I was expecting to see the Coffee Triangle when I went to Colombia with Overseas Adventure Travel on their trip Colombia: Coffee Triangle and Colonial Jewels. And I knew I was in for a few days at the Caribbean in Cartegena. But never did I expect to see the vibrant colors of this country expressed as street art in the most delightful ways. The presence of this art form speaks to their history, culture, and dark and violent past, as well as current years of renewal.
People who have had a taste of Colombia will say the most street art is in Bogota (where there are actually 5,000 murals), especially in the historic Candelaria district. Others will say no, it’s in Medellin. Actually, after three weeks in the country, I can say I saw it almost everywhere.
Much of what you see on the streets is professional quality art on the side of buildings. But of course, that’s not how it started. There has always been graffiti there, largely done at night to avoid detection. But in 2011 one young man, Diego Felipe Becerra, painted on the side of a building in daylight and the police shot and killed him. After that and the ensuing upheaval over his death, his art became well known, and the genre of legitimate street art was born in Bogota and even sanctioned by the local mayor. These days, it’s literally everywhere.
On a graffiti tour I took before joining my group, we saw professional street art on the sides of buildings that were added by the architect. There was one tall building with ta painting of Gabrielle Garcia Marquez, the Nobel Prize winning author, on the side. And we saw many homeless living by garbage, and graffiti art in their midst. Some were spray painted on evenly lined city planters. Definitely graffiti, but very much part of the look and feel of Bogota.
The city of Bogota originated in the Bohemian section of Candelaria, which has some of the best in that area. But out of 5,000 murals, many of which are professionally painted, how do you know which is best? Graffiti art is of course organic, and springs up from the movement of the times and the feelings of the youth. Some of it is protest art along the side of the highways, some simply murals of animals.
I had a conversation with my young guide about the organic nature of street art. I asked him if he remembered seeing a now famous poster of Barrack Obama and the words Hope in one poster, Change in another. He said he did, and he said he thought that was part of the campaign. I said it became part of the campaign, but it started with a street artist who sold some posters. So from that one example, we know that street art is that which resonates, and which can be quite powerful.
In Medellin in District 13 (also called Comuna 13) we were treated to dramatically powerful art. But this area was once known as “assassin’s corner” during the dark days of the drug cartels, since that is where the drug lords did their recruiting. There were many dark periods of violence in Colombia’s history, but now, with the violence of drug cartels and political upheavals largely behind them, Colombia is open for business, and all the vibrancy of this new age is on display. The disadvantaged youth no longer look to murder as a way to make a living; on this trip, we met several who were interested in tourism and who wanted to be tour guides for the new Medellin. Our presence allowed them to practice their English. And we also met several who were the children of painters of the street art, looking to make a living with their country’s two most abundant resources – coffee and street art! We stopped at one coffee shop filled with art painted on the walls and benches made by a now famous painter, and saw photos of former President Bill Clinton who had recently been there. His Clinton Foundation supports Colombia’s renewal effort, as does OAT’s Grand Circle Foundation.
In District 13 we walked down many streets photographing the striking, abundant, and larger than life images on the walls after taking the unique gondola/metro system this city provides for transportation, and we then took one of the many orange colored outdoor escalators to reach our starting point. The homes we saw may have been made of simple, plain concrete with aluminum roofing built by family members who claimed the territory and were allowed to stay there, but surrealistic color abounds in the entire neighborhood as huge eyes glare at you from the murals. And we did more than just look at the graffiti and street art; we got to experience doing it ourselves as our OAT group literally took to the walls with cans of spray paint.
This wonderful art form isn’t limited to Bogota and Medellin. Along with all the sights, sounds, and smells of Cartegena, we saw street art there as well, adding to the other colors of the Caribbean, especially in the Getsmani neighborhood. Our walking tour was pretty much a street art tour.
Street art creeps up on the tourist in Colombia. Even at the beginning in Bogota when I did some solo travel to the salt mines in Nemocon, I saw a huge mural during their siesta time with a large lizard and some machinery that looked military in nature. The people obviously have a lot to say about their dark and violent past which spanned decades and took hundreds of thousands of lives. This is part of how they have been expressing themselves in their new – but not always happy – political reality. Go down the streets of Los Angles and New York and you will see some that might catch your attention before you get caught up in daily life again. But in Colombia, for a tourist it’s more than just a single sighting or one mural on the side of a freeway. It catches your attention to the point of no return, and you spend days (and hundreds of photos) experiencing and capturing it so that you can always remember it. For this is a part of the unexpected and amazingly unforgettable Colombia experience that truly seeps into your soul.