“The Revolutionary” in Bogotá’s Street Art

The “telecratic” model that governs us, which seeks to govern through the media makes people believe they are politically active when they are actually only reactionary consumption objects, which is typical of a hegemonic global model very well explored by U.S. corporate governance and here, in the country of Columbus, we have good copied, for indeed there has been a manipulation of the truth and censorship to divergent political options.1

   Thus a Colombian author describes a monopoly on information and communication by an elitist political, economic and cultural discourse. For him, the existence of this monopoly makes impossible to develop a public policy on citizen communication, in which it is possible to access the management and financing of massive information spaces from the popular movements. This monopoly model, made by USA and now retaken by several countries, was already developed in Nazi Germany by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (1933-1943) controlling literature, film, art, television and radio. Popular expressions and the unhappy spirit of youth eventually built alternatives to the informative hegemony. Graffiti emerges.

Graffiti is born as a graphic expression of a broad cultural movement, in which the assertion of the individual merges with the group under the populous and degraded neighborhoods in big Western cities”2.

   Nevertheless, it should be noted that although the generation of contemporary urban artists is chronologically far from the ideals and motivations of early graffiti artists, it began to paint when the hip-hop culture replaced the political and philosophical ideals of that first generation. And when it is said “replaced” it should be understood that what appeared displays the ambiguity of postmodern philosophical and artistic products. The process of empowering the artistic collectivities and ultimately the common people (as spectators) passes through the immediacy of interaction with art. The city as an unfinished construction consolidates itself as an aesthetic problem to the extent that favors the emergence of various forms of expression. In its public space sensitive citizen experiences occur: historical, social, artistic, etc., whereas it becomes a place of encounters and confrontations. Graffiti appears on it merging and dialoguing with the city, revitalizing the place, as this creative process will acquire different connotations to the extent that fuses with the inhabitants of the city, developing its own aesthetic language that will allow the interaction between the citizen and the graffiti.

How is the Bogotan street art?


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Bogotá is a city of nearly eight million inhabitants, where the richest and most varied imaginable artistic expressions bring together. In the Colombian capital, the existence of intellectual and artistic circles since colonial times, have made, along with national and international cultural diversity, artistic movements and proposals not only welcomed but also presenting a great development. In addition, Bogotá is characterized by adapting and reinventing in its idiosyncrasy different aspects of global culture3.

   Therefore, in this paper we will focus on the art collective TOXICÓMANO CALLEJERO, a group of urban art that responds to the eclectic dynamics (in the aesthetic and political) of the XXI century Bogotá and on the artist GUACHE, also Bogotan. These dynamics suggest that the new (yet somehow also the old) Bogotan, the new Colombian, is total: is indigenous, is black, is white, is poor, is rich, is intellectual, is peasant. But most importantly is that he/she is critical, has a voice, looks at him and herself from the outside through grotesque and funny caricatures of the misfortune and hope of a country. There is a new identity in motion passing through overcoming the past mercilessly whipping it and rescuing the indelible to endow it with value and thus move on the way to a more egalitarian society.

   Toxicómano Callejero (one of the members is a publicist and the other a sociologist) begins 10 years ago with the usual phrases/slogans on the walls. Later they gave twirls to some brand slogans, “Drink Coca-Cola” to “Smoke Marijuana” “MasterCard” to “MasturBate”, etc. Over time the activity became more sophisticated and evolved into what it is now. Since the early years were devoted to the “counter-advertising”, in their words, “an urban artist does not have the same infrastructure that has a brand to use large spaces, but if your work is put into a corner, it has the same credibility”.

   For them, the humor and the drama is the best way to get a message fixed, so their work, imbued with this counter-advertising desire, is full of satire, sarcasm, jokes and hard, shocking and grotesque images that challenge the moral and common imagery of a complex city: “A wall that makes you laugh makes you put more attention than something that do not evoke any feeling”4. They claim not to identify with any “ism”, for them their activity is creating new things and not repeating past mistakes, hence part of their activity happens for questioning certain commonplaces of independent art associated with the left wing.


Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 09.37.02F0“The ugly, we are more!”


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 In one of the few interviews given by the group, one of its members explains how has been the building of an ethics and aesthetics in the works of Toxicómano Callejero. Bogotá is a city with evident cultural expressions and is now overwhelmed by graffiti. The fact of addressing it in the city from different perspectives helps the building of culture.


Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 09.44.04.pngF2“Try not to become a Priest”

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   They paint during the day to have more natural light, but also to talk more with people, interact with the passing, the looking, and the questioning ones. The abandoned and destroyed walls are usually chosen for, besides not having problems with owners and neighbors, give new life to an old space that nobody looks: “when a wall is old and damaged, is invisible, as it is painted, becomes a place that is reborn”, says the interviewee. “They sell the space as public (shopping centers, public transport, etc.), but finally everything has its owner”. Ultimately what remains is not the message or the art. What remain is the street, the only wild space left for the city and which, unfortunately, citizens do not feel as own, but causes fear, mistrust.


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   Guache6 is a street artist with a public identity that has always been around the collective Toxicómano Callejero (in which he probably is) and who grew up in a poor neighborhood of Bogotá. According to him, in his neighborhood he was about to work as a thief in apartments but never did it due to his interest in punk music, DIY (do it yourself) ideology and the so-called counter-culture. The rebelliousness of adolescence and early adulthood included vandalism (breaking glasses and public waste baskets, punch cars, etc.) influenced by the anxiety produced by the inability to study or work. Canalizing energy in art paid off when his satirical drawings began to analyze their messages and meant the emergence of an intellectual dynamic from a public (bystanders) who began to realize the position and power which as citizens they have, and that through reflection and critic it can be exercised.7  


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   Answering an interviewer8, Guache responds that he is concerned with the fact of the street could be no longer the expression of the people and then be the means of expression for corporations and explains that that is why he is carrying out what he called Social Muralism, in which he tries to take elements from popular, Afro-Caribbean, indigenous and ancestral cultures of Colombia and Latin America to provide value to their political, economic and cultural features, aesthetics, and worldviews. In this project one necessarily has to be dynamic, to be in constant contact, promotes the generation of new images, new proposals. It is also important to look at the international scene, but also or even more, after endowing it with the proper value, look at what is going on inside, and above all, it is essential to be autonomous and not expect the support or sponsorship of the State or any organization.


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Similarities and differencies with Mexican muralism

At this point, we must ask with specificity (as it is roughly evident) what features of Bogotan street art are similar to the Mexican muralists and which differ.


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   In the matter of the artistic features, it must be said that in the specific case of Guache’s art, figurative nature and color use, and ancestral thematic keep important similarity to the murals of Diego Rivera. Nonetheless, the technique used is radically different because the paint used in Bogotan street art is mainly spray paint. In addition, in the rest of street performers mixing stencil art and caricatural graffiti drawings predominates, although other less typical urban art techniques are also found.


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   But perhaps most important is what surrounds the phenomenon as such, the fact of muralism as a strategy rather than as a technique. In the 20s of the last century a military conflict ended in Mexico and this circumstance led to the consolidation of the revolution and therefore the increase in funding of education and culture. This point denotes both a similarity and a radical difference. While the spirit of change that fueled the Mexican Revolution and led to the concern of spreading culture, art and education for the people have the same anti-imperialist, emancipatory and identitarian spirit that moves political-cultural collectives of contemporary Bogotá, it is also clear that unlike Mexico, where the government promoted the muralism, is against a neoliberal government that pictorial phenomenon arises in the Colombian capital.

   On the other hand, entering depth, is remarkable the powerful similarity between how Toxicómano address the issue of the public gaze and how Leonard Folgarait12 describes public’s reaction to the murals at the National Palace of Mexico. The author speaks about the moment of the second vision, the moment of remoteness when observation becomes a disinterested behavior, and describes it as a step out of “the flow of events in order to see, to assess, to control”. In this process of which Folgarait says, “something important has happened to the viewer” and which implies an “approach, arrival, participation, distancing and assessment”, there is a dramatic change in how it looks at the beginning and how it looks in the end.


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   Toxicómano describe the interaction referring to the fact of having direct access to the manifestations of art, and make emphasis on how the public attends the mural in different stages: it accompanies the process at every stage, looks at the result, passes far from it, gets close, asks, walks away, contemplates, and in addition, contributes to the construction of the artistic whole.

   Moreover, this reception has similarities not only with regard to the position of the observer and the moving process, in which he or she is more or less involved in the meanings, but the interpretations of those meanings that emerge from both types of art depend of “the instantaneity of vision as experienced by the viewer, the all-at-once, non-temporal quality of seeing the mural” as Folgarait said. The relationship the observers of those murals had (and have) and that one that Bogotans have with Toxicómano’s graffiti are similar as far as the entire work (its layout, size, and distribution) depends on the experience of those. The author also highlighted the process through which “the viewer is forced into the role of the narrator […] (and) images are positioned within and surrounded by a determinedly verbal an discursive process” and such a role is the one played by citizens, who construct the meaning out of the distinct images which illustrate a learned and shared history.


