In Bogotá, graffiti shapes much more than the appearance of the streets. The colorful walls and giant murals common to almost all parts of the city bear rich testimony to the country’s history — and cause perpetual controversy between street artists, politicians, and the police, as well as Bogotá’s eight million inhabitants.
The pervasive presence of stunning, large-scale graffiti artwork almost everywhere you look in Bogotá is one of the first things that might strike a visitor to Colombia’s capitol city. In the inner cities districts the Chapinero and La Candeleria inner city districts tourists can gather daily for free graffiti tours. In a bakery in the western Fontibón district, we meet local artist Mos Ku to talk with him about graffiti and visit some of his most dazzling pieces. The bakery, or panadería, is the oldest in Fontibón and located on the main street, Carrera 100. And like the panadería, Fontibón has a long history as well. Founded in 1554, it was an independent township for more than 400 years before becoming Bogotá’s 9th district. For many Fontibón locals, this is the ‘real Bogotá’, as opposed to the touristy city center sometimes referred to as ‘Gringo Town’. Most of Mos Ku’s pieces are to be found here. Some draw attention to the darker chapters of Colombia’s history — of which, given the guerilla warfare, paramilitary violence, and narco terrorism, there is no shortage. But more about that later.
BEER CANS FOR SPRAY CANS
Mos Ku is 25 years old and only started spraying a couple of years ago. His talent, however, was immediately apparent, as other local artists will not hesitate to affirm. Having finished his university degree, he now works in pest control. It’s just a day job, he assures us, that allows him to finance his passion for graffiti. Paint is expensive in Bogotá. “There is a lot of lost talent due to a lack of support,” Mos Ku tells us. “Some of the most talented artists I know spend their days working in factories.” At one point, he tried to earn a living painting. The money was enough to survive, but that was about it. Some clients were hardly willing to pay for even the materials used. “I also want to travel, to order a cup of coffee once in a while. That’s why I spend Monday to Friday working for the company,” he explains.
“For me, graffiti is also a way to persist in life.”
As a graduate of environmental management, a sustainable approach to graffiti has been important to Mos Ku from the very beginning. For the first pieces he painted, he collected empty beer cans and trade in the aluminum to raise money for paint. Once they saw the stunning results, friends began gathering cans to chip in. To this day, Mos Ku’s stencils are exclusively made from recycled paper collected on the streets of Fontibón. On a busy corner close to the district’s central park, we visit one of his motifs that is particularly well-known to the people who live around here.
MAKE THEM LOOK, MAKE THEM THINK
What we see might seem impressive in color and design to a visitor who does not know much about Colombian history, and might also easily be misunderstood or not understood at all. In fact, the motif is a reminder that reaches deep into Colombia’s collective consciousness. The mural depicts three men: Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, Jaime Garzón, and Luis Carlos Galán. Gaitán and Galán were charismatic left-wing politicians running for president who were assassinated in the run-up to the election in 1948 and 1989 respectively. Garzón was a peace activist and comedian renowned for his poignant political satire. In 1999, he was shot by right-wing paramilitaries at age 38. The text above them translates as: “Neither football nor cycling; our national sport is to forget.” While we take photos of the mural, we notice that many people pause as they pass by for a better look at the piece. Some even touch their hands to their hearts in a gesture of contemplation.
The mural recalls much more than the tragic fate of the three protagonists. Gaitán’s assassination opened a particularly bloody chapter in Colombian history. It led to El Bogotazo, a ten-hour riot during which 5,000 people were killed, and eventually started a decade-long civil war between guerillas and the Colombian government, known as La Violencia, which was to take close to another 200,000 lives. The exact circumstances of Gaitán’s assassination are unclear to this day and rumors attribute it to just about everyone from the CIA to the USSR. What remains is the fact that Gaitán’s campaign promises of anti-violent governance and the return of land to native peoples died along with him.
41 years later, when he was running as the clear favorite for the presidency, Luis Carlos Galán suffered a similar fate. Shot on August 18, 1989 during a campaign speech in Soacha, a small city just to the south of Bogotá , his death is a reminder of the narco terrorism that swept across the country during the 80s and 90s. At the time, Galán was one of few politicians who were not afraid to take a stand against the powerful drug cartels. Drug lord Pablo Escobar ordered his assignation after Galán publicly demanded the extradition of drug lords to the United States.
Jaime Garzón’s dedication to peace activism was what sealed his fate. In the 1990s, his efforts as a mediator in negotiations between the Colombian government and guerillas led to the release of hostages held by FARC, much to the displeasure of right-wing paramilitaries. On August 13, 1999, he was shot five times in a motorcycle drive-by on the streets of Bogotá. Similarly to Gaitán’s assassination, the exact circumstances of the murder remain unclear. Rumors suggest the active involvement of the Colombian military.
The stories of Gaitán, Galán, and Garzón show that making changes in Colombia is not only difficult, it can also be dangerous. Obviously many people prefer to forget about these past events and turn the other way. Mos Ku’s graphic message forces them look, think, remember and more. And although not all walkers-by agree, they all seem to be affected.
