Graffiti can be used as a tool to diffuse ideas, challenges and memories in cities. It’s an expression of the urban space and its governance. How can graffiti help us understand behaviors and social dynamics in cities?
“Graffiti is a revolution, it’s a way of forming artists. It’s an open museum in the neighborhood.” El Perro, graffiter from the Comuna 13
Since the 1980s graffiti spread from New York to multiple cities in the world including Medellin, a city that was known for its violence. Today, Medellín is seen as an example of urban transformation and has won several international awards. How can graffiti help us understand the changes in Medellín?
In the Comuna 13, graffiti has played an important role towards fear and hope in the community. It has been an instrument that underlines the governance and memory in the district.
In 2002, the Comuna 13 violence scaled to 434 homicides per 100 thousand inhabitants per year making it one of the most violent spaces in the world. There was a scarce government presence and the community suffered the urbanization of the Colombian conflict due to a territorial dispute between the guerilla and the paramilitaries. During this period graffiti was used by the ilegal groups to control the territory and create fear in the community.
Due to the social-economical challenges and the growth of violence in the Comuna 13 the national government, in coordination with the local authorities, launched in October 2002 a “pacification” process called –Operation Orión– with 1.500 military and police effectives to recover by force the control of the territory. After three days of intrusion with tanks and helicopters the government “gained” control over the territory.
This process was highly criticized by the community that argued that the government was working in coordination with the paramilitary groups to remove the militia from the district. Human rights organizations account that more than 100 people disappeared with no clear link with illegal groups. Also, they point out that this process was used to establish territorial control of the paramilitary groups and not the government.
From the disappearance, death, displacements and lack of accountability of the “pacification” process the cultural and social groups started to mobilize ideas through the walls to create a collective memory and awareness of the human rights violations during this process.
The walls became the space of expressing ideas due to the inability of accessing mass media. “Graffiti is a form of expressing our political and social critics… it’s a way of getting the young away from the violence”, states one of the artists from the Comuna 13. The messages diffused through the walls are the ones that can’t reach the communication circuits due to the lack of means.
“Graffiti is transgressive, not because it substitutes another content, another discourse, but simply because it responds there, on the spot, and breaches the fundamental role of non-response annunciated by all the media. Does it oppose one code to another? I don´t think so: it simply smashes the code… it works through the instantaneous deconstruction of the dominant discursive code” Baudrillard
The idea was to create a collective memory of the conflict and to search for alternatives to transform it. Graffiti acted as a channel to communicate and build a different identity from violence in coordination with other cultural urban expressions such as hip-hop, dance and rap.
During this process of “pacification” and cultural sprawl in the district illegal groups killed 8 cultural leaders. This mobilized the community cultural leaders to created Revolution Without Death –Revolución sin Muertos. This concert attracted famous local and international artists to support non-violence movements and culture expressions in the comuna. Graffiti also was present in this mobilization when they painted a wall to honor the cultural leaders that were killed.
“Mural of four of their own, murdered by local gangs” Kimmelman, 2012
Through ideas on the walls and social mobilizations the community started to obtain awareness from public actors in the city . The local authorities started to see graffiti as an instrument to enhance policies and beatify the city. In coordination with the cultural actors the municipality started to use graffiti in several projects.
Graffiti as a policy instrument to “beatify the city”
Electric Stairs in Comuna 13 – Graffiti artists where invited to paint
After 12 years of the Operación Orion and a series of policies the Comuna 13 urban fabric has changed. Through graffiti we can see how there is a change from fear to hope and creativity. There are new transportation systems (electric stairs, MetroCable), cultural spaces (San Javier Library) and urban improvements in the Comuna 13. The social and cultural groups are growing and every year you find more spaces for art and culture. The Comuna has become a “site visit” due to its urban transformation and now graffiti is part of a tourist attraction where the local artists share the story of their district.
However, it’s still not a paradise. The Comuna 13 phases enormous challenges in terms of social and economical opportunities. It’s still one of the most violent districts in the city with 81 per 100 thousand inhabitants (2013).
The urban landscape seems different but still there are deep rooted social problems that need integral solutions. There is also a need for more spaces and recognition of the victims of the violence. Graffiti and the cultural groups are playing an important role in this process of fostering a new territory for the next generations. They have the talent, the capacity and tools to change their neighborhood. There is a need to increase the support for these initiatives and the creation of new ones that make the governance of the city an act of art and not an act of war.
Comuna 13 – A territory of Artists