Street Art of Bogotá: the Colombian Capital as Painted by DjLu

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The following interview and translation is part of a series of pieces I am writing for The Noise, an arts and culture monthly newspaper published in Northern Arizona. Send along any comments and critiques. More on DjLu can be found on his MySpace and Flickr.

Grenades grow on stalks of maíz and explode into flowers. A gas pump holds a gun to its head. An umbrella blocks a rain of rifles. A man is lynched on an oil pump. A soldier mounts a machine gun turret on a mule. The guy from the Men’s Bathroom sign loses a leg to a landmine. He walks using a rifle as a cane. Welcome to Bogotá.

This is the city as painted by one of its best street artists: DjLu. His work was omnipresent in all parts of Bogotá I visited, and after following his stencils through alleys and across boulevards, I was lucky enough to run into the artist in the flesh.

¿To begin, what is there to know about DjLu? Who are you?

DjLu is a visual artist from the National University of Colombia, who discovered in 2004 that gallery art is turned into a static art form by being in a private space, destined to a slow death. Then the decision to adopt the urban context as the right place for expression.

¿What is Bogotá to you?

It’s the city where I was born, the playground where many ideas are born and projects come to life.

To get into some context, ¿could you tell us a bit about the history of street art in Bogotá? I was blown away by the quality and quantity, ¿has there always been so much?

Urban art linked to politics has appeared in Bogotá since the 70’s in the form of [what we call] lyrical or poetic graffiti, and also through conceptual and social art projects like those done by Antonio Caro. Nonetheless it’s not possible to speak of a consistent and diverse urban movement until about 2000. That’s when Bogotá adopted––late but with a passion––an art form that was already in vogue in the great world capitals. Recent years have seen Bogotá flower with an infinite number of approaches to street art, from the tag and throw-up, through wild style, blocks, characters, arriving at [wheat pasted] posters, stencils, stickers and complex murals.

¿So why do you paint? ¿Why stencil?

I paint to transmit a political and social stance that puts a rock in the path of apathy. I paint to give proof, to surprise, and through that to invite better ways of inhabiting and coexisting. I also paint to exorcise my fears, to get to know myself.

The stencil is the medium best suited for my project in the urban environment, since it has been used for political and against-the-grain messages for years. It’s also good for its reproducibility, through which an artistic project can usurp advertising and reach wider reception and better effect.

You have painted all over Colombia and the world. ¿How do you see street art in your country in comparison with countries of the so-called “first world”?

From having had the chance to visit Milan, Paris, Barcelona and Buenos Aires, I can say for sure that today Bogotá has no reason to be jealous. The level of technical and conceptual skill in Bogotá is really pretty high.

¿Is it dangerous to be a graffitero in Bogotá? ¿Does the government support or repress graf? ¿What would happen if they caught you?

The legality of painting in the street isn’t very clear, so it’s up to prudence, the artist’s luck, and the attitude of the police who are on shift to determine guilt and give pardons. I’ve never had big problems, apart from a couple opportune moments where I’ve been taken into the police station, without further consequences except a small loss of time and an explanation. But I’ve known of colleagues who have been detained twenty-four hours for the same thing.

What first caught my eye about your work is the heavy dose of social content. Obviously it’s not just “art for art’s sake.” At the same time, I’m interested to know if you have a specific vision you’re looking to transmit, or if you’re just looking to create images that are as provocative as possible.

I definitely have some specific interests and worries that are born not just of the local political situation but also of the worldwide context and world problems. I’m interested in bringing to light the conflicts that we’re involved in at every level, beyond understanding war as the only type of conflict. I’m worried by war as a business, by social displacement and by the changes in the ways that we use the earth: this earth where we plant mines instead of seeds.

The images become provocative in the sense that the immediate reaction of the viewer is to feel assaulted or deeply effected by them. And that their day-to-day apathy is interrupted by a reflection of our errors.

Your images play a lot with symbols of violence, and Colombia continues to be a very violent country. ¿What is the relation between violent images and true violence?

The work is born of my experiences, of a life immersed in a state of violence at every level: from the government, guerrillas, paramilitaries, not forgetting of course street violence and even inside the family. Although it has advanced a lot, Colombia is still bottled up in a war basically motivated by money and totally off-track from its social ideals. I’m interested in highlighting the relationship between fighting wars and playing games, the manner in which a conflict is absurdly driven by hidden interests––a game in which we all lose.

Nevertheless I don’t believe that my images are violent in the sense that they’re not explicit, they’re symbolic and that takes away the aggressive tone. There aren’t any bloody images or bodies in mass graves. There are silhouettes of pistols, rifles and soldiers which are part of a process of hybridization where two or more images are put together to alter their original meaning. This incites the spectator to come to their own conclusions and in the end to involve themselves in the search for solutions. These symbols appear in the streets to draw attention to situations that we are unconscious of, yet complicit in.

¿Does free speech exist in Colombia? ¿Is graffiti part of that?

From my position as an urban artist I’ll say that there is a large dose of free speech in Colombia. My project is still seen for its artistic character, even as it’s heavily loaded with politics. I should say that I haven’t felt any type of pressure, persecution or discrimination for the work I’ve done, including when I have ended up being very direct in my critiques against the government of the moment.

I believe that street art is one of the least manipulated forms of expression that exist today, though we couldn’t say that it’s completely free speech. Factors such as fashion and advertising negatively influence the freedom that street art promises. But the city-space still maintains, with an ever-increasing force, that tendency of being the voice of the voiceless, the pressure valve of the oppressed, the shithouse of the radicals and the canvass of the artists.

In general I believe that that any artistic practice is a way to stay on the fringes of the lifestyle currently imposed upon us, a chance to be more critical of the archetypes that we’re always told to accept as truth.

¿What is the most important thing that people in the U.S. need to understand about Colombia?

The problem of misunderstanding is bilateral. It’s not just that people in the U.S. have a biased view of us, in general the world is imbued with preconceptions that distort the reality of every country. We should form opinions based on specifics not generalizations. By that I mean that not everybody in Colombia is a drug runner and not everybody in the U.S. is an imperialist gringo. In Colombia we not only have a multicultural country filled with riches and natural beauty, but also––more importantly––a population with an incredibly human quality to it.

Thinking of the theme of this interview, I can tell everybody this: if you like street art, don’t hesitate in coming to see what’s happening in Bogotá.

¿Anything else?

Live happy, ¡juega siempre!