The traffic and smog of an industrial zone of Bogotá frame the mural. The face of an indigenous woman, painted with colors that match the many tones and shapes on the wall, is accompanied by the phrase “vida digna” (respectable life). This is the latest work by Guache, one of Colombia’s most icon- ic urban artists.

Guache’s paintings don’t stem from a decorative sense of aesthetics. For him, the bright colors and attractive shapes are visual appendages of a deeper, sociopolitical message. Representations of the indigenous community are common in his work, and the artist displayed his graffiti, in an exhibition titled “Del Otro Lado,” at Bogotá’s Colombo Americano Cultural Center recently.

“I try to get close in thought and action towards what is the original ideology of community life,” said Guache. “I want to examine the horizontal relationships between people and natural resources as a counterpart to the Western concept of exacerbated economic interests that have only generated chaos.”

Not everyone sees graffiti as art, however. In the Peruvian capital Lima, Mayor Luis Castañeda Lossio ordered some 50 murals erased last year because they mar the colonial look that the city, and United Nations, is striving to preserve. “The murals of downtown Lima are going to disappear,” he said in a press conference. He cited an ordinance in an agreement the country has with UNESCO that categorizes the location as World Heritage Site.

One of the works that was covered up was a Guache mural of Tupac Amaru, the famed Inca leader who fought, and was eventually executed by, Spanish conquistadors. “Lima has to recover all the architectural quality it has,” said the mayor when announcing the new policy.

Many artists don’t believe the mayor’s cited reasons. Olfer, a street artist from Lima, said Castañeda’s campaign to remove murals was more due to “their messages than because of anything else.”

Colombians are also at odds. While many in Bogotá say street art adds beauty and character to the capital, other citizens and politicians believe that the volume of the paintings has spiraled out of control.

Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who took office January 1, has said he will reclaim the streets of Bogotá from vandalism despite a state-sanctioned ruling that decriminalized graffiti in 2011. Because that law was passed after widespread protests following the police shooting of 16-year-old street artist Diego Felipe Becerra, the debate has reopened wounds that have yet to heal for many in capital’s artist community.

While the Peñalosa administration has stated that it respects expression and murals with cultural value, the city’s Secretary of Security  Daniel Mejia said in December that the government “cannot promote and tolerate” non-artistic graffiti in unauthorized areas of the public space, including anything that defaces cultural monuments.

The debate dates back before than the current administration. In 2014, then-acting Mayor Rafael Pardo Rueda explained why police were erasing graffiti in certain places, noting that it was not permitted on footbridges, for example. “We can define where you can and where you cannot paint, so that the whole city is not full of graffiti,” said Pardo.

While outright vandalism is a blight on the capital and many Bogotanos want a stronger crackdown, the city’s indigenous art murals on tunnel walls and public buildings have also given Bogotá the reputation of a street art Mecca. But this could change once again, not with a brush or spray can — but through the stroke of the mayor’s pen, leaving empty walls across the Andes.

Urban artists in Colombia and throughout Latin America are unlikely to sit by and watch politicians erase their work. Bolivia’s Knorke Leaf does not see this expression as a simple pastime. It is a responsibility. Knorke’s paintings and murals, including the famous “Desnudo de una chola libre” (“Nakedness of a free chola”) at the Public University of Alto in La Paz, provoke and challenge societal norms. “This is important because it involves recovering our identity recognizing that as a people we had a past before the conquest,” she said.

She and Guache are not alone in creating works inspired by their ancestors. Hands, faces, and indigenous motifs have become ubiquitous in the streets of Bogotá, Mexico City, Lima, and La Paz. For supporters it is not a trend, like fashion, that is seasonal and moves on. It is an ancestral stream that runs through the core of the Latin American subconscious.

These artistic heirs to a pre-Hispanic tradition live in the region’s modern cities, use public transport, and surf the internet. They are also cultural agents of history, expressing national heritage in a flood of vivid colors and geometric shapes. Walls in the modern metropolis feature murals of jaguars and exotic birds just as the walls of the pre-Hispanic buildings were once adorned. Concrete is covered with images meant to resemble ancient stone carvings or the fabric designs of the Maya and Inca. Indigenous faces are the means chosen by these artists to highlight how difficult it has been for these communities to survive the passage of time and violent arrival of other cultures.

“In Mexico, Colombia, and Peru — as in many other countries — violence against indigenous communities is part of daily life,” said Olfer. “The resistance is the daily life. We come from this reality, and for that reason we have it upon us, within us.”

By Camila Gómez and Carlos Sanchéz Rangel

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