Colombia has a pretty bad reputation when it comes to crime. And I’ve heard all sorts of stories about travelers getting robbed while visiting Bogotá. So as I was walking back to my hotel in the middle of the night, I was a little on edge. The streets were deserted, it was dimly lit and eerily quiet. My boyfriend and I were only a few short blocks from our guesthouse when I heard the sound of footsteps racing toward us and saw four silhouettes emerge out of the darkness. I’m a bit anxious by nature, so as the four figures rushed toward us I immediately assumed we were going to get robbed.
My heart was in my throat when they came to an abrupt halt a few feet to our left – and then I heard the unmistakable sound of a spray can. After a hurried tag the boys ran off and disappeared into the night. I felt a bit foolish when I realized this was just a slight act of vandalism – not an attempted robbery.
In the light of day, graffiti is everywhere in Bogotá. Hasty scribbles like the one I witnessed litter almost every wall in the historic district of La Candelaria, in central Bogotá. It kind of pained me to see, considering that many of these buildings and churches are hundreds of years old. Residents and business owners find these tags to be such a nuisance they actually repaint their building facades every two months in order to maintain the colorful and impeccably preserved buildings that La Candelaria is famous for.
During my time in La Candelaria I had an increasingly low tolerance for this sort of mindless graffiti, especially on historic buildings. But let’s face it, while these tags give graffiti a bad rap, the stigma surrounding this art form goes deeper than that. For me, the word “graffiti” conjures up some pretty negative images such as crime, gangs and violence. That being said, I am an art lover. And, much to my surprise, during my time in Bogotá I grew to have a serious appreciation for not only graffiti but other forms of street art as well.
As I came to learn, the city is a hub for some world-renowned and seriously talented artists like Stinkfish, Crisp, Rodez and Lik Mi. Wandering around Bogotá’s streets there are remarkable works located literally around every corner – massive murals adorn the sides of buildings, sculptures are hidden in the most unlikely of places and trendy stencils decorate the city’s walls.
I was so taken with the street art scene that I decided to sign up for the Bogota Graffiti Tour. I’m typically not a fan of organized tours, but this is one of the best I’ve taken in a long time. And it’s a definite must-do if for those who are as street-art-obsessed as I am.
Not only did the 2-hour tour offer a fantastic introduction to some of La Candelaria’s best street art – including many hard-to-find pieces – but it also provided a great lesson about the history, politics and methods behind this controversial art form.
I always pictured street artists to be shrouded in mystery. Like Banksy, they only emerge in the cover of night, stealthily leaving their mark while keeping their anonymity intact. But this isn’t the case in Bogotá, where city officials have taken a shockingly progressive attitude toward street art.
During the tour, our guide explained that this push to regulate graffiti artists stems back to 2011, when police officers gunned down a 16-year-old boy as he was tagging his signature logo – Felix the Cat – under a highway bridge. The shooting caused a major outcry in Bogotá and was a catalyst for the city’s current street art movement.
Contrary to what I expected, I learned that street art is actually welcome and encouraged in Bogotá. In fact, in the past couple of years there has been a major push to regulate graffiti. This means that artists are free to paint, spray and stencil wherever they want – with the exception of public buildings and monuments. All an artist has to do is knock on a door and ask the building’s owner for permission. It’s as easy as that. Gone are the days where streets artists only come out in the dark of night to illegally commit acts of vandalism. Artists are now able to work in the light of day. And the punishment for illegal tagging is a mere ticket and the confiscation of paint.
One impact of this lax stance is the prevalence of some seriously outstanding art which adorns the city’s buildings, overpasses and walls. And it was Bogota’s street art that ended up being one of the things I enjoyed most about this amazing city.
- Bogota Graffiti Tour: bogotagraffiti.com
- Cost: By donation. I paid 25,000 pesos ($12 USD)
Are you a street art fan, like me? What is your favorite city to find street art?