Urban Art as Visual Noise in Bogotá

Toxicomano, Gauche, DJ Lu, Activism wall, City Center, Bogotà. Photo by author, 12.30.2019
Caitlin Bruce reports on urban art and social movements in Bogotá.

Bogotá is the city with the highest number of graffiti writers per capita in the world, Rodez said to me, after a panel at the CIMU (Ciudad Mujeres, Woman’s City) festival in Xochimilco in Mexico City. We had been discussing the challenges and excitements of urban art (graffiti and street art) programming, production, and documentation with a focus on gender. A number of the artists and documentarians/programmers at the festival were from Colombia: S. Cifu, Bonie, Rodez, and Sebastian Malegria were artists who represented Medellin and Bogotá. Lina Rios was a documentarian from Medellin and Yina Obando co-founder of Grafika Mestiza, an organization from Cali that archives, disseminates, and promotes the work of street artists in South America. Rodez told me that in the last eight years the government has been supporting graffiti and street art, writers and artists are present at the tables of community organizations and urban planning efforts, and they are accessing grants and fellowships to produce their work.

I went to Bogotá during the end of 2019 and the first days of 2020 to learn more about the graffiti and street art movement there, with a particular focus on how it is integrated into tourism. In particular, I was interested to learn if urban art was impacted by the Orange Economy (economía naranja) initiatives that have shaped the industry in the post-peace accord moment. While planning the trip, a wave of protests swept South America. Emerging in Chile, Bolivia, and Ecuador, and later starting in Colombia as well, the protests are marked by national strikes in which diverse coalitions are making claims on governments to meaningfully enact changes to cultivate a more just, inclusive, and ecological society.1https://nacla.org/news/2019/12/16/colombia-national-strike-duque As a result, the street art and graffiti produced in Bogotá offers a reflection on this most recent wave of protests.

In what follows I’d like to discuss how in Bogotá urban art figures as a kind of voice—what I’ve elsewhere framed as “visual noise” in a moment of massive social mobilization.


On November 21st the first national strike took place in Colombia.2 https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/21/americas/colombia-national-strike-intl/index.html The strike was called by a coalition of social leaders, union members, students, and activists and related to a number of complaints about the current administration of President Iván Duque. The list of demands has been referred to as the paquetazo. The issues include an incomplete peace process, where failed FARC negotiations have caused the death of many; attacks on indigenous people to clear space for mining; the assassination of social leaders (over 700 murdered since 2016); pension, education and tax reforms (Duque’s National Development Plan); and militarization and paramilitary groups, including the state-trained ESMAD riot police. Duque, who is in the same party as former president Uribe, who ushered in a wave of neoliberal policies, has been accused by activists of failing to create peace for all, and sustaining policies that maintain social inequality.3https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/with-nationwide-strike-colombia-joins-south-americas-season-of-protest/2019/11/21/2d3adf0e-0bef-11ea-8054-289aef6e38a3_story.html; https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/04/thousands-hold-national-strike-colombia-budget-cuts-190425215502188.html

The CIMU participants have a group chat, which we have now maintained for five months after our first meeting. In October, artist and activist Tikay sent us a message sharing information about violence against protesters in Chile and the demands that people were trying to make. Along with photos of protest groups, she sent a link to a video by Chilean hip hop artist, activist, and feminist Ana Tijoux. The video was called #cacerolazo.4 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVaTuVNN7Zs In it, snippets of news reports covering protests, statements by politicians about the need for “order,” and images of people in the streets, and the underlying beat of a pan, like a cowbell but more syncopated, offered a sonic infrastructure that brings the sounds of Latin American protest into the text and images about violence against the people by the Chilean state. Over the montage of images and text was the hashtag: #cacerolazo. In late November I sent a message around asking how the compañeroxs in Colombia were faring. One, a photographer, reported that in Bogotá it was peaceful, but we are in the streets: pan and egg emoji, “we are cacerolazando.”

The pan and egg—more so the pan—communicates a tactic that has long been used in social movement practice in Latin America and elsewhere.5https://colombiacheck.com/chequeos/los-cacerolazos-no-se-inventaron-en-venezuela-vienen-de-la-francia-medieval Taking everyday objects that make manifest the noise of dissatisfaction, cacerolazar is to make undeniable the voices of people not included in exclusive or violent policies. The use of noise to make demands of course reminds me of Jacques Rancière’s argument about politics as the distribution of the sensible and how those that in power seek to relegate unintelligible (or undesirable) demands into noise against “proper,” speech, yet, the redistribution of the sensible he argues is when the “part that has no part” insists that they always were part of the collective who ought to have voice.

