Colombia: When gang members turn to art
Violent youth gangs are spreading fast in Colombian cities' poor neighborhoods. But thanks to a young initiative from Bogotá, fighters can now gain fame as artists. Read More
Drug trafficking and war have been marking life in Colombia for decades. But on top of that, since a few years, the capital Bogotá has to deal with yet another problem: youth gangs are increasingly taking over the streets.
The BogotArt Foundation, founded by Leonardo Párraga, wants to prevent the spread of gang violence.
Leonardo, you initiative BogotArt wants to bring art into poor parts of the city. But gang culture and art – it is hard not to wonder how that goes together. Why did you choose art as a means?
We wanted to involve people who have been excluded by society. Many of the youngsters from the poorer areas of town are at a high risk of joining a youth gang, because they lack other perspectives. Arts is one of the many areas they are excluded from – although a good share of them would like to participate in the art sphere, they haven't found a way to do it
"Two cell phones are stolen in Colombia every second. "
How did you come up with the idea?
I am personally very interested in art. But it has been my experience that only the rich have access to art in this country. Only the rich people can afford the price of admission to visit museums and galleries; only people with money buy art; and so most artists come from the better-situated families. 75% of all the art schools in Colombia are private universities!
The problem of youth gangs is pretty familiar from Central America, not so much from Colombia though. How large are the gangs in Bogotá?
In Bogotá there are an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 gang members. That is not that much in comparison. But they are spread out across all 20 districts of the city. They do small drug deals, rob people and stores, and break into houses. The problem of the gangs – known as “pandillas”– is often ignored because we have more serious problems including the armed conflict. Over the last 50 years, around 200,000 people have died in the battles between the guerrilla, the military and diverse paramilitary groups. Up to 3,000 have been kidnapped and millions displaced. However, the gangs create a strong feeling of insecurity in the cities.
What is the primary driving force behind the development of youth gangs in Colombia – is it poverty?
Yes, poverty and a lack of prospects. These young people do not have the opportunity to attend a good school and no chance of finding a job. The best they can hope for is to be an informal street vendor – or to join a gang. These gangs are turning into a huge problem. They create an atmosphere of constant insecurity, and people are always afraid of going out into the streets. It’s like small-scale, everyday terrorism. And it’s very profitable for the youngsters. Two cell phones are stolen in Colombia every second!
Why do you think that these excluded young people might be interested in art?
The BogotArt Foundation offers them new prospects and job opportunities. This makes it easier for them to escape from their environment and stay away from criminality. We offer a free eight-month course in art and graphic design. Here we teach the skills demanded by the job market in the areas of PR, marketing and design/art in particular.
Wouldn’t it be more effective to offer this training at the universities?
We are trying to give our young people an advantage. Higher education in Colombia is not designed for the job market and only around 50 percent of all the content taught is relevant later. We do it differently: we do hands-on learning. Additionally, due to the high costs, these youths often have no access to higher education.
Yet you are not offering an official training programme. How do you expect to integrate your students into the job market?
We bring them into contact with art and PR agencies, thus paving the way into the art and design world. And though we have not worked with specific agencies to date, this is our ultimate goal. In the future we also want to open our own PR and design agency where we will hire the best artists from our workshops.
You have mainly focused on street art so far, but I would guess that this is not an art form that is in high demand on the job market. Why did you choose this art form?
Our initial goal is to simply bring art into the areas of the city where there is no art. We use street art to get our foot in the door. It is the most accessible art form to the people who live there. We can only reach them directly in their daily lives through murals. Additionally, street art could be an entrance point for us into a new niche market. In the marketing world, "experience marketing" has become the new buzzword. Interactive murals can be a very emotional campaign for the brands we work with.
Many people would never dream of going to those areas under the control of gangs and armed groups – much less pull out paint and a brush to offer art courses. How many areas of Bogotá do you work in and how dangerous is it there?
We don’t immediately head into the most dangerous areas, of course. The district where we kicked off our first project was Bosque Calderón. There used to be gangs here but they had broken up by then. New groups are starting to form again, though. In the second district we work in – La Perseverancia – there are some gangs, and a lot of petty criminals and ex-cons.
