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Drugs, guerilla warfare, paramilitary presence, civil discontent (and, OK, Sofia Vergara) – these are a few of the stereotypes that pop into people’s minds when Colombia is mentioned. These days, however, visitors are more likely to encounter these themes on the walls of the country’s capital, Bogotá, where the acceptance of street art has made this vibrant city a mecca for grafiteros and painters from here and abroad.

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In recent years, the city has adopted a remarkably permissive attitude toward street art and even “lesser” graffiti forms like tagging. Removing the threat of arrest has meant, among other things, more and better art. Being able to work during the day instead of under the cover of night has allowed artists better conditions in which to create, and some building owners have even commissioned murals to protect their property from tagging and more mundane scrawling.

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Even those tags and scribbles are seen as art by some, including our tour guide. One of the highlights of our recent trip to Colombia was the Bogota Graffiti Tour in the old city neighborhood of La Candelaria, led by one of the city’s better-known street artists. (Although he divulged his identity to us at the end of the tour, we were asked not to use his name because of the sensitive political nature of some of his work.) According to him, we cannot have the “fine art” on the walls without the typical graffiti, and neither is more beautiful or worthy than the other.

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Sometimes, in fact, art springs from the tags, the first and easiest entrée to the graffiti community. Walls can morph from a sprayed name to a painting, with others joining in with stencils, stickers, more tags, and more painting. The art is alive and dynamic, and the resulting collages can be among the most colorful walls in the neighborhood.

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Bogota’s street art covers a wide range of subjects, but there is a prominent focus on the country’s social and political problems. For example, the long-running conflict between the government and left-wing guerrilla groups, as well as U.S. interventionist programs like Plan Colombia, have resulted in the internal displacement of millions of people (second only to Syria, to my surprise). Portraits of indigenous people – those most often displaced – are widespread, and country lifestyles are celebrated.

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Environmental concerns are another popular theme; colorful birds and native animal species fly and crawl across the walls while oil rigs masquerade as gallows, stranglers of Colombia’s natural resources and celebrated biodiversity, and additional agents of displacement for humans as well as animals.

CRISP

CRISP

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DJ Lu

DJ Lu

The homeless are memorialized as well, with one wall depicting the likeness of a man who sits nearby on his longtime home corner. Another homeless citizen is shown with a bag over his head, symbolizing the anonymity of this population.

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Praxis

The FARC and land mines. Pollution and GMO crops. A tour of Bogota’s street art scene provides a basic education in Colombian politics, as well as its social, art, and literary history.

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But some work is just for the fun and beauty of it; pitted walls are spruced up in bright colors and designs, and bright flora and fauna grow and live in the gritty old streets of La Candelaria.

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Prominent artists include Rodez, Pez, DJ Lu, CRISP, Guache, GHB, Praxis, Stinkfish, and APC (a collective started by Stinkfish), among many others. A few samples:

RODEZ

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PEZ

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STINKFISH

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DJ Lu

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CRISP

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GUACHE

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I could post hundreds of other photos, but I’ll close with just two more of my favorites:

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