We arrived in Bogota on a rainy afternoon to spend the last three days of our Colombia trip. Looking at the clouds and the grumpy grey sky, I started feeling nostalgia for the Caribbean heat and sun we left behind in Santa Marta that same morning. The taxi from the airport slowly made its way through the 9 million people capital struggling with crazy traffic. Sorry, Bogota – it was not love of first sight. The city didn’t strike with any beauty or typical architecture. It seemed huge, grey and dull. In my opinion, it definitely lacked character comparing to all Colombian cities we had visited so far.
It took us one hour to get from the airport to our hostel in La Candelaria. That’s where the picture became a little more optimistic. La Candelaria is the city’s old town. Over the years, it has succeeded in keeping the authentic vibe of Bogota alive. Full of old colorful houses, vintage shops, signature cafes, and French pastries (why French? Because of the large number of French expats). Churches, museums and cozy restaurants follow. What is more, many of Bogota’s universities are located within the old neighborhood giving it a pinch of youth spirit.
Actually, what made a significant difference in the atmosphere was the widespread street art scene and culture in La Candelaria. We were surprised by the amazing graffiti art gazing at us from every corner. I had read a little bit on the topic beforehand and it turned out Bogota was big on graffiti – one of the world’s hotspots. I sure wanted to learn more.
We found out the best way to get to know the local street art is to join Bogota Graffiti tour. It’s the original and authentic tour that takes place in the streets of La Candelaria. It started back in 2011 when an Aussie street artist and a Canadian graffiti writer decided to share Bogota’s unique urban art scene and help promote local artists to a wider international audience. The tour is run by street artists for free, but like any other free tour – it is based on tips. They’ll show you around the old town where most of the graffiti works are located. You’d be awed by the theme, dimensions and bright colors. At the end if you’re satisfied with the story behind the mesmerizing images, it’s up to you to decide what the tour is worth.
The tour starts and raps up in the Journalist Park (Parque de los Periodistas). Our guide was a German girl who had been living in Bogota for the past 10 years. Along with the interesting graffiti facts, she was happy to share a lot of information on culture, political scene and history of the city. It was nice of her to recommend good restaurants, bars and cafes that we passed by along the way. She also pointed out street art galleries where we could find more graffiti art or look for pieces of a specific artist. Anne gave me an advice on where to get a haircut in a vintage hair saloon in the old town, but that’s a topic for another blogpost.
I don’t want to give up any spoiler alerts but I would love to share the facts that stroke me the most! There has been a lot of controversy in the last decade whether or not graffiti should be legal in Bogota and Justin Bieber is personally involved in one of the stories. How odd is that?
Back in 2013, the Canadian had a show in the Colombian capital. Right after the concert, he was escorted to 26th street downtown Bogota where policemen guarded him while he was painting the Canadian flag with a marihuana leaf instead of a maple leaf. Quite creative, don’t you agree?
There was a lot of press and photographers to document his act. Can you imagine the street art society’s reaction? “If he can do it legally, so can we” – they thought. The following day hundreds of artist went out in the streets. The police couldn’t do anything to stop them.
First, the crowd set out to paint over Bieber’s art. Of course, they didn’t stop there. In less than 48 hours, the entire 26th street turned into an art gallery. Even before that day, the streets and buildings of Bogota have conveyed the political and social messages of artists from all around the world.
The street art and murals really add a lot of color and character to the otherwise boring urban scenery. Most of the graffiti is made on public buildings or abandon walls, but there is a significant number painted on private houses and apartments.
All the artists need to do is knock on the door and ask for permission. The owners are mostly concerned about the main image and the theme of the artwork. When they find it’s going to be a bird or another animal (80% of the graffiti), they immediately agree.
Don’t get me wrong, the graffiti in Bogota is still a strong form of social protest and cultural expression. However, with the improving way of life and the growing middle class, modern artists have left behind some preach from their paint. They are more focused on creating art that reveals their skills rather than on a cause.
Over the years the designs have become more and more complex. Graffiti artists nowadays use stencil, spray paint, stickers and wheat-pasted posters. And since graffiti is technically more acceptable in Colombia, artists have the freedom to express themselves as they please.
By the end of the tour, we were thrilled and thankful we got to hear the inside stories, see and experience this hidden part of Bogota.