Many Americans still ask if it’s safe to travel to Colombia. Their vision of this visually stunning and culturally rich nation is rooted in past decades when violent drug cartels run by infamous leaders such as Pablo Escobar ruled the streets of the country’s major cities and when left-wing guerrilla groups dominated large swaths of the rural countryside. This is part of a complicated history that many Colombians have tried to put behind them, even though popular TV productions such as Netflix’s “Narcos” have made turning the page more difficult. Over the past two decades, Colombia’s citizens (often in spite of their government’s actions) have made great strides in creating safer communities where the country’s rich heritage and wealth of cultural diversity are now on full display.
This week Berliners have been celebrating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This concrete barrier, which split the city into a West Berlin – controlled by the USA and its allies, and an East Berlin- where the Soviet Union dictated all aspects of daily life, was one of the most poignant symbols of the decades-long Cold War.
A series of events across Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe earlier in 1989 led to the eventual breaching of the Wall in central Berlin, allowing throngs of East Berliners to stream freely through the broken barrier and into the streets of West Berlin on the evening of November 9th, 1989. It was a pivotal moment in history that sent shock waves around the world and set the stage for peaceful revolutions all across Eastern Europe, finally leading to the break-up and decline of the Soviet Union.
A young Iranian immigrant and artist, Kani Alavi, watched that evening’s jubilant chaos in the streets from his apartment window, just opposite the famous central Berlin border crossing known as Checkpoint Charlie. What the young artist witnessed that night, and on those that followed, moved him to spear-head an effort to preserve a portion of the wall in order to create an open air gallery where artists could celebrate the triumph of freedom over oppression.
“Art is something that makes you breathe with a different kind of happiness.”
~ Anni Albers
Manizales is a city of approximately 500,000 people located high in the mountains above Colombia’s Eje Cafetero (coffee-growing region) in the west central part of the country. It’s known mainly for its many universities and colleges, its position as the business center for Colombia’s economically important coffee exports and for its steep hills–
heavy breathing here–
Manizales’ rather short list of attractions and cultural offerings can’t compete with those found in the capital Bogotá or Colombia’s second-city of Medellín. However, as I discovered on a recent visit, it does have a street art scene that–while smaller in scope–compares favorably with its bigger sisters in quality.
One of my favorite aspects of living in Latin America is the abundance of street art that adorns buildings, alleys and bridges, especially in the major cities.
On my recent visit to Lima, Peru, I made sure I booked a room in the rapidly gentrifying hipster neighborhood of Barranco which is ground zero for Lima’s street art scene. The largest collection of paintings can be found in the area around the Bridge of Sighs (Puente de los Suspiros) which has a reputation for being a popular place for young lovers to stroll.
Lima’s street art is particularly welcoming considering the city’s skies are perpetually gray for long stretches of the year. In addition, the city’s gray concrete walls and nondescript buildings make great canvases for creative street artists.
As is true of cities in Colombia and Ecuador, these colorful exterior scenes highlight each country’s ethnic diversity and native traditions as they merge with contemporary issues and international themes. Local artists–as well as the general population–love vibrant color and this is reflected in their art.
Since I believe the images speak for themselves, this introduction is brief. Enjoy this visual feast!
Imagine my surprise when one of my Omani students told me that the walls of his entire village had been painted by a local street artist. “Really,” I exclaimed with glee! “I love street art!”
On the following weekend, I headed north from the port city of Sohar in a bid to capture on video whatever I found. What I discovered in a small fishing village just west of the slightly larger town of Liwa was much more than I had expected. The walls of the village were indeed covered in art—an assortment of male faces—from the walls immediately surrounding the local mosque all the way to the sea.
As a great lover of colorful urban landscapes, I’ve traveled to many of the world’s most noted cities for street art. Berlin and Athens are two that immediately spring to mind. After visiting Colombia’s thriving capital, Bogota, several times over the past year, I would definitely add this high-altitude city set against a background of dramatic Andean peaks to a list of the world’s most interesting street art locations.
Sadly, Bogota’s street art scene was both accelerated and legitimized by a tragedy–the police shooting of a young graffiti artist, Diego Felipe Becerra, in 2011. The protests that followed Diego’s death resulted in the setting aside of city-sanctioned areas for street artists to paint. Of course, as street artists by nature tend to rebel against the establishment, there’s now street art spread over large areas of the cityscape, although there are specific neighborhoods with significant clusters of walls painted by both local and internationally-recognized street artists.