Graffiti and Design in Bogota

This year the Design and Emotion Conference was in Bogota, Colombia. I was very excited to attend it for the first time in Latin America, a region that I’ve been falling in love with during the last few years. I will write about the conference (which was fantastic!) in a later post soon, but for now I want to write about an independent street art and graffiti tour I took which blew my mind and amazingly complemented the conference perfectly.

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The tour departs every morning at 10 am from Plaza de Periodistas in Bogota and takes about two hours. It is led by one of the artists himself who is very informed and passionate about the art. The tour takes place around the famous La Candelaria neighbourhood. When I arrived early at the site of the tour where several people thought I was the guide (I guess because of my long hair and looking Colombian)!

La Candelaria is a slightly rough neighbourhood that is totally fine to walk around in daytime but after dark becomes dodgy and it becomes essential to take taxis to go around or go with a big group. The tour is during the day so there are no security problems. This location was very close to the Universidad de los Andes where the conference I was attending was taking place so I ended up staying here and really liking it.

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Given that the roots of graffiti, especially the style that revolves around stylized scripts, grew out of disenchanted design students in New York City around the 70’s and that it is an excellent form of subversive artistic expression, it related perfectly to the paper I was presenting at the conference. In the last few years, a revolution of acceptance has happened with street arts in Bogota. But this has not come at a cheap cost. After the shooting death of a 17 year old street artist by the police, his family and friends started a campaign to raise awareness around this art and it’s importance. Following this act, many measures were taken to protect artists.

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Firstly, safe spaces were created (with cameras and guards) for young people to practice graffiti without being harassed. We visited one of these spaces where a group of young acrobats were also practicing unicycle riding among various other circus acts. La Candelaria is an important cultural centre with respect to many performing arts and a lot of circus performers, theatre actors and story tellers, also visit there. One of the oldest hostels in La Candelaria is dedicated to travelling artists.

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Secondly, the government has commissioned some graffiti and has approved the painting of some important works on public space. These include one of the most famous graffitis in Colombia. It depicts a couple kissing and can be seen on the taxi ride from the airport. In a photo series by photographer Hector Favio Zamora that depicted the poverty ridden streets of Bogota, there is a picture of a couple kissing in the midst of trash. The picture was the inspiration for this mural. This amazing work reminds me of one of Pouya’s electronic songs called “Love Amidst War” (from the Pouya’s Telescope album).

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Finally, if a property owner gives permission to a graffiti artist to paint the walls of their property, they can do it without being harassed by police or any other authority. These measures have helped graffiti thrive in Bogota. Some of the artists’ work has become so famous that they have started different lines of merchandize (clothing, jewellery, …) and are sometimes commissioned for big projects. For example, all the signage, posters and even bottles of Bogota’s microbrewery, Bogota Brewing Company (BBC) are designed by a graffiti artist. The artists also publish a book documenting the art.

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Much of the art is focused on aesthetics and is very beautiful. Some of the works are very political and have strong and thought provoking messages. For example, there were a series of simple icons that are done by a graffiti artist who is also an anthropology professor and while staying impartial creates thought-provoking pieces.

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The last series of work are very powerful and told a bit more about the painful history and social dynamics of Columbia. One piece depicted graphic version of photographs taken from homeless people in the area. The reason the artist had focused on them was that because during the Plan Colombia, where the Colombian government (and mainly the army) received much support from the US to fight the drug cartels and rebels, one of the measures of success was body counts. To fulfil their obligations, the army had taken many homeless people into the jungle dressed them up as rebels and shot them. This scandal is known as the “false positive” and eventually was exposed leading to the arrest of several high ranking army officials.

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There are many painful stories in the history of Colombia, but there is also much to be celebrated. Since working in Oaxaca, I have become very interested in the social/political thought of Latin America and recently read a book called Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America by Mexican scholar Enrique Krauze, as well as, the fantastic Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz. What I find fascinating in Latin America is the derive for social change and a certain revolutionary idealism which can be miraculous if channelled in peaceful ways and horrendous if fed into violence and hard-headedness. There certainly are similarities with my Iranian background!

A few days after the tour, I saw an amazing presentation at the conference entitled “Everyday interactive-kinetic environments: Examples in Latin America” by Carolina Rodriguez and Marta D’Alessandro. They reviewed the history of interactive public art installations in Latin America and identified several important elements including an appropriate use of tools and technology that focuses on strategy rather than technique and a derive to bring about social responsibility through interaction. I was shocked by how relevant these points were to our project in Oaxaca: the idea of using minimal technology to create awareness around one’s environment and one’s agency within it.

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I highly recommend the tour. And will write more about my experiences in Colombia and the Design and Emotion Conference soon.

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