It Took a Murder and a Pop Star to Legalize Graffiti in Bogotá, Colombia
By Donnie Sexton
It’s impossible to wander anywhere in Bogotá, Colombia, without seeing explosions of colorful street art in public and private spaces. Graffiti began to appear in Colombia’s capital in the 1990s, viewed by police and city officials as wanton vandalism.
Armed with aerosol spray cans and slinking around under the cover of night, disgruntled youth and street gangs would spray paint tags (their distinctive signature) as a way to speak out about the country’s civil and political corruption. If caught, ‘taggers’ could face fines, jail time, and beatings by police.
Death of Diego Felipe Becerra
By the early 2000s, graffiti was evolving beyond tagging into colorful murals, still illegal. The tide turned when police caught 16-year-old graffiti artist Diego Felipe Becerra spray painting his signature Felix the Cat image on a wall in 2011, shot and killed him.
The police attempted to cover up the shooting by claiming Becerra was an armed robber, but his family and fellow street artists were enraged, and mass demonstrations broke out.
The city responded to this outcry by arresting the guilty officers and easing up on street art, making it more or less legal. Street artists were finally emerging from darkness to create in the light of day without fear of being arrested.
A second incident cemented graffiti’s acceptance in Bogotá. While on tour in South America in 2013, Canadian singer Justin Bieber, escorted by police, was filmed spray painting in an area off-limits for graffiti in Bogotá.
Once again, street artists rose in defiance, not only in Bogotá but in cities across Colombia, and organized a street art marathon.
Within 24 hours, 700 works of art were created.The artists demanded the same kind of treatment from the police that Bieber received.
To address this second uprising by street artists, the national chief of police said officers “have to evolve and see graffiti as an artistic expression of a feeling, of a motivation…Someone who paints graffiti wants to tell us something, and we have to listen.”
Bogotá’s Street Museum
Today, Bogotá is a magnet for street artists worldwide to leave their mark. For visitors, it’s pure joy, a no-cost street museum, to see so many visual delights. Wandering the streets of Bogotá, especially in the historic La Candelaria district, reveals a graphic and colorful narrative of Columbia’s culture, history, and politics.
Some property owners will commission murals in an effort to give street artists space to create their art.
One of the most informative ways to know more about the city’s street art is through the Bogotá Graffiti Tour, a two-hour walking excursion.The tour was created in 2011 by street artist CRISP, originally from Australia.
The tour, offered twice daily, is free, but a voluntary donation helps support the street art community.