The La Candelaria neighborhood in Bogotá is commonly referred to as a “transition” neighborhood. Five years ago or so, according to some of the locals we talked to, the area was really quite sketchy and dangerous. Not many tourists would come around because of this. But it’s changing – slowly. It’s not difficult to see why this neighborhood had a reputation for “narcotic vacations”. As soon as nightfalls all of the “itches & twitchies” as Lindsay and I would call them would come limping or running or walking sideways towards you very loudly asking if we were interested in cocaine or marijuana. The first time this happened we were caught off guard, after that we were ready with our money and followed them to a scary back-alley to complete the transaction. I am kidding. It was a well-lit side street. JK.
We weren’t expecting so many dang crackheads to be canvasing the area we were staying in. Each corner of our block had a few completely cracked-out people attempting to sell drugs. The dealers and drugs, coupled with the fact that the weather was pretty crappy (high in the mid 50s, rain/clouds all day) and I had come down with a sort of flu or travelers you-know-what bug, had us feeling we were spending way too much time in Bogotá (4 nights).
I wasn’t able to leave my bed on day 2 so on day 3 we finally took the Bogotá Graffiti Tour that takes you around our neighborhood and introduces you to the artists, their inspiration and their works of art. This was something different Lindsay and I hadn’t done in the past.
My feelings are a bit mixed on graffiti. The dumb shit that you cannot read (looks like scribble) that you can often times find on beautiful buildings which in my opinion is ruining them is called “tekking”.
But there are some other pieces that I had no idea were a part of the street art scene and I completely understood why the guide was referring to street art and not simply just graffiti.
The tour was really helping to beautify the same part of town that I felt was ugly the first couple of days that we were here.
I did a little bit of a double take when the guide shared the story of large companies displacing farmers who wouldn’t work with them – and the fact that was the inspiration for this colorful piece above. But the more and more that we walked around and learned I realized most of the pieces of work around town were politically inspired. I am so used to seeing someone’s name is stupid bubble letters that I never associated graffiti with a meaningful message. I was pleasantly surprised, regardless if I agreed with the message or not.
Another part of the tour that caught me off guard were all the techniques that the artists were using. I figured that if it was street art that it was spray paint. Want a picture? Spray paint. Want me to write my cool nickname in bubble letters? Give me that spray paint.
Well, it turns out I was completely wrong. You already saw that plastic stained-glass-looking toucan that was glued to a wall. And there are several other ways to either paint or make art on the streets of Bogotá.
Is it Legal?
One of the big questions on the tour was “is this legal?” The answer was much more complex than I was anticipating. Technically, no – it is not legal. But the consequences for being caught defacing a building are small fines. Bogotá street artists will not go to jail, period. At least not for graffiti.
The no-jail policy is due to a couple of factors.
In 2011 a local street artist was painting his calling card, Felix the Cat, on an underpass. An officer pulled over to question/arrest him and Felix the Cat fled on foot. The officer pursued, shot and killed Felix the Cat. The officer claimed at the time that it was necessary because Felix was going to attack or rob someone but the public wasn’t buying his story. An independent investigation led to the officer’s arrest and he is currently serving a life-long prison sentence.
In 2013 Justin Bieber came to town for a concert. The next day he visited La Candelaria with a police escort to create a beautiful piece of art. The Canadian flag. But instead of a maple leaf Justin used a marijuana leaf. Cool. The locals were irate. How could Felix the Cat be shot and killed by police for painting on a wall and Justin Bieber is escorted by police to do the same? Makes sense.
Lastly, the current Bogotá mayor has a bit of a checkered past and was known to in his young days use street art to push his own political ideals. As such he has a soft spot in his heart for this type of art and has worked for the past couple of years to make some space for these artists to work legally.
I believe that how the town is governing the street art and artists is the right thing to do. Almost all of the buildings that you saw in this post gave permissions to the artists to paint their walls. Big, beautiful murals take time – some up to 2 weeks – and are for the most part painted during the day. The owner gets a couple of benefits. The first being a beautiful wall. The second is that part of the code of street art is that you don’t tek murals – so you keep all that stupid stuff off your walls. Win-win.
But there are still tons of great buildings with the ugly unreadable tekking that I don’t and probably never will get. Those people are treated in the same manner as the ones creating a mural. Should those artists, if caught be responsible for paying the bill for removal? What should be done if they cannot pay the bill?
Anyways – I don’t know the right answer, but I do know I am glad that we went on the tour and got an inside look at the street art that covers most of the buildings in La Candelaria.
Bogotá Street Art