We’d like to start working in a third area, in Ciudad Bolívar, but we’re afraid to at the moment. There are no youth gangs, but there are armed groups from the conflict. They have been officially demobilized and surrendered their weapons to the government, but of course they still have contact to the scene. Working here would be more dangerous: If you get involved with armed groups, it can quickly cost you your life. So we are still going to wait a bit.
If you get involved with armed groups, it can quickly cost you your life.
You probably don’t just head into these areas, tap a young man on the shoulder, and suddenly the gangster boss grabs a brush and starts avidly painting the wall of a house. How do you approach these young people and get them interested in art?
The key is to find a community leader that people can relate to and whom they trust. In Bosque Calderón, we are working with Benedicto Galindo, a man over fifty who has fought hard for the district. He connected us with young people who wanted to participate in the art world and we were able to provide a couple of hands-on workshops to them.
Why do you think people trust him?
He did a lot for the neighbourhood – he set up a botanical trail, for example. It used to be a rubbish heap, a place where the homeless and criminals hung out. No one dared go in there because they always got mugged. But it was also the path to the only waterfall in Bogotá. It was Benedicto’s idea to turn it into a nature trail. The results are incredible: the rubbish is gone, criminal offenses were drastically reduced and the area attracts visitors. The people who live here have started to respect the environment much more.
Who were the youngsters that Benedicto put you in touch with?
He recommended young men to us who have not been involved in crime, want to learn and are interested in art.
So instead of seeking out the most at-risk youth; you select those with the greatest artistic potential?
Yes. They are the ones most likely to inspire the others. Starting directly with the gang members could get too dangerous, and we might cause more problems than we solved.
Do you know young men who have successfully used art to escape poverty?
There is a well-known graffiti artist who has been working in Bosque Calderón for 13 years. David Suárez was never a member of a gang, but he lived in the milieu. He painted the walls along the nature trail, for example, and helped change the entire area. David was so successful that Conservación Internacional sponsored him.
Street art is public – everyone can see it. How do people react when the BogotArt members start painting the walls of a neighbourhood?
It increases the value of their living space. An old wall becomes an object of art. The cityscape around it changes. People develop a new sense of belonging to their neighbourhood and respect for objects; and they put more effort into preserving them. And they see that together they have the power to beautify their areas.
How did you personally get interested in street art?
At some point I just realised that art could do more if it was public. Museums should be on the streets, and galleries on the walls of buildings! An artist from Austria called “Pälmchen” inspired me to see it this way. She painted a hand that represents how walls could speak, that they have a message. They shouldn’t be just black or white.
Who is behind BogotArt Foundation?
The core team members are a friend of mine, the artist and industrial designer Camilo Buitrago, Catalina Prieto, an artist and communicator, and me. We also teach the art courses. The graphic artist Alejandro Chitiva and Benedicto Galindo are also involved, along with a lot of volunteers, usually from our partner institutions like the Universidad de los Andes, the German Leuphana University, or the Colombian organisations Idealist and Voluntariado Coombia. They are moving the project we started forward. It is not always easy, because they also have their own work and studies to contend with.
Where does the funding for BogotArt Foundation come from?
We don’t have a lot of funding and so far have taught the courses for free. But we do get money from sponsors and donations. We painted a mural for the Instituto Cultural Colombo Alemán, for example, which PMP S.A. and Instituto Cultural Colombo Alemán sponsored. We also started to produce merchandising products, like postcards from our art pieces. At the same time, we offer consultancy services in experience marketing.
The BogotArt Foundation is already developing new projects that are not directly linked to art. What are they about?
We recently create the Alph Cinema Club, the first cinema forum in the Puente Aranda district in Bogotá. We show alternative films on social topics, and through these films people start to share their thoughts and opinions. So far, we did 25 film screenings with more than 150 attendees. Furthermore, we noticed that one of the reasons for the youths’ low participation in political decision-making is a lack of knowledge on their rights. Therefore we started a campaign on the citizenship rights in a youth-friendly way, by spreading texts that are easy to read and with attractive illustrations.
Leonardo is a fellow at DO School, an organisation that supports social entrepreneurs. For more information, visit the website.