Kate Paarlberg-Kvam and Priscyll Anctil Avoine argued in a piece about the national strike that:

“The multiple sectors of society represented in the National Strike are, in Judith Butler’s words, mobilizing precarity. They are pushed together into the streets by the shared corporeal vulnerability arising from the interlocking forces of neoliberalization, militarization, and continued state prioritization of elites and foreign investors. In Colombia and in the region, sectors of civil society long operating separately are mobilizing together. Whether this collaboration will last beyond the protests has yet to be seen.”6https://nacla.org/news/2019/12/16/colombia-national-strike-duque

The mobilization of precarity is related to the thirteen demands issued by protesters, which Paarlberg-Kvan and Avoine argue is related to interlocking issues of neoliberalism, militarization, and racism.

Though the protests were peaceful, with some property damage in Cali, on November 22nd ESMAD started deploying tear gas against protesters in Plaza Bolivar and on Calle 19. One projectile hit a young student— 18-year-old Dilan Cruz—in the back of the head and he later died of his injury on Monday November 25th.7https://nacla.org/news/2019/11/27/national-strike-colombia-paro-protests Dilan’s death catalyzed second and third waves of protest.

In addition to the sonic and embodied occupation of space, the visual has been a core modality of protest. In media coverage banners and graffiti have been shown as a form of captioning for the demands of the protesters. In what follows I discuss how graffiti and street art elongates the moment of protest, creating residues of what elsewhere I have named visual noise,8 http://tupress.temple.edu/book/20000000009402 which I  characterize here as a kind of visual cacerolazo.

Bogateño Graffiti and Street Art

Colombian scholar Armando Silva9Silva Téllez, Armando. Punto de vista ciudadano: focalización visual y puesta en escena del graffiti. Vol. 29. Instituto Caro y Cuervo. Imprenta patriótica, 1987. explores graffiti as a form of signification with “seven valences: marginality, anonymity, spontaneity, scenic nature, precarity, velocity, and fugacity and seven imperatives: communication, ideology, psychology, aesthetic, economic, physical and social.” Jaime Bernal Leongómez writes of Silva’s treatment of graffiti: “Graffiti can synthesize, through one phrase, an entire political situation, intimate frustration, unsatisfied desire, metaphysical alienation, or a state of consciousness, it’s there. Present and self-evident.”10Ibid, p. 11. Silva narrates that the first instance of graffiti in Latin America could be argued to be that of conquistador Hernán Cortes, when, in 1541, following a flurry of anti-imperial inscriptions on a wall surrounding his palace, he whitewashed it and wrote “Blank wall, the paper of idiots.” Silva characterizes this moment as crystallizing the ongoing debate over who are the legitimate speakers/voices in urban space.11Ibid, p. 28. His study, which considered graffiti in Bogotà (and other sites in Latin America) from 1975-1982, pointed to the different modalities and functions of graffiti, including a protest function in 1982 following the murder of a professor.12Ibid., p. 27. Since Silva’s writing there has been a flurry of academic writing on graffiti in Bogotá.

“We are an organized people,” Calle 19. Photo by Author. 12.30.19

Until 2011 graffiti was illegal in Bogotá. However, following the murder of a young writer by the police and subsequent protests, a new law was established that decriminalized the activity, and in 2012 the District Table for Graffiti was established where policies for graffiti and the use of public space were debated, and in 2013 Decree 75 was framed as a way to promote “artistic and responsible practice” of graffiti.13Gama-Castro, M. Martha, and Freddy León-Reyes. “Bogotá arte urbano o graffiti. Entre la ilegalidad y la forma artística de expresión.” Arte, Individuo y Sociedad 28, no. 2 (2016): 355-369. This has been characterized by scholars as a model of “negotiated consent.”14https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-26913-5_3 Since 2011 Bogotá has become a kind of mecca for graffiti and street art.15 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13604813.2019.1646030 The National University of Colombia has been a key site for fomenting graffiti/street art as cultural policy, and iconic on the campus are paintings of Che and Camilo Torres, which, Benevides-Vanegas argued is evidence of urban art’s role as a form of resistance in Bogotá.16Benavides-Vanegas, Farid Samir. “From Santander to Camilo and Che: Graffiti and resistance in contemporary Colombia.” Social Justice 32, no. 1 (99 (2005): 53-61

Less discussed in the literature about graffiti in Colombia is the relationship between graffiti and tourism. Bogotá Graffiti Tour, which has been around since 2011, was founded by two street artists, Crisp and Opec—an Australian and a Canadian—who framed it was a way to share the street art/graffiti scene in Bogotá with a wider and international audience. The tour is given twice a day, in English, and for free. The staff at BGT are a mix of artists, cultural programmers, anthropologists, and political scientists. In addition to the tour they offer workshops and have developed a gallery called Casa Graffiti in the center of Bogotá’s Candelaria district.17http://Bogotágraffiti.com/

