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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Here, where graffiti is classified as a violation rather than a crime, street artists do not have to hide. Bright murals, often uncompromisingly political, cover public walls, as well as those of home and business owners who, understanding the value (cultural and financial), allow their own properties to be used as a canvas.
In late 2011, the police shooting of teenage artist Diego Felipe Becerra provoked such an outcry that the city’s authorities issued a decree relaxing laws against graffiti and giving artists permission to work on certain public walls — as well as private ones, with building owners’ permission. Now, street artists are able to work more freely. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy, though, and working as a woman brings its own set of challenges. The small core group of working women streets artists in Bogotá includes Lik Mi, Zas, Bastardilla, Ledania, Hera, Fear, Zurik, and Lili Cuca. Opinions on the significance of their status as women in a male-dominated field vary among them. Here are some thoughts from three.
Working in wheatpaste on the street and in jewelry in the studio, Lik Mi plasters her designs on walls throughout Bogotá, as well as offering her work for sale at independent design and art stores. Many of Lik Mi’s wheatpastes feature copulating couples and full nudity — her confrontational take on what she sees as the commodification of women’s bodies.
“I’m really interested in the body,” she told Hyperallergic over the phone. “I’m looking to find the connection between the body, the mind, and the soul. I am really interested in taboos around the body and sexuality and how sexuality has become a thing that is sold as a product.” While overt sexuality is accepted quite easily in mainstream advertising images, Lik Mi’s illustrations seem to challenge the public. “Some people get stressed when they see my naked drawings in the street” she said. “Some people like it, some people don’t. “
Lik Mi was born in Bogotá and trained as a graphic designer. She worked in the industry for two years, but “it was really boring work, and I was really uncomfortable with my life, working for the system, selling cars and so on.” She decided to quit her job and move to the Amazonian jungle to live with an indigenous Ticuna community for seven months. “I kind of threw everything away — all the bank accounts, everything. I decided to quit the life of the city. There, I reconnected with myself. When I came back, I decided I was not going to work for anyone anymore.”
“For sure, it’s more difficult” for women street artists in Bogotá, she says. “It’s a machisto society. It’s tough to get out of the traditional women’s roles that are still part of the society here in Colombia. It’s really a group of men doing that type of art, so getting inside is a little bit difficult and also developing your work because, as women, you have to take care of a lot of other things.”
She doesn’t feels that male street artists are intentionally unwelcoming, though. “It’s more subconscious; it’s not deliberate, it’s that the society is machisto. How I see it is, it’s just different, how they work. “
“I have always felt comfortable in the company of men,” she said via email. “So working with the team at Vertigo — and with my graffiti crews, MDC (MD Crew, of which Yurikauno is also a member) and APC (Animal Poder Cultura Crew) — is very natural for me. I cover their backs and they cover mine; we treat each other as equals.”
“It doesn’t interest me that my gender is taken into account when evaluating my work,” she says. “Personally, I prefer that my style is asexual.” However, she does recognize certain challenges to working in the in the streets as a woman.
“Because of the prevailing situation of violence and insecurity in our country, it is more difficult for women to feel safe on the streets of Bogotá. Also culturally,” she says, echoing Lik Mi’s comments, “the place of women in our society is in the home, so to begin making graffiti can be more difficult for a woman than for a man, especially if you are underage (which is exactly when most people begin to make graffiti).”
Once a woman finds her place in the scene, however, Zas believes they can take advantage a little. “Once you start to do it and you’re in the middle of it, it’s much easier to stand out if you’re a woman; the balance of inequality in a macho society turns completely on its head.”
Together with Vertigo, Jade, and MDC, Zas worked on the iconic “El Beso de los Invisibles,” a 115-foot-high mural on the side of a building in downtown Bogotá. The mural is based on a famous photograph by Hector Favio Zamora, published in El Tiempo newspaper, which depicts a homeless couple, Hernan and Diana, kissing on a pile of trash in the impoverished neighborhood of El Bronx.
“It was a thrilling experience for the challenge of painting something so big in the city center. The mural’s theme and composition were considered for a grant from the District Institute of Arts, and to achieve this we felt we had a responsibility to do something of very high quality,” Zas says. “I think we achieved this, but what I found most interesting was to have made a mural that is not distinguished by the personal style of each artist. We all worked together to create a single image: real teamwork. That says a lot about the dynamics of working with MDC.”
For Bastardilla, gender is an important part of her work, which she uses to draw attention to injustices experienced by women in Colombia.
With a name that translates to italics, Bastardilla, is one of Bogotá’s best-known street artists. Yet she was first introduced to me within in the context of her relationship with another (male) artist. Bastardilla prefers to remain anonymous “in a world where everyone is promoting their own image,” as she put it in a rare interview with a French production company. Her work, most often found in poorer neighborhoods, is characterized by its use of bold colors; it draws on such topics as feminism, violence against women, poverty, indigenous society, and nature. Violence in Colombia, she says in the video, “is a disease that continues to spread.” Her depictions of women affected by sexual violence are unsettling; in one, a large blue and pink wall piece facing a playground, pain shows in the eyes of the central figure, who swallows daggers while clinging to another, almost inhuman figure with blank eyes. Bastardilla even dabs glitter onto her painted tears so that they glow at night.
“I cannot stay indifferent to what happens in the world, still today, toward women” she says in the video. “And for me, these women are a true source of inspiration. It is a very personal way to tell a little about my life.”
Both women I spoke to mentioned the insecurity of being a woman in the city, but it is Bastardilla who confronts the issue most directly, by creating large, difficult-to-ignore representations of women who have suffered violence on those very same streets.