A two-hour bus ride southwest from downtown Bogotá brings you to the outskirts of the capital, and one of its most problematic suburbs. The municipality of Soacha is a sprawling urban chaos of smoke and concrete that clings to the surrounding Andean mountains. This mainly working class area houses close to a million people and is being slowly renovated – not by the national government, but by brothers Jeison and Ricardo Preciado. As art students in their early twenties, the Preciados have embarked on a project to literally and figuratively bring colour to their neighbourhood by fixing and painting the walls of their barrio.

The project, which they have dubbed Color Alegría – “Color of Happiness” – took form two years ago while helping neighbours paint the façades of homes in Sucre de Bella Vista, an enclave of Soacha where some 70,000 people reside. Built on steep slopes and sinous dirt roads, the students started with a simple renovation and paint job; but, inspired by the painted community of Las Palmas in Mexico City, they decided to add a little splash of color and character to the walls – designing murals that reflected the story of their community, while, imagining a brighter future. Greeting the entrance of Bella Vista is a mural of a nightscape inspired by Van Gough’s Starry Night, showing the diverse influences the Preciado brothers draw on.

Bogotá has become an impressive venue for street art and murals that spring up often in response to a shifting political landscape. There are several operators promoting graffiti tours for visitors looking to see something alternative and trend-setting, and last month, a poor neighbourhood in the south of Bogotá had 213 of its homes repainted in an initiative sponsored by the city council. The project, named “River of Life,” got 870 neighbours involved.

The Preciados are proud graffiti artists, inspired by their surroundings. But they are also keen to distinguish Color Alegría from the politically charged works on display around the capital.

“Art should be something inclusive, it should be a union with the community – a dialogue,” claims Jeison. “This isn’t an invasive form of art . Here, we tell the story of our diverse community.”

Pointing to a large mural downhill from his home – a massive whale set against a lime green background with the characteristic “Color Alegría” signature, Jeison insists “art must be educational.” He also explains how the whale mural symbolizes the story of Afro-Colombian families displaced by the 1979 Tumaco earthquake that resulted in thousands of Afro-Colombians migrating to Soacha for refuge. “This community is made up of the displaced,” said Jeison. “That is part of the Bella Vista story.”

In fact, it is part of the larger Soacha story, one which sadly, is emblematic of many of Colombia’s social problems. Characterized by a lack of urban planning, rampant poverty and gang related violence, the southern town has become absorbed as another ghetto of the capital. According to official statistics, an estimated 50,000 displaced persons, from all corners of Colombia during its 52-year long internal conflict, have settled in Soacha. In this arid urban sprawl, illegal armed groups have established themselves to run criminal enterprises, exploiting the vulnerability of the inhabitants.

In the Colombian mindset though, Soacha, is also on the map for a host of tragic episodes. On August 18, 1989, while delivering one of his last presidential campaign speeches, Liberal candidate Luis Carlos Galán was gunned down in Soacha’s main square by hired assassins of Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel. Less than a month later, an Avianca flight exploded over the town after a bomb was planted by the same cartel. The explosion killed 110 passengers and crew. More recently, when the identity of the first “false-positives” surfaced, the young men came from Soacha. The “false-positives” refers to extra-judicial killings to inflate the body count in the war against FARC.

While these dark chapters can never be erased, the Preciado brothers want to do their part by painting a brighter image for Bella Vista. They hope to inspire future generations by adding art and creativity to their lives, so they can have something to do other than be lured into gangs. “Color Alegría is about incorporating the kids into the project to give them something to be proud of,” says Ricardo Preciado. The youngsters also earn some money with painting.

On average, a mural takes five people to paint over the course of a week, depending on the size of the wall. “Our best effort took one day, but it was hard work.” According to Ricardo, it costs an average of $2.5 million pesos to fix, paint and pay the necessary wages.

The project has taken time, partly because the students have to balance studies with the availability of children in the neighbourhood to help them paint. Funding for the project comes from the Chevrolet Foundation and Guerrero Arts Academy, where Jeison and Ricardo study. The arts institute also built the local cultural center where Bella Vista’s youngsters can study painting, music and dance. Another mural was funded by a Norwegian initiative called Art Without Borders that transforms community dumpsites into a urban orchards.

Though the brothers are clearly the inspiration behind this initiative, they are keen to stress that the designs are not just theirs, but a collaboration with the community. One neighbour, Rigoberto Reyes, 55, describes how the project has made them proud of their improved homes. Reyes was among the first to settle in Bella Vista when it was only a handful of rickety shelters peppering the hillside. “The community has come a long way,” he says. Now people wash the walls of their homes, which become thick with dust kicked up from the dirt road, to make sure the colours are visible. There is also running water. In the past, residents had to queue up for hours for a water truck that passed once a week. Asked what he wanted to see change in the future, Rigoberto says: “I want to see a paved road here before I die.”

Color Alegría is still in its infancy, but sets an example of a grassrots project aimed at reconciling community differences at a time when the country is increasingly polarized over the peace process. Yet, the Preciado brothers have planted a seed in Soacha that seems sure to grow. They are determined to see the whole barrio painted given enough time and money.