Painting Over Percecption

By bogotapost September 10, 2014
Stunning street art in the Candelaria. Photo: Sophie Trew

Stunning street art in the Candelaria. Photo: Sophie Trew

As a new documentary comes out examining the social impact of Bogota’s burgeoning urban art scene, The Bogota Post delves into the world of graffiti here in the capital

Bogota – a massive canvas, a modern-day haven for urban movements, on which thousands of artists spread their opinions, share their grievances and try to inspire change in their communities. The city has been through it all, witnessed the sheer depravity and oft-times brutality of human nature, experienced violence, fear, poverty and crime on every level.

Yet inspiration, determination and optimism are to be found in spades throughout Bogota, traits which have allowed the capital to keep advancing and looking forward.

What we see in Bogota is nothing short of an urban revolution, with disenfranchised members of society working together to forge a better Colombia, a Colombia with a more positive international image, a Colombia without fear and prejudice. Through art, people can show what they have lived through and what they hope to experience in the future, with public spaces offering the freedom to speak out against injustice.

This was the inspiration for Sophie Trew, a 23-year-old Brit who recently came to Bogota to make a documentary, ‘Challenging Perceptions’, about the city’s urban art scene and how these members of society fit into modern-day Colombia.
Considering her upbringing in a small village in southern England – she tells me that her family had over 40 animals – Bogota’s urban art scene might seem like a stark contrast for Sophie. But her desire to come to Colombia was overpowering, even in the face of what she calls “unfounded scaremongering”. Before she arrived, she was inundated with erroneous advice from people who’d never even set foot in Colombia, enveloped in negative stigma and outdated views.

And so the title of the documentary was born. As well as challenging outsider perceptions of Colombia, the documentary also hopes to change the way Colombia’s urban movement is perceived within the country. The idea is to show the positive work being carried out by Colombia’s urban youth and to dispel certain myths about graffiti. At the outset of the documentary Sophie explains that “whilst history can’t be changed, perceptions can be challenged”.

Painting over perceptions. Photo: Sophie Trew

Painting over perceptions. Photo: Sophie Trew

While studying Journalism at Sheffield University, Sophie spent time at the BBC before working in Paris for the International New York Times. With opportunities to pursue her career all over the world, Sophie explains why she decided to head to Bogota first: “I had always been fascinated by Latin America and I was very aware that there was not enough positive coverage of Colombia. The beauty of urban art is the power it has to transform places that have been ignored and few places demonstrate this better than Bogota.”

She secured a One World Media International Journalism grant, given out to people hoping to report on original stories from around the globe, and headed to Bogota. What she found was a burgeoning urban movement, with local and international graffiti artists helping to improve deprived and dangerous areas, a world where social problems were attacked with words, music and art, rather than with violence and bitterness, with numerous projects designed to help Bogota’s youth through urban art, dancing and song.

Whether it’s the weekly lyrical ‘battles’ focusing on social issues, the teaching of breakdancing and rap in prisons or community graffiti projects, Bogota is bursting at the seams with examples of the urban scene being used to improve communities and inspire the city’s youth. Sophie explains that graffiti “gives a voice to forgotten members of society”, providing opportunities and, more importantly, viable alternatives for Bogota’s youth. She adds that “people paint on streets because it’s not exclusive and they feel that there is already too much exclusivity in Colombia.”

In the documentary, Sophie speaks to numerous local graffiti artists about their experiences and visions for the future of the movement, most of whom share the same opinions on why Bogota’s urban art scene is taking off the way it is. Since Diego Felipe Becerra, a young graffiti artist, was shot and killed by a policeman in 2011, Bogota’s street art scene has undergone a revolution.

Graffiti has become accepted and even encouraged by authorities and cultural institutions, with city grants and multi-storey buildings suddenly becoming available to previously-criminalised members of society. This legality, and the luxuries of both time and daylight that it offers, has encouraged a wealth of graffiti throughout the city, with one prominent graffiti artist, DJ Lu, claiming that Bogota is “a city that speaks through its walls.”

Local children in the La Paz neighborhood get involved in a graffiti project. Photo: Sophie Trew

Local children in the La Paz neighborhood get involved in a graffiti project. Photo: Sophie Trew

An international graffiti artist living in Bogota, Crisp, summarises this in the documentary: “Bogota has got a unique situation. Legally, it’s tolerated, so compared to other countries throughout the world, you don’t get in as much trouble, and that fact encourages more quality street art. Here you’ll see people painting in the middle of the day, taking their time.”

Over the last few years, graffiti has quickly gained recognition as a cultural and artistic practice, with the likes of IDARTES (Instituto Distrital de las Artes) creating more favourable conditions for individuals who are now being officially recognised as artists rather than vandals or criminals. Deprived areas are being improved with colour and vibrancy, allowing locals to feel pride in their area and community.

Crisp is one of the many people who has benefited from the new, relaxed laws and explains that the city is a haven for graffiti artists at every level: “From small markets where local artists will be stamping their designs on t-shirts to big urban arts festivals organised by the council or organisations, there is always something happening in this city.”

DJ Lu, who wears a mask when painting and during interviews – claiming that it is not an artist’s face that is important, but his message – goes on to explain the surge of new graffiti artists over the last decade or so: “People are tired of fighting and want to express themselves in a different way.”

As with any art form, graffiti divides opinion and is open to interpretation. Sophie explains that “it gets people talking and everyone has an opinion.” But while other forms of art are generally confined to galleries and museums, graffiti’s canvas is the very city that it so often rebukes, its buildings providing a space for artists not only to criticise, but also to encourage and bring out the best in communities.

