Travels in Colombia No.1: Street Art in Bogota

December 26th, 2015

It’s rare that sayings translate directly from one language to another. The English idioms that we throw about willy-nilly rarely have next-door neighbours in Spanish refranes (caso en punto with ‘willy-nilly’). There are, however, the occasional exceptions. ‘Better late than never’ has the equivalent, ‘mas vale tarde que nunca’ and it’s with this phrase that I’d like to return to blogging. During the past three months I have left home in Ecuador to travel through Colombia and beyond. As of March 2016, I am now semi-permanently located in Colima, Mexico, on a volcanology placement with CIIV. It’s a tremendously exciting experience, and I hope to be able to write on a fortnightly basis about the work that the placement involves.

Meanwhile, I once again have a home from which I can write about travel. I spent seven weeks journeying through Colombia: a country singularly rich in biodiversity and poor in internet connection. What do you think of when you hear Colombia? For many people, the country is still associated with the tragedies of its ravaged past – but a different Colombia has already emerged, vibrant with colour and energy. I have been amazed at the breadth of beauty of Colombia’s landscapes, and the depth of warmth shown by its people. For those who haven’t yet had the privilege of going, I’d like to share with you the highlights of my trip. Let’s start at the very beginning – under the grey skies of Bogotá.

Our route through Colombia, from 20th December 2015
to 9th February 2016.

Look up: a flock of dark grey clouds are crossing the sky. The weak morning sun can’t penetrate their depth, and the water pressure presses down on you. You might as well be in London! Look around: a gallery of murals surrounds you. Loud splashes and puddles of colour are drizzled expertly on the prattling walls of the city. For Nathen and I, our introduction to the vibrant colours of Colombia was a street tour of graffiti art.

This tour was so good I’m going to put the link in twice. If you are in Bogotá, you must go. Here it is!

My family’s usual Boxing Day tradition, honed to perfection over two decades, follows a single command: enjoy the leftovers! Extra turkey is wrapped into sandwiches, any remaining presents are unwrapped gleefully, and we crowd round the telly to gorge on programmes saved on iPlayer. On December 26th 2015, however, we were faced with a lack of leftovers. What to do? We made a radical break with tradition and decided to try something new.

The graffiti tour began at 14:00 at Parque de los Periodistas, at the foot of the monument el Templete al Libertador. We met there our host, Jay, and around thirty other tourists. It seemed to me that this tour was not an undiscovered secret of the city, a suspicion later confirmed by a Google search. Bogota Graffiti Tour is currently number two on Bogotá’s list of attractions in Tripadvisor

After Jay had given the usual stick-together-and-listen-to-me introduction, we began. Our group left the park, crossed the Avenida Jimenez and immediately plunged into the maze of streets that makes up the photogenic district of La Candelaria.

I love photography: it is an incomporable way to colourfully record my travels when I don’t have time to whip out my sketchbook. I would estimate that the majority of people who travel are, like me, ‘aspiring amateurs’: equipped with a good-quality camera, but unsure of how to make the most of its features to best capture their chosen subject matter. The Bogota Graffiti Tour is an excellent workshop for an aspiring amateur. The city is dense with subject matter, and by walking around at a fair pace you are encouraged to make snap decisions about compositions – I think quantity trumps quality during this stage of learning photography. As you progress through the maze of alleys, you will find yourself working with interesting perspectives and contrasts, playing with the angles of the city, working with unusual compositions. Most importantly, the fast pace of the tour keeps it fun.

For any other aspiring amateurs out there, here are a few challenges I encountered on this tour.

Perspective is an important feature. The streets are narrow and can be pressed in with people, making it difficult to find room to take pictures from the angle that you want. Sometimes I found an alternative view, like squatting and snapping from a low level; or by angling my lens steeply upwards, I could catch upon an interesting snapshot that I would have otherwise missed.

Detail. Some of my favourite parts of this tour were not the enormous, decadent murals, but instead the small details that you came across unexpectedly: a surprising juxtaposition, like fancy shoes dangling in front of graffiti footprints; or fresh plants less colourful than the peeling paint surrounding them. If shot well, these features made for a memorable photo.

Of course, in a city of nearly eight million people, you can’t expect to take a photo of a street without someone getting in its way. Luckily the people of Bogotá are particularly photogenic. It’s always a pleasure when a stranger passes by and unexpectedly enlivens the photo that you’re taking. 

The people who surround you are living in their own inner worlds. Having a camera to capture the lives of locals who move through the static art is a privilege of the travelling tourist; and as long as the photos are taken with empathy, what’s the harm? One of my favourite things to do was to make up stories of the couples and friends who were going about their daily routines in the middle of this picture gallery. For instance, what do you think of this couple underneath the caged and free birds?

I love how unaffected and inquisitive the kids look here, next to the slight listlessness of the adults in the neighbouring café. I think there’s an interesting contrast between the youth in the right and their elders that are left. 

This post is definitely an indulgence for my photography, which is amateurish. On the other hand, the graffitos who put their work on the walls are masters of their craft. On many occasions, I stood transfixed by the sheer artistry of the work, and the capacity of some people to manipulate aerosol paint.

A lot of the artwork was made not only to transfix but to transform, and carried political or social messages that aimed to draw attention to the myriad issues that are affecting modern Colombia. The homeless, corrupt politicians, piñas and battle-flies and doves: unlikely neighbours, true, but they were often seen uncomfortably rubbing shoulders on the walls of Downtown and La Candelaria. On the left of the image below, you can see the battle-flies of D.J. Lu, sometimes called the Banksy of Colombia.

What I found really interesting, what our guide Jay told us, is that Colombia has a completely different attitude towards street art than other countries do. For instance, in the UK, an artist of graffiti that is deemed to have caused damage of up to £5,000 may be liable to pay a maximum of £5,000; if the damage is greater, there may be tougher sentences (Source). Colombia, meanwhile, seems to view graffiti as an addition to, rather than a slur on, its streets. The owner of a property in Bogotá can grant permission to an artist to paint his walls. Jay told us an amusing story about a graffiti collective who were warned off a property by the police; undeterred, they simply changed their canvas to the building opposite. When the police returned, the artists appealed to the building’s owner – who was then in the delicious position of being able to send the police away!

At the end of the tour all that was left over was to give a donation to our guide. We gladly did, as it was easily the first highlight in a country of colour. I said the link is good enough to post twice, so here it is: Do it!

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