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Street artist Vogel poses with one of his ‘disappeared person’ murals, a project that is attracting much attention on the streets of the Colombian capital. (Photos by Carlos Villalon for The Globe and Mail)

In a cluttered and dingy studio in an old neighbourhood of Bogota, the artist Vogel is preparing to paint a series of portraits. His subject is the Disappeared – people who have gone missing in Colombia’s 60 gruelling years of civil conflict. He paints them from photographs provided by their families; his medium is aerosol-propelled pigment on cement. Over the coming weeks, he will spray-paint the portraits on “non-places,” as he calls them – the walls of abandoned houses and semi-demolished buildings in 12 cities across the country.

Street art is perhaps the dominant artistic medium in Colombia today. It lines underpasses and is splashed on big infrastructure projects around the capital. The artists operate in a twilight between illegal and tolerated; much of their work, like Vogel’s, is overtly political, an ever-shifting critique of a society that is changing almost as fast as the graffiti.

“The situation in Colombia makes it ideal for street art – I’ve never been to Canada but I believe it’s very organized and people don’t have to struggle to express themselves,” says Vogel, who, like others in the scene, is willing to be identified only by his street name. “Here it’s a big soup, and here you can read the struggle in the streets. With graffiti, the struggle translates to the wall and is not physical.”

A portrait of Marco Tulio Sevillano by DJ LU, a homeless man who was burned to death while sleeping.

His portrait project is being funded by a national cultural organization, a sign of the new legitimacy that street art has here. Historically the painters were seen as subversives – Vogel, 35, says that when police caught him painting six or seven years ago, they would accuse him of membership in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or other guerrilla organizations. Graffiti artists were routinely detained, or forced to pay off officials to avoid arrest, and in 2011, police in Bogota shot and killed a young man who was tagging a downtown wall, provoking a widespread outcry (and a flurry of protest painting).

But street art has achieved more recognition internationally in recent years, and at the same time, Colombia has begun to ride a wave of optimism as the economy booms and peace negotiations among warring factions make progress. As well, relations between city authorities and the artists have improved. “I think they realized there were more important things to worry about – there’s a war going on,” says the artist who paints as DJ Lu.

Last year, city hall commissioned DJ Lu and a number of other street artists to create huge murals along a major city thoroughfare. DJ Lu and his crew painted a work called This is our land that makes reference to pollution from mining, GMO crops and agro-industry and fossil fuel extraction, among other issues. Others in the series depict historical events in Colombia’s long war. “Art here got more political because of frustration with the conflict,” says Vogel.

Not everyone appreciates the way Bogota’s urban artists claim public spaces as their own – when Bogota’s left-wing mayor was briefly ousted last year, the interim leader installed by conservative powers immediately sent city crews out to paint over the street art. But the art-friendly mayor was restored after mass protests and the artists kept painting.

Inevitably, however, the tagging continues on the precise spots (monuments and occupied public buildings) that municipal authorities declared off-limits. The city is now promoting “Graffiti Responsibility,” a campaign that is mocked with gleeful derision in the garages and workshops, lightly wreathed in pot smoke, where the young artists hang out.

They argue that Bogota, and cities in the region generally, are ideal for this form of art. “Europe has been on pause for 800 years and they don’t like graffiti [on historical buildings], but Latin American cities are in constant change – here there are a lot of non-places, a lot of gaps, that are ideal to paint,” says DJ Lu. “You get an established building with a vacant house beside it – you get old narco houses that are abandoned – so it’s a place to paint.”

Bogota’s street art has enough hipster cachet at this point that Justin Bieber, when he performed in the city in 2013, went out to tag a wall. But he had a police escort – this was back when the cops were still hunting the local taggers – and that enraged the street artists, who obliterated Bieber’s work by the time the sun went down again.

Bogota now has a popular graffiti tour for tourists, offered daily in English and guided by someone from the scene. “It’s important that the general public learns more about the artists, inspirations and pieces done here, rather than just taking photos of the walls,” says Crisp, an artist who co-founded the tour. International visitors, including artists who have heard about Bogota’s street scene, get a chance to experience the range and scale of it, he says.

Vogel estimates that as many as 5,000 young people paint occasionally on city walls; they are overwhelmingly male. None makes a living at it – the best-known, such as DJ Lu, who is 40, pay their bills with commissions to design longboards and T-shirts, or to paint walls in offices to cultivate an avant-garde aesthetic. Some of his images (a soldier whose assault rifle sprays little hearts, and a fused pineapple/hand grenade, referring to Colombian farmland that’s infested with land mines) are so well-known they are practically city trademarks.

The majority of artists are operating on a far less sophisticated level – just tagging, spraying those repetitive logo marks of letters. But the murals evolve out of them, DJ Lu says, stabbing a Lucky Strike in the air for emphasis: “You can’t say what’s good or bad, it’s all important, it’s all interesting. Urban art is sometimes ugly and sometimes aggressive – its 80-per-cent graffiti and 20-per-cent art.”

All of it keeps young people who might otherwise be involved in violent criminal activity engaged in something else, he suggests. “It’s a pressure valve of social discontent,” he says, pointing to a tag on the corner of a two-storey house. “The five or six hours a guy spent making these letters prevented that guy from going out and killing someone.”

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