Street Art of Bogotá II: The Colombian Capital as Painted by Senil

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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 Senil can be found on his Flickr.

Che Guevara is even today a master of disguise. He turns up as a chef. An Argentinian cowboy. A halo-wearing saint. And it turns out glass Coca-Cola bottles make great molotov cocktails. Discontent ripples in warm human waves. A headdress-wearing shaman has moved from the jungles to the capital. He now rents out cellphones to people on the street. Things are changing, remixing themselves.

Welcome again to humming Colombian capital of Bogotá, a city making a serious bid to become one of the major global centers of urban art. Like any city worth its weight in concrete, Bogotá is a study in the arts of juxtaposition, contradiction and oxymoron. Standing among the clean glass and white lights of the financial district, look just a few blocks up hill and check out the adobe houses that have stood there for over a century. Their corners are rounded, the grit in their walls held together by plaster and older, less affluent stories.

Time in Colombia is not a linear system, progressing toward a bright ephemeral utopia. Time here is circular, moving in spirals, doubling back on itself. The glitter does not supersede the adobe. All time exists at once.

While taking a taxi from the airport, zooming along a thoroughfare with cement medians and no shoulders, watch for men in wooden carts pulled by burros. Freelance garbagemen. They do more to keep the city clean than most politicians, who look to make their livelihood illegal.

Some high-rises were built only to stand and scrape the sky, completely unrented and probably uncompleted. Rich kids dance inside clubs. Outside they couldn’t walk two blocks without being shook down.

Quickly scrawled graffiti reads resistir es existir. To resist is to exist. Continuing to read the walls it seems that to remix is to exist––to take on the symbols and archetypes as our own. One of the local experts in existing is Senil, whose rearranged characters inhabit the florid, numbered streets of Bogotá.

¿So who are you? ¿Why “Senil?”
I’m an artist, I like cats. Why Senil? People who know me call me that because I’m an olvidadizo, always forgetting things and unworried about time.

¿What is this place––Bogotá––to you?
My center of operations.

¿Why do you paint? ¿Why stencil?
I’m a visual artist, that’s how I communicate my ideas. I’ve always wanted to be a sculptor, and that was the connection to graffiti: I was trying to make sculpture versions of [the street artist] Tot’s work. Then I started projects with DjLu, which is how I took up stencil and jumped into the streets with a couple small templates. That was the start of this urban artist project.

¿So is it dangerous to be a graffitero in Bogotá? ¿What’s the government’s stance?
In Bogotá it is dangerous to do many things. Clearly the social situation here is really complicated, and questioning the establishment is hardly recommendable. Regardless, there are some neighborhood initiatives that support graffiti work. But they’re not sufficient, so no matter what, one turns to clandestinity to develop projects. If they catch me, there do exist laws [I could be charged with], and with the proliferation of graffiti, we turn into targets of the authorities.

¿What reactions to do you receive to your work?
There are many reactions, and I pay a lot of attention to them. The ones that worry me are from people who feel disrespected by my work, because when you show reality in a raw way you can make enemies of the same people you want to support. For example, there was one stencil of the Che-f [Che as chef], somebody angrily took a chisel to it and wrote: “Nobody messes with Che, idiots!”

Your art seems to hold a lot of social critique. For example, your stencil of the falso positivo, ¿why bring up the subject with this symbol? ¿What impact do you want it to have?
Not all my work has social content, sometimes as an artist I simply express ephemeral or indulgent ideas. The Falso Positivo stencil is a rhetorical piece based on a pharmaceutical symbol associated with health. When I change the text to the word “falso,” I ironically denounce one of the diseases that affects our society today: the phenomenon of forced disappearances. [See Noise #102 –– Ed.] What I’m looking to do with that symbol is to make problem present in the streets, especially in places where the problem isn’t common, and in this way to engage citizens with it, hopefully eradicating it.

You play a lot with the image of Che: the Che-f, the Che-sús, the cowboy Che. ¿How is Che Guevara seen in Colombia today?
He represents revolution, but nevertheless it depends on the context. Some who consume his image are thinking, questioning people; on the other hand, there are others that just associate the image with fashion.

Explain for us a bit about your piece of the indigenous man with the “minuto celular” sign.
It comes from two socio-environmental issues. It’s a critique of the displacement suffered by the indigenous, caused by violence, which leads to the abandonment of the state and the loss of ancestral beginnings. The “minuto celular” sign is an urban icon that [in addition to advertising cellphones for rent] represents the scarcity of employment and the necessity of making money however possible.

¿Does freedom of speech exist in Colombia? ¿How is graffiti a part of that?
Yes, there is freedom of expression, but only when the expression stays inside the parameters dictated by the government itself. When you step across those boundaries and you question the establishment, the situation can turn dangerous. As far as graffiti, it’s a form of free speech since it’s done out of personal initiative. The act of scrawling on a wall is a political act, because it challenges and questions the establishment regardless of the message. Surely there are other examples of free speech, nevertheless a piece in the street can be read by anybody, and that makes it very effective.

