the tagging.” Tagging is the tradition of writing your graffiti name everywhere, usually just a quick, illegible squiggle. It may seem untidy and antisocial, yet it too is an integral part of Bogotá’s graffiti scene.

“Tagging is an important part of the street art culture,” says Jeff. “But all art is subjective, and to some people tagging is just a mess.”

As I walk around the city later I fail to find a single person who appreciates the tagging as art, even though most are happy to see the many colourful murals, paintings and stencils. Not all street art in the city, it seems, is celebrated.

Bogota street art
Bogotá street art. Photograph: Adharanand Finn

Indeed, despite the ruling in 2011 that graffiti was no longer a criminal offence, it has continued to exist in a grey area between legal and illegal. While it is OK to paint a wall if you have the owner’s permission, for example, tagging, unsolicited works, or graffiti on public buildings or monuments, can all still lead to fines.

In 2014, the city’s street artists came out in protest again after police painted over a large section of work. The mayor at the time agreed that the police had overstepped the mark, and he declared that in future paintings wouldn’t be removed as long as the street art was performed “in a responsible way”.

Of course this still left room for interpretation, but for the artists themselves, the continued ambiguity is welcome. For some, if all they are doing is painting commissioned murals, then it is no longer graffiti.

“Bogotá is a more liberal environment to paint, sure,” says Crisp, “but it’s definitely not all just legalised and a free for all. Most street artists [in Bogotá] do less than half of their work by getting permission of building owners. A large proportion of murals, pieces and works are done without permission and so are still at risk of fines, bribes, beatings by private security and police harassment.

“Historically the police here are renowned for corruption and physical violence against graffiti artists. So the element of illicitness and the adrenalin rush still exist when painting here.”

Jeff, our guide, agrees that commissioned graffiti is in some ways a contradiction in terms. “Bogotá is a mecca because of its permissive attitude to street art. But as an artist you would get the most respect if you managed to paint something on the presidential palace.”

Another of the city’s more celebrated graffiti artists, Dj Lu, however, doesn’t think people should put too much emphasis on whether an artist is breaking the law or not.

“Whether it is legal in Bogotá doesn’t change the painting itself, the style. It is an aesthetic issue. The fact that some kids ask permission in order to paint their graffiti doesn’t make it less graffiti, or on the other hand when an artist works putting up illegal stencil art at night, that alone doesn’t make it graffiti.”

Even when the work is legal, the subjects painted on the walls of Bogotá are almost always political. Women’s rights, Colombia’s violent past, the “war on drugs” and climate change all figure prominently. Dj Lu’s pineapple hand-grenade stencil is one of the most famous and prominent symbols on the streets of Bogotá - a comment, he says, on the way land is used in Colombia, where soil that was once for crops is now full of landmines.

Bogota street art.
Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden in a work by artist Crisp. Photograph: Adharanand Finn

On another wall by a playground, Jeff points out the faces of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, and painted between them the question: “Hero or traitor?”

The relative freedom Bogotá’s street artists have become accustomed too, however, may be about to change. After 12 years of leftwing leaders, in January the city re-elected a centre-right mayor from the late 1990s, Enrique Peñalosa, who comes down on the side of those who believe the uncontrolled spread of graffiti is a blight on the city.

“This new mayor is pushing through less tolerant graffiti laws and could even start painting over many works in the city,” says Crisp.

It will be interesting to see how the city’s thousands of street artists will react.

“We will keep painting as always,” says Crisp. “But I think tagging and other illegal pieces will become more prominent because it’s the style that’s fastest and quickest to do without getting caught by the police. So if they criminalised it, the authorities would be shooting themselves in the foot as it would actually encourage more of the type of vandalism they wanted to get rid of in the first place.”

One thing is for sure, Bogotá’s street artists won’t quietly disappear, and they’re not the types to shy away from protest. In 2013, over 300 artists came out en masse in protest after Justin Bieber was filmed painting a wall in the city with a police escort.

After years of police harassment, the sight of a foreign celebrity being protected by the police as he sprayed the city was too much. The next day the painting was plastered over by hundreds of artists from the city in plain day.

“But why paint over Bieber’s work?” I ask Jeff. “Was there no sense of solidarity?”

“He painted a Canadian flag with a marijuana leaf instead of a maple leaf.” Jeff looks at me as though it’s obvious. “Come on, it lacked imagination.”

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Adharanand Finn

The GuardianTramp

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