In the mid-1990s, the Colombian capital was synonymous with violent crime, desperate poverty, and government corruption. Twenty years and many buckets of paint later, it’s better known as a model for rapid urban development and the Latin American capital of street art.

Take an afternoon stroll through Bogotá’s bustling city center in 2016 and public art of all kinds will beckon your eyes and ears: buskers strumming ukuleles on café terraces, local folk bands performing on grassy medians during the Sunday ciclovía bike tour, and entire neighborhoods plastered in building-sized murals.

 

bogota columbia graffiti

Photo: Jakob Gibbons

The graffiti of the Bogotá of old mostly fit cliché images of run-down inner city neighborhoods where teens haphazardly vandalize whatever they can get their spray cans on–but not the graffiti of the new Bogotá.

The street art of the citizen-reclaimed capital of Colombia is decriminalized and destigmatized. Where gang signs and sloppily sprayed initials were once an unavoidable part of daily life for Bogotanos, today’s graffiti is deliberately encouraged by the local government, and it’s made its mark on more than just the city’s walls.

 

bogota columbia graffiti

Photo: Jakob Gibbons

At the peak of violence and chaos in the early 90s, just over 80 of every 100,000 Bogotanos were murdered every year in the capital city, with a total of 4,352 homicides in Bogotá in 1993 alone. After the groundbreakingly progressive and extraordinarily high-impact mayorships of Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa—one a socialist philosopher and the other a neoliberal economist —the homicide rate had dropped by 40%.

One idea that united the two transformative mayors across their differing political ideologies was a focus on public space: by investing in transit, cultural institutions, parks, and libraries, Mockus and Peñalosa sought to change their city’s culture by making it a place where Bogotanos could enjoy and take pride in their shared spaces.

Fast forward to the year 2013 and Bogotá’s 475th anniversary celebration: the modern Transmilenio bus system carries hundreds of thousands of passengers every day, through its own newly-constructed traffic lanes and past similarly new parks and libraries.

 

transmilenio bogota columbia graffiti

Transmilenio | Photo: Jakob Gibbons

The other notable new inhabitant of Bogotá’s public spaces is art.

Photo: Jakob Gibbons

Photo: Jakob Gibbons

 

And as more paint has gone up on overpasses and the sides of corner stores in the last two decades, the general safety and quality of the lives of the people of Bogotá have increased with it.

By its 475th birthday, Bogotá had evolved from a violent grey developing city into the Latin American capital of street art. Crime rates had been once again cut in half, producing the Bogotá of today, whose homicide rate is among the lowest in Latin America and about a third that of American cities like New Orleans, Flint, and Baltimore. And these numbers are only expected to keep falling.

bogota columbia graffiti

Photo: Jakob Gibbons

 

As graffiti culture asserted itself in Bogotá, the authorities mostly turned a blind eye, with local businesses even often contracting well-known local grafiteros to cover their buildings in murals. And then, after the tragic and needless shooting of a 16-year-old local graffiti artist by police in 2011, the legal culture finally caught up to its mural-painting tax base.

Partly in response to the shooting, then-Mayor Gustavo Petro began promoting graffiti as a form of public art and civic enrichment in the city while also taking measures to regulate where and on what kinds of buildings the art is allowed. Of course local graffiti artists still can’t resist the allure of the forbidden, but the new law is also seen by many as a symbolic concession by the city to its people.

Photo: Jakob Gibbons

Photo: Jakob Gibbons

 

This long struggle for public art laid the groundwork for the 475 year anniversary celebrations in 2013, in which the city contracted several well-known local street art collectives to decorate a stretch of highway downtown. Calle 26 is now not only one of the city’s main thoroughfares and the main line of the Transmilenio transit system that’s been heralded around the world as Bogotá’s crowning achievement in urban development, but now also “the first open air art corridor of Bogotá.”

Today, public art is as synonymous with Bogotá as drug violence is with the city of two decades ago, and the men and women behind the paintbrushes and spraycans are proud of it. Artists from around the world are moving to the Colombian capital to adorn its surfaces, and some of Bogotá’s grafiteros are riding their local fame all the way to other corners of Latin America and Europe on invitations to beautify other cities in need of a jolt of life and art.

And Bogotá’s painted streets affect more than just artists: tourism is an important part of the city’s continuing urban development plan, and the paint is drawing in the tourists.

Visitors to Bogotá can (and should) reserve a day for the Bogotá Graffiti Tour, organized and run by some of the city’s most prominent artists. The donations-only walking tour is not only a down-to-earth alternative to your typical tour group, but also offers the singular chance for you to view Bogotá’s prolific street art through the eyes of the very artists fueling Bogotá’s cultural revival.

eseguey bogota columbia graffiti

Photo: Jakob Gibbons

As of January 2016, former mayor Enrique Peñalosa, one of the two crucial custodians of Bogotá’s transformation, is once again mayor. As part of his 10-part plan for furthering the city’s development, he continues to focus on the accessibility and hospitality of public spaces in the city, which he says will include “cleaning up trash and graffiti.”

While it seems that the Peñalosa administration’s plan is to clean up marginalized neighborhoods and remove art that’s gang-related or otherwise offensive, local grafiteros are bracing for a fight. Artists fear that the city’s involvement in deciding what is “art” and what is “vandalism” will suffocate art in the city, the very art that’s worked so hard to produce a visual transformation of the city to match the social changes it’s endured in the last two decades.

In an interview with Colombian news magazine Semana, well-known local artist Toxicómano shared his take on the role of graffiti in the transformation of the Colombian capital, stating defiantly that “Peñalosa’s making a mistake if he thinks the future of Bogotá is a return to grey.”

Whatever next steps the city government takes, there’s a new culture of street art that has taken root in the newly safe and inviting public spaces of Bogotá, and the local grafiteros don’t plan on putting down the paint any time soon.

niunamas bogota columbia graffiti

Despite the unprecedented rate of social change, life still isn’t perfect in Bogotá. Recent years especially have seen a spike of violent attacks against women, frequently including sexual assault and murder, that’s seen by some as an issue of Latin American machismo culture. This seemingly less ‘artistic’ instance of public art, written in Sharpie on the handrail of this small bridge in the Teusaquillo neighborhood, is as socially potent as its more eye-catching cousins: it reads, from bottom to top, “No more dead women, not one more.” | Photo: Jakob Gibbons