¿What is the most important thing for people in the U.S. to understand about Colombia?
That we are tired of war, and that they are welcome here. They’d have a good time.

On Oaxaca

The governments' guns advance toward the University on this Day of the Dead. The last time I passed through Oaxaca City was just under a year ago, a January morning just before the dawn began to look into the mirror of the sky. I walked from the bus station towards the center of the city as the dawn brought its fire to the stone streets and everything lit up gold. It was hard to tell then what would take place in the city later that year, but it wasn’t impossible. It’s that secret that all beautiful colonial towns hold here in Mexico, a certain dark desperation in the eyes of those sitting on the streets.

oaxaca anticapitalista

Just a handful of hours from where I am sitting, today Oaxaca burns under the heat of a different flame. Since the Federal Preventative Police put the city under siege last week, very few things are certain. Presidente Fox, who after months of inaction, sent the PFP to “bring peace to Oaxaca.” He has been under increasing pressure since the presidential election was decided in September to not give the Oaxaca situation to incoming president Felipe Calderón as a welcome gift in December. Taking a tip from the old PRI playbook, Fox hesitated for months, then sent in the firearms.

Very few things are certain. An American indymedia reporter has been killed by an armed group (on October 27), most likely a plainclothes paramilitary group, who if wasn’t sanctioned by the state government, was at least allowed to operate freely by them. As I write this, Radio Universidad is still broadcasting (listen live here). It is the last form of mass communication that APPO holds (La Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca, the coalition group directing the rebellion). The PFP is amassing a few blocks away from the University, undoubtedly planning an attack.

The people here in Cuernavaca are split on the situation in Oaxaca. Memories still linger of the Mexican Guerra Sucia of the 1970’s and 80’s when the ruling PRI party repressed all political dissent through “disappearing,” torture, and limitless incarceration. I talked to a very intelligent taxi driver on October 31st who, based on his experiences in the Guerra Sucia, lamented that the leaders of the APPO were marching their movement directly into the jaws of a massacre at the hands of the PFP. He agreed, however, that the movement was just and that the government was wrong in attacking the city, that the attack would just throw gas on the flames.

During a cultural festival last weekend in the Zócalo (center plaza) of Cuernavaca, quite a few people from this city were circulating with signs in support of the APPO. One was carrying a communist flag. Throughout the centro for the last several weeks, political posters have been wheat pasted in public places in support of the APPO. Example:

Yo APPOyo Tú APPOyas Él APPOya Ella APPOya Nosotros APPOyamos Ustedes APPOyan

(the verb “apoyar” can be translated as “to support”)

Radio Universidad transmits the nicknames of this morning’s kidnapped. The announcers speak of bringing flowers to the resistance barricades. Sempasuchitl, flower of the dead. It is a tense time in Mexico, and the country continues to twist itself tighter and tighter. By the time Calderón is sworn in December, things might just snap. If not before.

Razing the House to Fix the Broken Door

On the eve of our Congress passing a “comprehensive immigration reform package,” and just about a week after our President gave a rare speech from the Oval Office calling for the same, this country has still not come to grips with the true nature of what we are about to undertake. The stakes are far higher than immigration or even border security, however even at this late hour few recognize the effect of what we are about to do.

President Bush defined in his speech last Monday the five elements he sees as comprising “comprehensive” reform. Among them, border security, a guest worker program and a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants already working in our country. It occurs to me that while Bush currently has the lowest approval rating of any president ever, we can consider ourselves at least mildly lucky to have a President now who is a former governor of a border state. We’ve already seen the proposals that equally radical conservatives without border experience have come up with: Santorum and Sensenbrenner just to name two.

Regardless, the current “immigration debate” in this country is laughably limited. In a political climate controlled by fear and religious radicalism, deporting 11 million people is presented as a reasonable part of the solution while our country’s role in destabilizing Latin America economically—and thus causing much of the immigration ourselves—is never mentioned.

But at this late hour we’re lead to believe that the “debate” has been defined, and it’s the details that our lawmakers still have to hash out for us. What worries me most is the guest worker program. Of course there must be a way for people to enter this country legally to work. It is both a personal necessity for them and a necessity for our entire economy. But we’re missing what a guest worker program as currently proposed would really be.

A guest worker program without a path to citizenship would be the formal murder of the American Dream. Further, we would be codifying an American caste system the likes of which haven’t been seen since slavery. If we invite poor workers to come into this country to work in our restaurants, pick our food, build our homes, maintain our roads, clean our buildings and in the same stroke of the pen deny them any chance to be come full, voting citizens of our country, where does our democracy stand?

It is the era of doublespeak. Under the guest worker program, employees would be tied to their employers for their status in this country. We once had another name for this system in this country, though it’s long out of fashion and longer out of use: indentured servitude.