Since its creation, pictures of the mural have gone viral on social media, reminding even more people not to forget. Once the idea for the motif was in his head, Mos Ku says, he wanted to find the best possible place for it. The corner-stretch of a school wall on one of Fontibón’s busiest streets was a perfect match. He wrote a letter to the school and asked for permission. The school liked the idea, so Mos Ku took up his spray cans.
The stories of Gaitán, Galán, and Garzón show that making changes in Colombia is not only difficult, it can also be dangerous.
A Spray Can is not a Gun
Of course, not all graffiti artists in Bogotá work this way. As in other cities, some prefer the thrill of unauthorized spraying and tagging. The case of young Diego Felipe Becerra, known as Tripido, illustrates just how severe the consequences can be. On August 19, 2011, the 17-year-old was spraying one of his (now famous) Felix the cat motifs on a wall in Calle 116, when he noticed policemen approaching. He took off running and was shot in the back. The police officers stated that the young man had been heavily armed, and that he and some friends had hijacked a bus earlier that day. Yet the investigation failed to procure a single piece of evidence for this version of the story, aside from paid witnesses that were later exposed as fakes. No arms were found either. All the boy had on him was a spray can.
Tripido’s death became a political case, eventually culminating in the decriminalization of graffiti in Bogotá, and its redefinition as cultural practice instead of a criminal act. Still, the permission of the wall’s owner is required and tagging or unauthorized work can result in heavy fines.
The death of the young sprayer was a great tragedy, but at least the aftermath shows that not everything in Colombia is cast in concrete and there is some scope for change. Every year a memorial festival is held for Tripido. It is organized by the Tripido Collective, a cooperation of young people and Diego’s parents, who have been fighting to create Colombia’s first national graffiti law since the death of their son. Artists from all over the world come to Colombia to paint together at the annual festival. The thoughtful sharing of space is another quality unique to Bogotá’s graffiti scene.
Like in other cities, most sprayers know each other, and there seems to be an unspoken agreement not to smear large tags on other people’s work. If tagging occurs, then it’s subtle and embedded into the bigger picture. The sprayers seem to live in respectful coexistence instead of rivalry. Mos Ku takes us to a junction box that he has shared with two friends.
“En Colombia si hay Esperanza” — “In Colombia, there is hope”, but esperanza is not only hope; it is also the name of the woman on the right, not coincidentally Colombia’s most famous porn star. The contrast between her and the indigenous kid on the left turns the junction box into a rather cynical play on words. It is one of Mos Ku’s favorites, not only because it is witty but because he designed the box together with his graffiti mentors. The sprayer nicknamed 1925 introduced him to stencil making. His friend Bibiana, who does not like to tag her work but is renowned for her love of eyeballs, taught him how to mix colors. “I was very happy to have the opportunity to paint this junction box together with my graffiti teachers, to put what I learned from them into practice,” Mos Ku says.
REPAINTING THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Finally we visit a graffiti gallery in Recodo, one of Fontibón’s numerous barrios. It is Mos Ku’s biggest project so far — not only in terms of size. In cooperation with the local mayor, a gallery of eight large murals has been realized on eight building walls. Each of them was created by a different artist and represents a different part of Fontibón’s and Colombia’s history. They depict forgotten and only partly rediscovered ancient indigenous crafts, for example, and a bird threatened by extinction. The idea was brought forward by a group of young people who volunteer in the Recodo youth council. Mos Ku advised them and helped them organize the event. The kids from the neighborhood helped collect ideas too, and became part of the design as well by adding their handprints in the space between the murals. Mos Ku’s own mural shows a turtle with a beer can, contrasted with a family in front of a television. “A critique of wasteful consumerism,” he explains.
Managing this project was a great effort for Mos Ku. He had to deal with budgets, logistics, quarrels for space and other annoyances. It took him four days to paint his own mural. “Usually I would do it in just one to two days, but the organization around it took a lot of time,” he tells us.
But the hard work has paid off. Locals describe the effect the gallery has had on the neighborhood as simply amazing. “Before we had the gallery, the park was full of drugs and crime. People wouldn’t come here for a walk, not even in the daytime. Now, with the murals, people have gotten used to coming here to look at the graffiti. They take walks, and kids and dogs play in the park,” a neighbor says, illustrating the gallery’s positive impact.
The local government also used the opportunity to change more than the color of the walls and started clearing out the giant swamp of waste right behind a slope next to the park. It looks peaceful now. Although the neighbors assure me that there are still heaps of toxic materials slumbering beneath the grass, nature seems to have found its way back. The endangered bird painted on one of the walls has returned for breeding.
BIG VISIONS AHEAD
For Mos Ku, the Recodo gallery is only the beginning. While some local sprayers predict dark times due to Bogotá’s new mayor’s stance against graffiti, he remains optimistic. His big vision is to paint all of Fontibón, and to organize graffiti tours just like they do in the city center. “I consider myself more of a muralist than a graffiti artist. One day I want to do a 20-story mural,” he tells us. Just as his pieces of street art have gotten bigger over time, so have his dreams and visions. And even with the best of efforts, the new city government will not be able to prevent him and other sprayers from bringing light and color to the streets of Bogotá with their art.