And although graffiti is a polemic issue, the documentary shows a shift in perceptions amongst locals in the areas being regenerated by artists. No longer is graffiti seen as pure vandalism and even those who aren’t keen on particular pieces show a recognition of what it has done for the local area, with numerous projects involving children and members of the community. The artists themselves speak of the joy they get from getting to know the people from the neighbourhood and seeing their reactions to the transformation.

Cristina Llera, the head of Visual Arts Bogota, explains that “graffiti will always be countercultural and polemic, but we are working on the other side of things”.

Camilo Fidel Lopez, a graffiti producer from Vertigo, claims that the inspiration for many artists comes from the desire to show that Colombia is much more than its well-documented problems and stereotypes. He explains: “Graffiti is an opportunity for international media, tourists and everyone abroad to understand that Colombia is more than just the typical things – the narcos, the guerrillas, corruption, coffee. Actually we are more than coffee!”

He goes on to talk about “an entire society that is changing because of graffiti”, pointing to the fact that many of the people involved in this art form have no other means of expressing ideas, opinions and grievances. Graffiti has become more inclusive recently, with artists painting for everyone, allowing the whole society to receive and share their message.

Camilo also admits that he has “a love-hate relationship with [his] city – it’s a mess and in this mess the graffiti explodes.”

Yet, beyond Bogota’s chaos, Sophie can see changes afoot. Changes in attitude and a new way of looking at society. “This is a story about freedom”, she explains. Urban art is slowly beginning to be seen as a valid social tool to help the less fortunate members of society. She claims that “there is a lot of pushing at the edges. Bogota is on the brink of something exciting.”

Camilo shares this vision, explaining that “we can be a reference. We are not going to win the World Cup, because we are not that good, but we can be the world capital of graffiti.”

Graffiti artist Guache and his crew are filmed painting a mural in Corabastos fruit market while police look on. Photo: Sophie Trew

Graffiti artist Guache and his crew are filmed painting a mural in Corabastos fruit market while police look on. Photo: Sophie Trew

And with new incentives for graffiti artists and opportunities that didn’t exist for previous generations, there is no reason why this can’t be the case. But more importantly, graffiti in Bogota is opening doors for young artists and providing them with an alternative to violence and delinquency.

Sophie’s documentary highlights the desire amongst the city’s youth to make changes- and graffiti offers them the tools to do so. Many artists feel aggrieved that Colombia has not provided young people with sufficient education, opportunities and honest work and believe that it is through art that children can express themselves and advance in the world.

Perhaps this is something of a simplistic view, but what cannot be denied is the fact that graffiti connects with Bogota’s youth.

Fabian Contreiza, a Bogotano speaking in the documentary, sums up this optimism: “Things can be different. There can be a light.” There is no doubt that the city faces a number of challenges, but the urban gallery that is Bogota is managing to change people’s perceptions and provide opportunities for them to progress. It remains to be seen whether this will bear fruit, but the optimism running through the veins of the urban movement, and shining through Sophie’s documentary, offers hope for those on the margins of Bogota’s society.

Sophie’s documentary will be available to the public soon, to be kept up-to-date ‘like’ the Challenging Perceptions Facebook page

Featured artist

Photo: Sago Uno

Photo: Sago Uno

In a city that oozes fantastic graffiti on almost every corner, there is no shortage of extremely talented and experienced artists. One such name to look out for is Saga Uno, a Bogota-based painter who makes up part of the APC crew, an ever-growing international group of friends that Saga Uno says he feels “very lucky and proud to be part of.”
His work can be found all over the streets of Bogota as well as in numerous other cities around the country, including Medellin and Cartagena, and is defined by his particular style, born out of his specific experiences and ideals. He tells me: “I put a lot of what I am in my work, which makes it very personal and autobiographical. It also makes up part of the culture of writing and graffiti, for which I have a lot of respect.”
That’s not to say that Saga Uno is a one-trick pony: “I also try to do other types of art or projects – I am not, nor are any of us, just one thing and that’s cool.” Evidence of this is his clothing label, Volketa, which began in 2010, although he had been designing t-shirts since he was at school. He explains that it always seemed like an interesting profession and, he says, “once I realised I could make something of it, I decided to create Volketa with the aim of transmitting things from the lifestyle that surrounds me – not just with clothes, but also through events, parties and audiovisual projects.”
Saga Uno’s art and design come from a desire to show off the intrigue of the underbelly of Bogota society, of a world that can often go unrecognised and unappreciated. He finishes by telling me: “There are loads of talented people here that go unnoticed, a whole hidden world in fact, that’s what my art is about. It’s much more interesting than the life that they show us on TV!”
To keep up with his work visit his Facebook pages: and

See for yourself:

Take Bogota’s renowned graffiti tour, where you’ll be accompanied by Australian graffiti artist CRISP, who appears in the documentary. Every day, his team offer a two-and-a-half hour tour (starting at 10:00 AM), which offers an intriguing and well-informed insight into Bogota’s urban art scene and the meanings of the pieces.
With a detailed understanding of the social issues and the rhetoric used by the city’s graffiti artists, CRISP, who himself is an accomplished and well-known painter, paints a fascinating picture of the art scene in Bogota and the artists who have inspired him.
For more information and to sign up for the tour, visit

BogotArt is putting on an event dedicated to graffiti and urban art in Bogota. The event promises beer, music and surprises, as well as a look at some of the best pieces of art in the city and the best spaces for painting. This is a great opportunity to learn more about the movement that is splashing Bogota with colour. There is a tour of the graffiti hotspots of La Candelaria and there will also be an exhibition of graffiti and photographs, showcasing some of the city’s hidden gems. From 4:00 PM at La Redada, September 20.
To sign up for the event (it’s free), visit and search ‘La Redada’.

Finally, be sure to keep an eye on the Challenging Perceptions Facebook page to receive updates on when the documentary will be available to the public.

 By Azzam Alkadhi