Binding the city together

Illustration for Richard McColl's article.

Being English it pains to me to lodge a complaint. Perhaps it’s the private school empire upbringing I received. We were just expected to muscle on, run further, study harder and continue as if everything was fine. I recall an old school teacher informing us that “if the British Army could manage the heat in their heavy uniforms during the Raj”, then, on those rarest of balmy English summer days, “we could keep our blazers on in the classroom”. Perhaps this abetted my latent rebellious streak and dislike of authority.

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I fear that my middle class dissent is now limited to answering back to a policeman who reprimanded me for daring to trespass on the far from pristine lawns of Lourdes Park. With a viridity of illicit substances on offer at any hour and a friendly homeless man who squats relieving himself with an enviably punctual bowel movement beneath a tree in the southwest corner of the park at 7am every morning, my reaction is one of surprise that for walking my dog on the grass I can be admonished by Bogota’s finest. My better judgment precluded me from suggesting that he may actually have better things to do.

And while my rebellion really is far from that of a baggy-jeaned gamin sneaking out to challenge the halls of authority in my adopted homeland, I find myself rejoicing in the creativity and ingenuity of Bogotá’s graffiti artists and their vision of the capital’s new urban center. While the city’s politicians boondoggle, urban creatives with obscure tags such as DjLu, Crisp and Toxicomano  have momentously gone about their business and superseded the actions of the political class in the renovation of the city’s most overlooked and downtrodden areas.

Just look at the Carrera 26, until recently a bleak in-between area of overpasses, construction and abandon. Now, with vast and socially inspired paintings stenciled and painted along walls and over several storey buildings there has been an urban rescue mission – driven by hundreds of the city’s urban artists – to draw attention to this former Ozymandian tribute to concrete, steel and basuco paraphernalia.

That there was such remonstrance for the behavior and questionable artwork along the aforementioned stretch of road by a young Canadian visitor to the city in November just goes to show that Bogotá, despite being often described as a city belonging to no one, has evolved into being a city for everyone. We can point to this urban artwork as part of the new age epoxy binding the city together.

It’s what the brains behind Freakonomics have called a “reverse-incentive”.  In the past, graffiti sent the signal that nobody cares; it was seen as attracting other forms of crime and street delinquency to a neighborhood. People would argue that graffiti decreased a resident’s feeling of safety and that neighborhoods with graffiti overwhelming saw a decrease in property values, the loss of business growth and tourism. Now, something once considered so rebellious and anti-establishment has become a tourist attraction and a way of educating visitors and Colombians alike of various political situations in the country. It’s impossible to measure the incongruousness of the anti-mining message that covers the entrance to the BodyTech car park in Chapinero.

It is exciting to see a newly painted wall along the Carrera Septima declaring solidarity with the nation’s farmers. And whether you agree with him or not, the stencil of the puck-like celebrity behind Wikileaks, Julian Assange, along the Avenida Caracas can at the very least have served as the source of some debate.

Now, the urban art scene is booming and rather than proffer a hat tip to a punk rock attitude, Bogota’s painters, artists and political commentators have arrived to spread a message of general discontent through the open air gallery of the street. I would vouch that, for most of us this is a breath of fresh air, yet to the Colombian establishment it is more offensive than halitosis. This is new, it is vibrant and above all it represents a real break from the past.

We are witness to a new generation of Bogotano youth, born and raised and orgullosamente citadino. These striplings are unapologetic and politically motivated and it matters not that their grandparents hailed from Norte de Santander or Boyacá, for they themselves are thoroughbred Bogotano. Fatigued of the institutions which oversaw their parents’ upbringing and lifestyles they have brought a unifying voice to Bogota. They want none of it. Will their rebellion be reflected in the political discourse for 2014, will a savvy presidential hopeful wake up and become conscious that there is a highly literate section of society that feels unrepresented? According to figures from the World Bank, young people represent 30 per cent of Colombia’s working age population. Presumably that means that they can cast a vote as well?

How exciting to be bidding farewell to 2013 and ushering the Presidential elections of 2014.




  1. @steveh the new grafitti on the 26th that Richard mentions is the result of an Idartes ‘convocatoria’. They brought the artists together, and provided the scaffolding etc for a week of painting about 3-4 months ago. Presumably they persuaded the police not to shoot the grafitti artists as well, for a change. Given that they selected the winning designs for the 26th, it’s not a surprise that the political messages that some of the artwork contains is in tune with the Bogotá Humana project.

  2. Bogota is a bit scruffy and the vandalistic tagging reminds me of London early 1980s. (oops I’m showing my advanced age again) . But at the other end of the scale is some quality graffiti here which is world class in my opinion, and thanks Richard for giving it some space in the City Paper and on your blog. I bike ride the Av 26 most Sundays enjoy the creativity on display. I would be interested to know if all the graffiti is ´clandestine´ or if there are initiatives by the city council to work with artists to paint certain areas? Of course any ´authority´oversight might scare off the more edgy graffitists but could also reduce the mindless tagging.

  3. I also enjoy what I would call a well-painted mural on 26 and other places, end even enjoy a sarcastic, well-thought-out short text, but I am tired to death of the vandals who feel they have to ‘tag” every empty space with names, gang symbols and soccer team logos. The vandals who damage my building a couple of times as week, and those of my neighbors as well.

    I think that some serious political dissent and activisim (including voting), rather than random vandalism, would be a more constructive path to a better nation.


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