BOGOTÁ — Informal recyclers are as ubiquitous in Bogotá as the city’s world famous street art, yet for most Colombians, completely invisible. Pulling carts loaded with paper, bottles, and cardboard behind them, about 21,000 waste pickers stride along city streets, picking through garbage set on sidewalks, and collecting whatever recyclable material they can find. In one day, waste pickers save 1,200 tons from Bogotá’s only dumpsite.
“Waste pickers are a forgotten population, among the most forgotten, but some of the most valuable at the same time,” says Andres Felipe Padilla, organizer of Pimp My Carroza, an arts initiative founded in Brazil to bring visibility to the work of informal recyclers.
In 2007, Brazilian graffitist Thiago Mundano started a series of annual events, in which graffiti artists could support waste pickers by transforming their carts into works of art. Since then, Pimp My Carroza (named after the popular MTV show “Pimp My Ride”) has spread to eight Latin American countries, including Colombia, where well-known street artists, including Mundano, have painted 250 carts since 2015.
On a brisk evening in late March, Marysol Mogollon, a waste picker for 21 years, displays her vividly painted cart at the third edition of Pimp My Carroza in Bogotá. While a massive sound system plays reggae, dancehall, and rap in the background, more than 40 of the Colombian capital’s most recognized graffiti artists work alongside informal recyclers. In comparison to the usual wooden pull carts spotted in Bogotá’s urban landscapes, Mogollon’s cart stands out; it’s painted in brilliant red, greens, and yellows, overlaid with detailed portraits done in stencil.
For pedestrians familiar with the graffiti-covered streets of downtown Bogotá, these portraits are immediately recognizable. They’re the work of street artist DJ LU, a prominent figure of the Bogotá graffiti scene who pays homage to the forgotten heroes that keep our societies running. Part of his “Anonymous Heroes” (since 2012) series, the portraits depict an uncommon cast of characters: a donkey sporting a toothy grin; Richie, who rents seats on the beaches of Cartagena; a street laborer who looks after parked cars in downtown Bogotá; and a girl marching for animal rights while carrying her pet duck.
As a graffiti artist who spends hours on the street, DJ LU, who doubles as a university professor, notices the hard work of ordinary citizens who make a living in these shared public spaces. It’s what marks the difference between graffiti artists and other artists: their familiarity and proximity to the hustle that unfolds daily on the sidewalks, the TransMilenio bus stations, and the plazas or town squares. While waste pickers may remain unknown to most Colombians, DJ LU sees the recycler as the graffiti artist’s ally, a fellow worker who enriches urban spaces and ultimately depends on the street for survival.
“Working on the street gives you a broader perspective of people who for many others are invisible and disposable,” DJ LU says. “Because of the work dynamic and hours spent on the streets, the street artist understands the recycler’s work and humanity.”
Likewise, many waste pickers know and value the work of street artists. They see the artist painting, get to know him or her, and see the finished piece daily as they go about their workday. “They have a direct relationship with urban art,” he asserts and a deeper understanding of graffiti than perhaps others with more privileged backgrounds. This mutual respect between the graffiti artist and waste picker is what makes Pimp My Carroza a success, he continues. Back at the event, Mogollon tells me what she thinks of DJ LU’s artistic intervention after circling the cart and recounting the stories behind the portraits. “I’m happy,” Mogollon says. “He’s fantastic. He’s an artist that shows the dignity of the people.”
She expresses hope that arts initiatives like Pimp My Carroza can help defy stereotypes people have of recyclers, although she does have some reservations. “Maybe people will look at us differently,” Mogollon says. “The people like to look at the carts, they like that they’ve been remodeled. But sometimes, everything remains the same. Even with the painted cart, people still harass us.”
For decades, organized groups of recyclers have fought for their labor to be recognized as a public service, and to be fairly compensated. These efforts have resulted in court rulings, laws, and decrees that protect waste pickers’ rights. Still, waste pickers are stereotyped as thieves, drug users, and as homeless, which allows for police officers and neighborhood residents to harass them with little to no consequence.
“They see us as marginal people, as people who perhaps look for sustenance to feed their drug habits,” Mogollon says. “But no, we waste pickers are families with dignity that depend on recycling to feed our children, pay for their school, and get ahead in life.”
Pimp My Carroza offers informal recyclers the opportunity to help define narratives about waste picking. Before the aerosols start spraying, graffiti artists meet with recyclers to ask how they would like to see themselves represented. The images requested are very personal and usually draw from their religious affiliations, personal interests, relationships to the environment, or aesthetic preferences. Graffiti artists then interpret these ideas to create a piece of art that expresses, for the public, a part of the recycler’s personality. The result often attracts the wonder and interest of people on the street.
“When you see one of these carts, with these incredible art pieces, it generates a huge impact,” Padilla says. “People stop waste pickers in the street and take photos with them.”
These walking pieces of art can be seen from blocks away: large-scale renditions of the Andean highlands’ frailejones plants, multicolored fishes, and stylized dragons. Equally as powerful as the imagery are the handwritten phrases that directly challenge inaccurate narratives of recyclers. Messages include “Guardians of the Earth,” “Recyclables without recyclers is garbage,” and “Street Heroes.” Ultimately, these art works, DJ LU believes, are an important step to dignify the livelihood of recyclers. “The people’s rejection of recyclers starts with ignorance,” DJ LU says, “So one of our principal goals here, as artists, is to make visible the realities of the recyclers: their work, which is incredibly important, and who these people are, which is as human as anyone else.”