BOGOTÁ — The first stop on a graffiti tour of Bogotá, which gathered about 30 tourists on a recent morning, was a mural featuring old cable cars next to three large, green hummingbirds. The painting, covering the entire facade of a house, seems to suggest that Colombia’s rich nature can co-exist with urban development.
Not for long.
“Unfortunately, this wall is probably going to be erased by the city in the next couple of years,” says Jahir Dimaté, the guide of Bogotá Graffiti Tour, a company founded by graffiti artists and one of several in the city that organizes similar tours.
The mayor of the Colombian capital, Enrique Peñalosa Londoño, has been implementing a plan to restore and paint 2,500 houses in the historical downtown area of Candelaria. But in the process, he is clashing with graffiti artists whose colorful murals have transformed the area and brought tourists to the neighborhood. “It’s impossible to get rid of the graffiti, you can’t put a police officer in front of every single wall, it’s not going to work,” Dimaté told me.
These changes are taking place just as Colombia is experiencing a boom in tourism, sparked by the federal government’s 2016 peace treaty with the rebel group The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In 2017, 6.5 million tourists visited the country — almost double 2011’s tourists.
The restoration project started in January of 2016 with the goal of painting a total of 6,000 houses around the city that were designated as cultural patrimony. Diego Parra, the coordinator of the facade restoration program for the Cultural Patrimony District Institute (IDPC), explained, “It’s an obligation for all Colombians to take care of our history.” Parra stated that property owners are invited to participate in the process; if their properties are painted with a mural, they can decide whether to paint over it or not. But historical homes cannot be painted with new murals.
At the same time, the city is allowing graffiti artists to paint murals on some sites that are not historical. “We love graffiti,” Parra continued, pointing out that the city has programs to support street artists. Just not everywhere, he adds. “The facades already have their art, you can’t paint murals over them.”
About 1,000 facades have been restored so far, all in the downtown area. The oldest houses in the neighborhood date from approximately 1680-1700, when Colombia was a Spanish colony. Many murals portray indigenous communities, triggering a debate on who decides what is “beautiful.”
“Why put plain color on top of a drawing?,” asked Jean Paul Zapata, a visual and graffiti artist I spoke with. Zapata’s mural in Candelaria featuring an indigenous man playing a flute was painted over by the city a few months ago. “It’s as if having a house in one color is more aesthetically pleasing?” he mused.
Zapata added that artists have not been invited to participate in the debate and he was not notified that his mural would be painted over. He learned about it when he walked by the street the following day. His response is, “Well, that’s Colombia.”
Parra, from the IDPC, acknowledges that street art is a part of Bogota’s patrimony and that the city and its artists need to communicate better with one another. “We are not against graffiti,” he told me. “What we are doing is getting to know each other.”
Some residents seem happy about the restoration project. Cecilia Laverde, a seamstress who has lived in the area for 20 years, stood proudly in front of her recently painted house. “The way the walls are now, they look great,” she said. But when asked to choose between a plain wall or a graffiti mural, she replied, “Both are beautiful.”
Bogotá’s perception about street art has changed dramatically over the past few years, particularly after a young graffiti artist was killed by police. In 2011, Diego Felipe Becerra was spraying his signature Felix the Cat on a wall when he was shot. The killing led to protests, and in 2013, then-mayor Gustavo Petro issued a decree to promote graffiti in the city as a form of expression. Currently, Bogotá Graffiti Tour estimates there are more than 8,000 street artists in the city, a number that continues to grow.
All around Bogotá, many building owners have since commissioned artists to paint murals on their facades, often as a way to prevent graffiti tagging. Ironically, many houses that the city has painted in the downtown area have been tagged and had to be repainted several times.
For street artist Camilo Gordillo, who has been doing graffiti for 15 years and uses the nickname “Ceroker,” there’s no distinction between tagging and murals. “We are the same people, those who are painting the pretty murals and those who are vandalizing,” he expressed to me. “One doesn’t exist without the other.”
Since its inception in Philadelphia and New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, graffiti has been a rebel art form, something done surreptitiously, without permission. For this reason, Gordillo believes graffiti can’t be governed with fines or policies. He says street art is often the only means that marginalized communities have to express their opinions. “In a society like Colombia, with so much income inequality, graffiti is a way of raise yourself.”
Gordillo, who also works with two other artists in a collective called Atresmanos (By Three Hands), has been able to support himself completely with street art for the past five years, often with commissions from private companies. A large mural, which takes him four to five days to paint, with the help of two other artists, runs about $10,000.
For now, tourists continue to flock Candelaria to look at street art. Susan Levit, a retired TV journalist from New York City who was visiting Colombia for the first time, is among them. Levit opposes painting over the murals and hopes that the graffiti stays. “It’s a free way of speaking, it’s not harmful, it’s interesting to look at,” she told me. “It offers people a glimpse into who the people of Bogotá are.”