Graffiti Bogota Tour Meeting Point. Parque de los Periodistas. Photo by Author. 12.30.19

I attended a tour led by Jay, a cultural manager who was born in Colombia and grew up in New York and South Florida, returning as a young adult. The tour emphasized the inextricable relationship between politics and aesthetics. I won’t summarize it stop by stop but rather want to emphasise some important moments. It was an introduction to Bogotá’s graffiti scene, but also used graffiti and street art as a pedagogical tool for conveying lessons about Colombia’s longer history and contemporary political struggles. In an interview after the tour, Jay explained about how he connects art and politics:

It’s kinda direct here in the city. I mean, the city is very expressive, the artwork is very political. Although we have a lot of really artistic stuff while we’ve gone through national strikes, the situation in the country has always kind of affected, our tour changed over the years depending on what was happening. Obviously only three years ago, we were talking about the peace process. Now we’re talking about the new conflict, social leaders. So it’s always something that we’ve kind of with the guides told them. “Please be very honest with your tours.” A lot of the guides, our team is full of really diverse people, people that are university graduates, those studies, political scientists, you know that. So they also have a really cool view of the city through the artwork and through politics here. So we want to make sure that that’s one of the most important things since we work with the artist. The artist a lot of times they’re telling us, “hey, look, the message is a lot more important in my work.” So that’s also one of the things we want to make sure that we get the message across of what the artists want.

“Freedom or Death,” Calle 19. Photo by Author. 12.30.19

During the tour we walked through Bogotá’s downtown and the Candelaria district. Our guide pointed out the vast stylistic range—stencils, letter-based graffiti and calligraffiti, stickers, and more image-based aerosol work—but he also emphasized content and context. Many of the works were responding to the issues around the national strike including questions of the peace agreement and ongoing government impunity, continued violence against protesters and social leaders, indigenous rights to land and self-determination, femicide, LGBTQIA+ rights, and the rights of workers. In addition to more formally “artistic” works were the dense agglomerations of graffiti, posters, and stickers decrying the death of Dilan Cruz, Duque, the right to strike (“viva el paro”), gender violence, and so forth. Here, tourism functions as a form of cultivating awareness… tourism can allow for participants to become sensitized and educated about collective issues. Here, tourism functions as a form of cultivating awareness; as Phaedra Pezzullo has argued, tourism can allow for participants to become sensitized and educated about collective issues.18Pezzullo, Phaedra C. Toxic tourism: Rhetorics of pollution, travel, and environmental justice. University of Alabama Press, 2009. Thus, the surfaces of Bogotá offered a multivocal and polyphonic swell of visual noise, cacerolazando even after protesters left places like Plaza Bolivar and Calle 19.


1 https://nacla.org/news/2019/12/16/colombia-national-strike-duque
2 https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/21/americas/colombia-national-strike-intl/index.html
3 https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/with-nationwide-strike-colombia-joins-south-americas-season-of-protest/2019/11/21/2d3adf0e-0bef-11ea-8054-289aef6e38a3_story.html; https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/04/thousands-hold-national-strike-colombia-budget-cuts-190425215502188.html
4 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVaTuVNN7Zs
5 https://colombiacheck.com/chequeos/los-cacerolazos-no-se-inventaron-en-venezuela-vienen-de-la-francia-medieval
6 https://nacla.org/news/2019/12/16/colombia-national-strike-duque
7 https://nacla.org/news/2019/11/27/national-strike-colombia-paro-protests
8 http://tupress.temple.edu/book/20000000009402
9 Silva Téllez, Armando. Punto de vista ciudadano: focalización visual y puesta en escena del graffiti. Vol. 29. Instituto Caro y Cuervo. Imprenta patriótica, 1987.
10 Ibid, p. 11.
11 Ibid, p. 28.
12 Ibid., p. 27.
13 Gama-Castro, M. Martha, and Freddy León-Reyes. “Bogotá arte urbano o graffiti. Entre la ilegalidad y la forma artística de expresión.” Arte, Individuo y Sociedad 28, no. 2 (2016): 355-369.
14 https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-26913-5_3
15 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13604813.2019.1646030
16 Benavides-Vanegas, Farid Samir. “From Santander to Camilo and Che: Graffiti and resistance in contemporary Colombia.” Social Justice 32, no. 1 (99 (2005): 53-61
17 http://Bogotágraffiti.com/
18 Pezzullo, Phaedra C. Toxic tourism: Rhetorics of pollution, travel, and environmental justice. University of Alabama Press, 2009.
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