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The Camillo crewphotography Eve Hartley

In election time, graffiti artists are the rebel youth voice in Colombia

A punk street art character is fighting for the disillusioned in a post-peace deal country

TextEve HartleyPhotographyEve Hartley

When Colombian police officers killed a 16-year-old street artist in 2011, the capital city of Bogotá erupted into protests. The scale of public outrage led to the decriminalisation of graffiti in the capital and the start of a code of regulations – it was a revolution.

Since Diego Felipe Becerra’s death, artists have been able to use the city as their canvas as long as they have permission from the building owner or – if public property – from the state. But Andrés, an artist who we meet outside a school in the cultural district of Chapinero, says permission just gets in the way. Today he is painting illegally.

Andrés uses the artist name of Toxicomanocallejero and has asked for his identity to remain anonymous. He’s currently spearheading a political campaign using street art across the city. As we chat, he’s spraying a school wall with a picture of an afro-Colombian man, wearing glasses detailed with fire in the lenses.

“This is a piece about global warming – and it’s here (outside the school) so the kids can see it. The words are in English because it’s not a bilingual school and I want them to see it and start to think not just about climate change but also about thinking in English,” Andrés tells Dazed.

Andrés has created his own graffiti political candidate ahead of the Colombian general election in May. The idea stemmed from his disillusionment with current politicians in Colombia; a country he says is more divided now than ever before.

Opinion in the region split after a 2016 referendum was held on whether the country should sign a peace agreement with FARC guerrillas. The ‘no’ won a majority but the vote was close enough for President Juan Manuel Santos to move forward with the agreement.

It’s estimated the armed conflict, which lasted over 50 years, has left 5.5 million Colombians displaced.

Andrés’ candidate is an anti-capitalist, feminist, drug-loving punk named ‘Edi’. In an introductory piece of art ‘Edi’ asks: ‘Is there a future?’. His first political slogan is “vote for me – I like drugs”.

‘Edi’s’ role in the elections, Andrés says, has three parts: “One is to describe the lies of the politicians, two is to display our own proposals and the third is to have fun.”

“The political people are always lying about things. And we are trying to make something silly with this guy. But he will always be telling the truth,” he adds.

The campaign has the potential to reach thousands of Bogotanos who will see 'Edi' on the street, but also thousands of Colombians from around the country following on social media. Toxicomanocallejero has over 80,000 followers on Instagram.

Another artist who believes political street art can change people’s minds ahead of the election is DJLU (also known as juegasiempre). DJLU is tagging the city with portraits of politicians with the heads of animals. They vary from rats, to chickens, and donkeys.

“It’s critical in a satirical way; it’s non-direct way of criticising politicians. I don’t want it to be too direct because I want there to be room for people to think and interpret the meaning of the art themselves,” DJLU observes.

DJLU also uses symbols to make his political mark. One of his favourites is a picture of a grenade with a pineapple growing inside, he says it represents farmland going to waste because of the internal conflict.

Oxfam released a report in 2013 claiming 80 per cent of the land in Colombia is in the hands of just 14 per cent, and the concentration has increased over the last 50 or so years.

Another way DJLU makes his mark is by painting portraits of the “heroes of the street” onto large scale walls in the heart of communities, as a way to visualise people who are forgotten about.

“I care about the person that sells on the street, the person who rides on the street, the one that sings, farmers, those people that are used to being invisible, the common people,” DJLU says.

Meanwhile Camilo is an artist who doesn’t use direct political symbolism in his pieces but instead focuses on themes. Similarly to Andrés, he says he doesn’t trust politicians in the country.

Using the artist name ‘Ceroker’, his pieces are inspired by hip-cop culture but also the stories of the indigenous and the unheard.

“In a country like Colombia, which is such an unequal political country (graffiti) is a way of speaking when one does not have the means to express oneself. The street is there to be able to write what you think. Art on the street is for everyone,” he explains. 

Camilo paints the city with his crew ‘A tres manos’ and together they create pieces visualising themes including the indigenous cultures of Colombia and feminism, by using bright illustrations. 

As of the Bogotá street art scene, Camilo says decriminalisation has led it to become “a tourist zone for graffiti artists”, which has allowed more political pieces to find their place.

He adds: “Before (decriminalisation) the police took you, beat you, and put you in jail 24 hours. Now the police are a little calmer, but all this was because they (the police) murdered a young man simply because he was painting.”