How likely is a guest worker to report his or her employer to the government for withholding wages, if that worker knows that he or she could lose their right to be in this country? How likely is an indentured servant to report abuses when they fear the same? If we legally create a foreign working underclass, how far off could wide-spread discrimination and racism really be?

And, it cannot be mentioned enough, we tried this type of system before, not even that long ago. But how often do you hear the Bracero Program and its failure mentioned in the current debate?

All of this, however, isn’t very surprising. It is also the era of burning down a house to fix a broken door. Codifying an American underclass is seen as the only way to solve the immigration issue just as NSA wiretapping, the USA PATRIOT Act and the wholesale loss of civil liberties is billed as the only way to fight terrorism.

Many argue that the American dream has been dead a long time. As the chasm between the rich and the poor continues to swallow the middle class whole, I suspect they are right. But if we pass a law destroying this critical part of our national mythology, our country will have turned a corner and embarked down a path that we may never come back from.

Pure Chaos Whirling at the Puro Slam

San Antonio, Texas, EUAfirst printed in the Arizona Poetry Newsletter

The lightning is flashing so much it looks like some god is changing channels in the sky. The freeway between Austin and San Antonio is one long city, but the only people who live here are the billboards and the streetlights. They’re afraid of the lightning, and so am I. The show in San Antonio starts in half an hour and all the radio can talk about is the hurricane-force winds in the east that are moving toward I-35. The Puro Slam, though, is one of the few shows that’s worth risking electrocution to see.

lees y graf

Outside of Sam’s Burger Joint, the mood is right: sirens, those pre-storm winds, an orange sky, cars pulling up right and left. Anthony Flores and his lady Dee Dee are climbing out of a car and squinting in my direction. Anthony has become one of San Anto’s best poets, and it’s good to see him here. Shaggy, doorman / scorekeeper / announcer / brains-of-the-operation is already inside, his hand buried in some green alien’s head that they use as a tip jar at the door.

Eleven PM and the show finally begins. This is, without a doubt, one of the greatest poetry slams in the country, certainly one of the most unique. It’s a Tuesday, almost midnight, and there’s over a hundred people in the dark and swanky room, many huddled around the drink specials at the bar. It’s beer, it’s poetry, it’s cursing and it is good. Thanks to this being Texas, eighteen-year-olds are also allowed in, though the government says they must stay sober. But there is not a lot of sobriety at the Puro Slam.

Tonight’s host is Ria, who skips announcing the rules and gets straight to insulting the audience, which they love. The woman controls the room with a drink in one hand and her purse in the other. First on the mic is Anthony, as it should be. All you can really ask of poetry slams these days are just a few moments of startling originality, and Anthony brings the unique. “Playing with words is like playing with knives” he chants as he mimes knife juggling, keeping infectious rhythm with his hands clapping as he reads.

The room loves it, as they should. It’s a good crowd, but many of the well-known poets like Anthony are taking the night off from competing: San Anto just had their Grand Slam last week, so everyone is ready to relax. And something else unique has happened here in this city: both Anthony and his daughter, Amanda Flores, have made it on the team that will go to the National Poetry Slam in Austin this August, making them probably the first-ever father / daughter team on a Nationals-bound poetry slam team. It’s like I’m telling him during the first round: writing group pieces is going to be great for them. The second that the crowd realizes they’re seeing a family on stage together, I’m sayin the tens will be in the bag, which is the kind of thing you worry about when going to Nationals.

Ria is onstage making fun of a rookie poet who just performed in a muscle shirt. He deserves it. Puro Slam is not known for being kind: the crowd’s heckling is known throughout the nation. It’s a strange thing, to be in a room full of people watching a poet shaking and sputtering through a played-out rhyming poem, when someone suddenly begins The Carwash Clap. You know The Carwash Clap, if you know Carwash. It’s an unmentioned rule here in San Anto: at the first sign of the crowd starting The Carwash Clap, the poet had better get off stage quickly.

I have no sympathy. A good poetry slam is just a bit mean around the edges: like a carnival with rides, bad cotton candy and a certain menace in the colors of the merry-go-round. At a good poetry slam, anything can happen, which is why the crowd is here.

The first round ends. I’m called up to feature. People have been buying me Red Bull and Vodka for about the last hour and a half. I’m a livewire walking a tightrope in front of a crowd that will either riot or rejoice in a few minutes. I just rip through the poems, lots of yelling, insulting and laughing. I feel pretty well at home when being cut no slack. Cheering and clapping breaks out during my sestina about the border. No Carwash Clap in sight, they’re with me.

It’s 1:30 in the morning when I look around and wonder if anyone still remembers a poetry slam is going on. Ria is loaded, as is everyone else. It’s one of those rare moments when an entire group of people all devolve at once, leaving their normal selves at the door and basking in poetry, chaos and laughter. It’s the Puro Slam and we’re headed toward sunrise.