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   Nevertheless, most of Bogotan street art contains texts and uses it in combination with images as a central part of the content, in contradiction to Mexican Muralism which in a certain way detracts from the written: “Writing stops the action in space, and denies space itself, because the eye, with the switch to the writing dominant mode, needs to move in writing’s own space, or non space”13. As we can see in F6, the image of the media blindfolding a citizen and his reaction is as important as the phrases “Satan is real” and “now I can see it”; neither makes sense by itself. But, in this last regard the Rivera’s work have something in common with Bogotan Street art: “the mural, in prioritizing the discursive over the figurative, is making a real choice of how to tell a story, how to organize knowledge, and how to condition its viewing and public consumption”14. Thus, in both cases the discursive is over the figurative, the realist, what is left to say is quite more powerful than what is left to see. The difference lies in how the discursive as textual is not as important in Mexican Muralism as it is in Bogotan Street art.


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   Finally, a great and beautiful similarity seems blindingly obvious. The discourse created with regard to the United States Americanist proposal by Diego Rivera, passes by the creation of a roots revival in all the imaginary and the pictorial deployment of Mexican Muralism. As Indych-López points out16 “Pan-Americanism, a movement toward the social, economic, military, and political cooperation among the nations of the Americas, was advanced primarily by government officials, but intellectuals, artists, and collectors on both sides embraced it”. And thus, Rivera “glorified an indigenous past in Mexico, which, according to the logic of Pan Americanism, came to be viewed as a common heritage for the entire continent” and as a rupture with the European Civilization hegemony and the Western historical narrative.


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   But Guache and Toxicómano went beyond and the rupturism includes the severing with the U.S. imperialist imposed way of life, and the evolutive construction of an own identity based on the mestizo nature of Latin American peoples.


At this point there are some questions that should be issued: Is there finally a new identity under construction? How then is this new Bogotan and Colombian identity built? How is it related to the Street art?

   We could say in summary that this complex process in which the identity mixes itself with the artistic creation is an actual phenomenon that embodies the anxiety of a unstructured society which have the sufficient means and knowledge but also an alarming lack of unifying “selfness”. A protracted armed conflict within an ethnic diverse and unequal background has made the Bogotan Street expressions an opportunity for the creation of a new conscious and combative citizen.


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References and footnotes


1 JIMÉNEZ CÁRDENAS, I., Democracia mediatizada: propia de un país “telecrático” y antidemocrático, Palabras al Margen, No 34, Bogotá D.C, 2014.

2 DIEGO DE, J., Graffiti. La palabra y la imagen, Barcelona, Los libros de la Frontera, 2000, p. 24.

3 One salient of these many examples is the red brick architecture of Rogelio Salmona.

4 Found in youtube. De Rumba Hasta la TumbaToxicómano Callejero. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aq2TkwqGudA.

5 Talking about one occasion when a company stepped on their drawings, the interviewee says, “Companies have enough money for a hoarding. Why the fuck do they mess with graffiti?”

6 Guache in Colombia means a mean person, a scoundrel.

7 Extracted from youtube: URBANOS Bogotá, Episode #8, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaabvcx5e9o

8 Ibídem.

9 Here we can see a piece of the so called Muralismo Social in which we can distinguish a Jaguar (the American big feline), a baby, a black character, a miner, and the phrase “Weaving Hope”. By Toxicómano.

10 Diego Rivera’s “Caña de Azúcar” in the left and a piece by Guache in the right.

11 BTOY in the left and a Guache’s piece in a tour in Mexico.

12 FOLGARAIT, Leonard. Revolution as Ritual: Diego Rivera’s National Palace Mural. Oxford Art Journal, 1991, p. 18.

13 Ibídem. p. 26.

14 Ibídem.

15 Found in www.guache.co with the text “When our ancestors discovered the spaniards America did not exist. Neither existed October, or the 12th, or 1492. Now we keep discovering the strategies they use for imposing their proyect of death, and we, comunities and peoples rise ourselves with voice and action from our territories in order to tell the conquerors that we do not want the Free Trade Agreements, that we do not accept the extractivism of our Mother Earth, and that we will not keep receiving their mirrors. That our struggle will keep walking in the defense and construction of life, territory and the peace dreamed from the bottom and among peoples”.

16 INDYCH-LÓPEZ, Anna. Mural Gambits: Mexican Muralism in the United States and the” Portable” Fresco. Art Bulletin, 2007, p. 292.



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