The troubled Colombian city has become a mecca for street art.
MEDELLIN — It’s Friday evening, and the graffiti artists start to shake their spray cans, wishing away a forecasted downpour. Some 70 artists begin to fill San Juan Avenue’s pavement with sketches as part of a day-long event to nurture awareness of public art in Colombia.
The city is a canvas on which young people communicate their deepest thoughts and yearnings through art. Graffiti is synonymous with the modern city, and its street paintings tell stories. This time Medellín’s youth have decided to gather where they normally don’t, taking over the San Juan Avenue for 24 hours — peacefully, and with paint.
The underpass at San Juan is a strategic point near the La Alpujarra administrative sector, but generally far removed from the reach of young people and their artistic interests. It has always been regarded as an untouchable place of power and administration because of its proximity to government buildings such as the mayor’s office and the judiciary, alien to the residents of less-privileged neighborhoods.
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A skate park in Medellin — Photo: geya garcia
But as buses full of passengers go by, their distracted gazes find focus in the strange medley of colors atop the highway’s grey cement in this renowned business city in northcentral Colombia. The young artists hope their exuberant expression will no longer be seen as vandalism, an outdated stigma.
They work not just with spray cans, but also with brushes. From both sides of the avenue come interesting voices talking about their artwork. Members of the local media approach, their cameras conspicuous.
Later, as the traffic subsides, a human rights advocate arrives for a short while to ensure that the art is respected — though the police later accused one painter of visual pollution. Nothing came of that, as a lawyer was immediately at hand. Soon, aerosol cans were rattling anew.
Local buses start to become scarce, and a homeless person comes up to tell us he is delighted to see his house freshly painted.
Some say that nothing unites Medellín’s graffiti artists, while others among us refuse to accept the idea. We see graffiti as an expression that boosts creativity and imagination — traits that young people need in a city that wants to host industries in science, technology and innovation.
As the sun begins to rise, the nickname for the underpass — the “San Juan depression” — no longer seems apt, awash as it is now in vibrant colors in this important part of the city center. Its walls feel alive, benefiting from the good intentions of young people whose paintings have given the city a gentler countenance.
Our event will continue beyond the marathon, and we invite visitors to come and see the work, chat, and find shared ideas and proposals to help this artistic expression evolve. We want the city to understand graffiti artists’ real interests and intentions, not just to hear the debate about conflict.
*Alejandro Orozco Acosta is a writer in Medellín.