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Case studies

Responsible Graffiti Practice

Bogotá’s Responsible Graffiti Practice is a new participatory process used to develop a cultural policy around graffiti. The process has:

  • Recognised marginalised cultural and artistic forms
  • Increased citizen participation in decision-making about public space
  • Developed a large number of talented graffiti artists
  • Improved city streetscapes with vibrant artworks.

Although in most cities graffiti is considered a form of vandalism and is subject to sanctions, in recent years Bogotá has become renowned for its spectacular street art. This emerging scene has been documented in the international press (including The Economist), Bogotá’s homegrown artists have featured in major art fairs, and the city has become something of a hotspot for graffiti artists worldwide. While historically Bogotá – like many cities – has had a fair amount of graffiti, the current flourishing springs from a particular policy to legalise and regulate the practice.

The story began with a court case in 2007; a citizen group brought a class action against the city government, demanding improvement of the public realm through the decriminalisation and regulation of graffiti practices. The judge ruled in their favour, and the city responded in 2011 with a basic draft policy setting out standards for graffiti, and instructions for a cross-departmental working group to develop the policy further. This group included senior representatives from the Department for Culture, Recreation and Sport, other policy areas such as the environment, and planning, as well as representatives from a range of arms-length public bodies responsible for the arts and public space in Bogotá. After internal discussion, a draft policy was published for open consultation, especially involving those likely to be affected by the policy – the graffiti artists themselves.

The graffiti community established the District Graffiti Board to review the policy. This group met for regular discussions with more than 50 graffiti artists from across the city. It suggested a clearer recognition of graffiti as a valuable artistic and cultural practice, and the adoption of educational measures (as opposed to punitive ones) to promote new standards and regulations around graffiti.

The process of preparing the policy was therefore truly participative in nature; it reflects the city administration’s emphasis on ‘democratic culture’, and the idea of cultural policy as an instrument of sustainable development and social cohesion. The District Graffiti Board promoted debate about how citizens make meaning in and of their city, about what constitutes artistic expression, and how far freedom of expression should go. It pitted the idea of the city as a place of contrasts, constant debate and negotiation against the idea of the city as fixed, permanently regulated, protected architectural forms. It also prompted questions about the very nature of graffiti: does it function as art? As cultural expression? As political and social protest? And, as an inherently transgressive act, what happens if it is normalised and regulated by the state? Should policies be enshrined in law, or subject to local negotiation between building owners and those who want to use their walls as a canvas?

The new policy tries to balance a number of things. It recognises graffiti as a legitimate cultural practice by which non-mainstream groups appropriate their city. But it balances this with the right to an environment free of visual contamination, while emphasising the need for responsible public ownership and negotiation on a case-by-case basis. There are now various local graffiti boards besides the main overarching one. Implementation and regulation depend on collaboration between government departments, public bodies, the police, civil society organisations and informal artist groups. The wider effect of the policy has been to nurture a discussion about Bogotá’s public spaces that encompasses a truly diverse range of perspectives.

The administration consolidated its new, tolerant position on graffiti with an initiative aimed at improving the environment of 26th Street. This is a major arterial route through the city – among other things it is the main road to and from the airport – and has a recent history of corruption. A number of public grants were awarded to street artists to develop large-scalemurals along this road; it now functions as a striking open air art gallery, expressing all sorts of ideas, hopes, fears and dreams about the city. Administrations in other parts of Bogotá have followed suit, embedding graffiti policies in different areas of their work, particularly in programmes for young people, such as sports training schools, arts, youth participation processes and local youth festivals.

The policy has therefore resulted in a flourishing of graffiti artists. Today, graffiti is a legitimate professional and artistic practice for many, and the stance of the city encourages the most talented to stay and ply their trade. Although no exact data exists about the number of graffiti artists in Bogotá, estimates suggest from 4,000 to 5,000 practitioners. And the art itself has become ever more impressive. Artists who don’t have half an eye on the police can take their time over compositions, rather than quickly tagging and running away – so the city now enjoys a growing international reputation for its colourful and lively streetscapes.