The Rise of #Streetart in Bogota

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“People that don’t like graffiti, just don’t understand it,” explains Camilo Fidel López, the unofficial spokesman for Bogotá’s illegal street art scene. “When you understand graffiti, you see many things happening — it’s a way that people talk to each other.”

López is something of a rare beast — a lawyer with infinite charm and a rascally sense of humour. After getting rejected by Harvard, he jokes, he decided to further disappoint his father by promoting graffiti and street art in his home city. For the last eight years, he has worked with eight artists as part of independent collective Vertigo Graffiti, proselytising the illegal art form as one of Bogotá’s most powerful weapons in the fight to effect social change and narrow Colombia’s historically colossal gap between its wealthy and marginalised citizens.

As part of his work, López offers guided tours in various neighbourhoods and our first stop this morning is the cocktail bar of the W Hotel in the upscale Santa Barbara business district. This is where Vertigo Graffiti has created a huge floor-to-ceiling mural.

Showing a beautiful woman lounging on her back, her modesty protected by vines of graffiti, the work riffs on the idea of El Dorado, a mythical city made entirely of gold. The legend has several versions; most involve a Muisca tribe zipa (or chief) being covered with gold dust and diving into the Lake Guatavita while his attendants throw treasures — trinkets of gold, emeralds, and precious stones — into its waters to either impress a queen or appease the god that had taken her. Vertigo Graffiti reinterpreted the story by depicting Bogotá as the queen and graffiti as the city’s treasures — a tool of communication and opportunity for its people.

While one of the city’s more exclusive accommodations initially seems a strange place to start, the fact that the W asked local graffiti artists to decorate its exclusive nightspot demonstrates the genre’s increasing legitimacy in the Colombian capital.

As in many other cities around the world, graffiti here is a tool of personal creative expression and political commentary, and evokes mixed feelings in the local populace. But to understand the significance of urban art in contemporary Bogotá, you have to consider Colombia’s long history of violence, which only recently abated.

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