Most major cities around the world have some sort of a street art scene – not just random graffiti tags, but crafted pieces of art that happen to exist outdoors in public spaces. In Bogotá, Colombia the street art scene is on fire. Colombian artists have been invited to create street art around the world and participate in major gallery exhibitions and the vibrant art on display around the country’s capital (one estimate puts the total number of major works of street art in the city at more than 5,000) runs the gamut from playful to political to the sort of public art that defies pigeonholing. We really got into the street art in Bogotá and we think our Bogotá Street Art 101 primer-including a quick history, info about hot artists, and tips about graffiti tours in the city–will get you hooked too.
Bogotá street art, from maligned to mainstream
Street art wasn’t always a legit part of the city’s landscape. Despite the fact that major Colombian companies like Bogtoá Beer Company were commissioning street artists to create original artwork and logos for them (like the image below), the public and the police were not quite as enthusiastic about the emerging subculture.
Things started to change in 2011 when young graffiti artist Diego Felipe Becerra was shot in the back by police while painting. Police then tried to say the artist was shot in self-defense while he was trying to rob a bus. Tensions rose (even the United Nations condemned the farce) and a forum was created to bring street artists and law enforcement officials together to figure out a way to coexist. Today, street art is legal in Bogotá where city officials and artists don’t just co-exist, they collaborate.
Every year the city of Bogotá holds a street art competition and the winner is granted a massive space and the materials needed to turn it into a canvas for his or her vision. The winner in 2014 was an artists named Ricardo Zokos who used a cherry picker and gallons and gallons of paint to create the work above. It’s 75 feet (22 meters) high by 130 feet (40 meters) wide.
When the W Bogotá Hotel opened in Bogotá 2015, they got on the street art bandwagon too, commissioning the artists at Vertigo Graffiti to paint an entire wall in the hotel bar. Over the course of two full nights of work, Vertigo artists Zas, Ospen, Cazdos, Ecksuno, DexS, and Fish created the mural, above, for the hotel.
Street art and graffiti tours in Bogotá
Love it or hate it, these days the street art scene in Bogotá is an integral part of the city. As the usual “but is it art?” debate rages, more and more guided tours of the city’s street art are being offered. After a visit to the city’s excellent Gold Museum, taking a graffiti tour is probably the second most popular activity in the capital. We took two different Bogotá street art tours.
The Bogotá Graffiti Tour was the first street art tour offered in the city. It was created by Australian artist Christian Peterson, who now lives in Bogotá where he signs his street art as Crisp. His company still takes people on 2.5 hour guided walking tours past fantastic examples of the city’s street art (free, but donations are aggressively encouraged). Tours are lead by English speaking guides who are graffiti artists themselves, including Crisp. It provides a good overview of the main players and main motivators behind street art found in the La Candelaria neighborhood of Bogotá, which is the area where the city was originally founded and is now hipster central.
We also took a tour organized by tour company called 5 Bogotá. The tour was lead by Colombian artist Koch1no (aka David Niño) and we departed from a shop called Visaje Graffiti Colombia which was opened to showcase and sell items designed by city artists. For a few hours Koch1no, who’s been doing street art for more than a decade, lead us through various areas of the city expertly and enthusiastically explaining the work we were walking past including who made the art, what it was meant to represent, what the inspiration was and more. It was a fun and informative tour and we were sorry to see it end.
Bogotá street artists: DJ Lu
This Colombian artist, who is also a trained architect and a professor, has been decorating the city since 2004. You can’t swing a cat in the capital without hitting one of his pieces which is often signed as Juegasiempre. He often uses stencils made from photographs of homeless people, including Marco Tulio Sevillano, a homeless man who was burned to death. Keep a keen eye out for other DJ Lu iconography including pineapples as hand grenades, dollar signs incorporating guns, and insects as weapons.
Bogotá street artists: Bastardilla
Bastardilla is one of the most prominent female street artists in Bogotá, but there’s still not a lot of information out there about the secretive painter. What is clear is her focus is on women’s rights, the struggle to end violence against women, and the need for increased respect for the crucial role women and women’s work play in the future of Latin America. She reportedly sometimes sends her work with friends when they travel abroad and asks them to paste her art up in cities around the world. Plus, she’s got one of the coolest names out there.
Bogotá street artists: Toxicomano
Work signed by Toxicomano is produced by a prolific collection of artists. The most distinctive style of their work is done in stencil and involves a lot of black and white and often features a mohawk-sporting character named Eddie, though other styles emerge like the blue pig decorated with a map of the world, below. The work of this collective is extremely popular and more and more businesses are commissioning Toxicomano to decorate their shops.
Bogotá street artists: Lesivo
Lesivo, aka Diego Chavez, also frequently works on large murals with DJ Lu and Toxicomano. His work is marked by a startled, skull-like quality to faces and heads that smacks of suddenly shattered innocence.
Bogotá street artists: Ledania
Ledania is based in Bogotá where she creates distinctive work with bold colors and complex graphics around themes that have been called mythological.
Bogotá street artists: Guache
This Colombian artist, who has exhibited his work across Europe, returns to homegrown imagery of the plants, animals, and indigenous cultures of Colombia. No color is too bright and Guache’s work is a technicolor celebration of Colombia’s heart and soul and a wake up call about the threats they face.
Bogotá street artists: Stinkfish
Stinkfish is possibly the most internationally well-known Colombian street artist at the moment with canvases selling in galleries around the world for thousands of dollars. His art is marked by stencils he makes of faces from photographs he finds or takes himself. He then elaborates on the images with graphics and intense colors. In addition to his solo work, Stinkfish has an art crew called APC (Animal Poder Cultura/Animal Power Culture).
Bogotá street artists: Lik Mi
In addition to creating a body-centric street art style, the artist known as Lik Mi is also a jewelry designer. She’s said her fully nude paste ups are meant to counter the objectification of women and confront taboos about nudity.
Bogotá street artists: Saga
Saga‘s solo work is marked by joyfully absurd oversize women and an olde timey dude who’s seriously creepy. Sometimes the artist works with another artist known as Crudo who adds distinctive lettering, giving the collaborative work a vaudeville poster look and feel.
Bogotá street artists: Rodez
Rodez is a book publisher and street artist in his fifties and his work has a polished, gallery-ready look and feel. He is quite literally a father to street art. His sons, Nomada and Malegria, have followed him into the biz and they sometimes collaborate.
Bogotá street artists: beyond the big names
Not everyone in the Bogotá street art scene is a star. Yet. Here are some pieces we liked by artists we know little or nothing about (if you know who did the pieces we can’t id, let us know in the comments section at the end of this post).
The ever-changing nature of Bogotá street art
One of the things that makes street art interesting is the ever-changing nature of the installations. The composite image, below, shows a wall outside the Visaje Graffiti Colombia store in Bogotá which we photographed on August 30, 2014 (top) and again on September 1, 2015 (bottom). What a difference a year (and some talent and some paint) makes.
For more about street art, check out the Google Culture Institute Street Art Project. And there’s more in our city travel guides about Bogotá including what to do and where to sleep, where to eat, and where to drink in the sophisticated Colombian capital.
Here’s more about travel in Colombia