Justin Bieber’s Bogotá Graffiti Provokes Urban Art Revolution in Colombia

Bogotá grafitti

Graffiti in Bogotá

Like most cities, Bogotá has its share of graffiti. Hurried scrawls – ‘tombos no tienen alma’ (‘cops have no conscience’), ‘duele la ironía del Estado’ (’the State’s irony hurts’) – express political discontent, while huge murals bursting with colour brighten the city. There is even an organised tour of Bogotá’s extensive urban art, such are its merits as a tourist attraction.

Colombian graffiti artists take great risks to create their art. Many wear masks to hide their identity. Confiscation of spray cans, hassle from the police and arrest go with the territory. But on 19 August 2011 police killed unarmed sixteen-year-old grafitero Diego Felipe Becerra while he was spraying graffiti on a wall on the Avenida de Boyacá. Post mortem examination revealed he was shot in the back at close range. Whether you view graffiti as vandalism or legitimate art form, few would consider it warranted summary execution.

So when Canadian tween sensation Justin Bieber went on an aerosol spree in Bogotá earlier this month, was he taking a huge risk? Not at all – Bogotá police provided him with an escort, even closing off part of the road on Calle 26 so he would not be disturbed while he painted a wall on the edge of an underpass.

Bieber’s police protection for the very same act for which Becerra was executed provoked outrage and indignation among Colombian grafiteros. Last weekend, Bogotá graffiti artists took part in a spontaneous twenty-four hour graffiti-thon protest creating more than seven hundred new works around the city.

Similar protests spread to Medellín and Cali and more are planned for other parts of the country. Bieber unwittingly provoked a ‘graffiti revolution’ – Colombian newspaper El Espectador likened his actions to the breaking of the Llorente vase that sparked the revolution for independence from Spanish rule in 1810.

Bogotá graffiti

Bogotá graffiti commemorating the the thousands of trade unionists and members of the Unión Patriotica (a political party annihilated by political genocide) assassinated with almost total impunity

The graffiti protests raise several questions. They seek to change the way society views graffiti, demanding it be recognised as a true and valid art form. The protesters argue that because most graffiti artists are disillusioned youths, their work is generally dismissed as vandalism.

Initiatives aimed at urban youths are often organised around sports. But not everyone likes sport or considers it a form of self-expression. And when the same demographic groups at whom sports initiatives are aimed express themselves through graffiti, their art is criminalised. While sports initiatives are lauded, graffiti is damned.

We accept the constant presence of advertisement hoardings, creating desires we never knew we had, urging us to consume more and keeping our attention focused on the shallow, yet graffiti that is often beautiful and/or carries a deeper message is outlawed. For society in general and the world around us, which is truly more damaging?

Bogotá police - graffiti

Raging inequality: a Bogotá police officer executed graffiti artist Diego Felipe Becerra but the same police force protected Justin Bieber during his sortie with a spray can

Becerra’s execution is an example of the Colombian police’s use of an outrageous level of disproportionate force. A culture of impunity breeds extreme aggression among the state security forces; but, after initial attempts at a cover-up, international pressure eventually prompted an investigation into the execution.

The Bieber incident raises issues of gross inequality. The contrast in the treatment metered out to a wealthy foreign celebrity and home-grown urban youth is as stark as it gets.

How much thought do we give to our privileged position as foreigners when travelling? What are our responsibilities to speak out about issues and atrocities abroad, especially where the repercussions for local journalists can be severe? To what extent do we see the world as our playground without thought to human rights and environmental abuses in places we visit?

Click here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/105153060@N03/sets/72157638115642773/ to see more of my Bogotá graffiti photos.

Link to article in El Espectador (in Spanish): http://www.elespectador.com/noticias/bogota/justin-bieber-quebro-el-florero-de-llorente-articulo-456578

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4 Responses to Justin Bieber’s Bogotá Graffiti Provokes Urban Art Revolution in Colombia

  1. Jools says:

    The inequality, and the cosying-up to celebrity is quite staggering – as is the crass insensitivity of the boy pop-icon. But he will mature and may one day understand. The state however is as mature as it will ever be. You throw light on some important issues. Perhaps Banksy should pay them a visit – the grafiteros sound like they could do with a little high visibility urban-solidarity.

    • Thanks for your comment Jools. Good point that whilst Bieber may mature and develop a greater understanding of the implications of his actions, the state is already as mature as it will ever be. It highlights the importance of human rights work in Colombia, without which the extent of abuses and levels of impunity would doubtless be greater. Yes, maybe more Banksy, less Bieber!

  2. Thanks for your comments. I agree – Colombians are incredibly friendly and welcoming to foreigners. It is important to look beyond the beauty of the country and consider the implications of our actions even as semi-privileged foreigners, as well as the the impact of our governments’ actions abroad.

  3. Fascinating that El Espectador legitimized the protests by likening his actions to the breaking of the Llorente vase that, as you say, sparked the revolution for independence from Spanish rule.
    You raise some important questions. It´s difficult to ignore the impact privileged travellers – even middle-class, semi-privileged ones, have on the societies they visit. Colombians are one of the most hospitable peoples. It sometimes seems cruel that so many foreigners seem oblivious to the impact they have on Colombian citizens.

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