the graffiti punches you in the heart: a dispatch from Medellín, Colombia

Art is art because of the people who see it.” –Alba, Medellín resident

Once you start seeing the graffiti that covers the city walls of Medellín, Colombia, you can’t stop seeing it everywhere. It is beautiful and weird, and if you look too carefully, deeply troubling.

It reminds me constantly of the Banksy quote: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” One look at my too-pale skin and too-soft limbs is enough to reveal: I am the comfortable. I am the comfortable and I am here, taking advantage of the sea change that has occurred, transforming this city of 2.4 million from the most violent city in the world into the safest city in South America.

And really, it’s hard to reconcile the beauty of Medellín, this “City of Eternal Spring,” the gentle respectfulness of its people, with its dangerous, destructive past. But the people remember and their art will not let you forget.

As recently as the early 1990s, Medellín was the stronghold of the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, who took advantage of the city’s geographical access to Panama and both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to ship literal tons of cocaine to the United States.

The drug trade is lucrative, but it comes at a price, and in Medellín, the price was a series of massacres of innocent laborers and farm workers as police battled Escobar’s soldiers and paramilitary groups, especially in an area called Comuna 13. Stunning graffiti by local artists such as Chota and Takir tell of the destruction, always within the context of the hope and resilience of a community that ultimately prevailed.

Other artists, practicing their trade, have added to the graffiti in Comuna 13 and across Medellín, sometimes with a social message, and sometimes to display their talent. Residents of the city and other graffiti artists treat all such art with respect, not painting over any design, no matter how intricate or simplistic.

I would not have ventured here during the violent time. I am too comfortable. And now I am beautifully disturbed by the art of the city. It punches you directly in the heart. But it is important and visible and necessary. And I hope, although I can’t be certain, that it brings comfort to those who survived.

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