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.

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!

DjLu

Bienvenido a Colombia: a Brief Story of Militarization and Rebirth

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The following article marks my return to The Noise, an arts and culture monthly newspaper published in Northern Arizona. I wrote for them in 2006 and 2007, and they recently asked me back to their pages, which I am very grateful for. Thanks Chuck and Meredith! Expect new writing on Colombia for the next three months or so, posted on the first day of every month. Send along any comments and critiques.

“Colombia’s back” proclaims the travel guide Lonely Planet in its new introduction to the country. But back from what? The violent abyss of past decades? The cocaine-flavored stereotyping by foreigners? The guerilla forces that choked the highways like cholesterol? Well, yes, that’s what they mean. But how did it happen, and what’s changed?

To answer that question, a good starting point would be Álvaro Uribe Vélez. Colombia’s strong-arm president was first elected in 2002 with the campaign slogan “mano dura y corazón grande,” promising something like compassionate conservatism but with guns. Reelected in 2006 and currently enjoying an approval rating of 70% while contemplating a constitutional referendum allowing himself a third term, Uribe has brought about change in Colombia on a scale that Obama could only dream about––not that their objectives are at all similar.

“Bogotá is safe again,” a man selling cellphones in Bogotá tells me. “And now you see luxury cars cruising the streets, stuff like that. Before, you’d never see that. So I think Uribe has done us alright, the money is flowing.” Right there, seen from the street level, are two of Uribe’s principal gifts to his country: security in the cities and foreign investment.

As if to drill the point home, a taxi driver in Cartagena tells me a few weeks later: “Look, you can say what you will about Uribe. But really, without Uribe, you wouldn’t be here talking to me.” Like Lonely Planet alluded to, visits by foreigners are way up as of late, especially among Europeans.

The increase in security has also kicked off something of a rebirth in the arts as well. An entire generation of middle-class young people in Colombia were raised behind closed doors, their parents fearful of the violence in the streets. Now in their roaring 20’s, they have taken to those same streets, bringing with them an explosion of música, new activism and graffiti (more on the street art in a future edition).

This is the boom that resounds through Colombia today. It can be heard in bands like Bomba Éstereo, Tumbacatre, Choc Quib Town, and La Makina del Karibe. It can be understood by watching a crowd of fifty sitting in a plaza listening to a young street poet, or on the faces of tens of thousands indigenous people marching toward Bogotá in search of recognition. It can be seen in the pops and locks of a lone breakdancer busking in the centro to a soundtrack of “Brass Monkey” on repeat. It can be felt as a collective exhalation.

Not that everything is aerosol and roses. Those dark associations that might jump to mind when the word Colombia comes up––blow, the FARC, Pablo Escobar––have hung in the collective psyche of people in the U.S. since Colombia was big news in the 1980’s and 90’s. They are the same living ghosts that haunt the country today.

Take coke, for example. Colombia is of course still the world’s largest producer, and it is mostly Colombian cocaine sold to party people in the U.S. that fuels the “narco-violencia” slaughterhouse spiraling out of control in Mexico––between 3,500 and 4,000 dead so far this year. (Le Monde Diplomatique México, September) The cocaine is imported to the U.S., guns exported to Mexico and dollars exported to Colombia––dollars from both the illicit drug trade and from the U.S. military aide sent to combat it.

Which brings us to the FARC, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, the rebel group formed in the 1960’s as the armed wing of the Colombian Communist Party. The consensus today seems to be that by now the FARC has lost any relevant ideological motivation and has become entrenched in a posture of perennial resistance and marred by the use of kidnapping and cocaine as their main income sources, yet the government still estimates their numbers at around 11,000.

It is in this context that the group has suffered many defeats during Uribe’s presidency. While offering other armed groups the chance of peacefully demobilizing, Uribe has embraced the view of the FARC as terrorists and has launched a no-holds-barred offensive on the group. Perhaps his motivation is partly personal––Uribe’s father was killed in a botched kidnap attempt by the FARC in 1983.

But, like all things in Colombia, it’s just not that simple. Violence has been played like bloody tennis for decades, tit-for-tat massacres and tactics that have left all sides tarred. For instance, the genocide waged against the Unión Patriótica political party in the late 1980’s. What began as a hope-filled ceasefire and an opening to a political solution to the left’s grievances ended in a dirty war that has made all government talk of demobilization since very suspect. (Dudley, Steven. “Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia”) And then there’s the more recent example of the “falsos positivos.”

“False positives” is the name given to young men who are kidnapped by the Colombian army, transported hundreds of miles to zones of conflict, dressed as members of the FARC and shot. This is done to increase the body count, helping the army to look as though it is winning the war against the rebels. Though documented cases go back to as early as the 1990’s, a new scandal broke in 2008 when more than a dozen falsos positivos were identified and many more suspected.

Even the infamous Pablo Escobar seems still able to haunt society 16 years after he was gunned down in Medillín. His pet heard of hippos has continued to grow since his death and has begun to escape the confines of the sprawling hacienda that once belonged to the drug king. Ecologists fear disaster, though surrealism is alive and well.

So why does it matter that “Colombia’s back” thanks to Uribe’s militarization? Well, because as you may already expect, they are your tax dollars that are at work in Colombia. The massive U.S. aide package known as Plan Colombia was set into motion in 2000 in the name of the larger U.S. “War on Drugs.” The majority of the $7.5 billion package goes for military equipment and training. Chided as “Plan Nueva Colonia” by critics who see the plan as disguised interventionism and a doorway to a new colonialism, the program does speak to Uribe’s closeness to Washington. The connection was made yet clearer when former President Bush awarded Uribe a Presidential Medal of Honor shortly before Bush left office in January.

Now key parts of Plan Colombia are set to expire, it was leaked in July that the U.S. has been negotiating with Uribe an agreement that would allow up to seven Colombian military bases to be used by U.S. armed forces and private contractors––all of whom would be operating with impunity from persecution for any potential crime committed in Colombian territory. This is worrisome, given the spotty reputation of U.S. forces in Colombia, a reputation tarnished by incidents such as the rape of a 12 year-old girl in Melga by U.S. soldiers participating in Plan Colombia.

It’s important to know what’s going down in Colombia because Colombia is the front line of the U.S.’s current foreign policy in Latin America. And because at the same time the country is producing some of the most interesting music, art and culture of anywhere in the hemisphere. So for the next few months expect more words and sounds from the south, and expect them to come not from the usual talking heads, but from graffiti artists, human rights promoters and musicians. There are many stories to tell.