The transformative power of street art has always amazed me. A powerful tool which has the ability to not only modify and invigorate any urban environment but also to instigate significant political and social change. Street art is, at its essence, a form of social media which pre-dates Facebook, Twitter and even the internet itself to get a particular message across, offering insight into the politics of the people well before protestors take to the streets – a warning vent before a potentially explosive event if you will.
Today street art can be seen in almost every city on Earth, but street art’s raw power and potential for change was felt by me most intensively in Medellin’s Comuna 13 – previously one of Colombia’s most dangerous neighbourhoods and a constant battleground between gangs, narcos, paramilitaries and the government – but today you would hardly recognise it! And good new – there are many options for a graffiti tour in Medellin to see the best of it, or of course you can see it on your own!
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Formerly one of Medellin’s most feared barrio’s, Comuna 13’s metamorphosis now represents Medellin in microcosm: not a perfect model for urban planning by any means, but a radical laboratory where untested experiments are carried out which seek to improve the urban and social fabric. Street art is a pivotal part of this change, and it diffuses through every house, roof, door and blank canvas in this now colourful neighbourhood. Street art’s themes are as diverse as the people that create them – from being deeply political and serious to being fun, satirical and irreverent, but upon closer inspection of these flaking canvases you can see they are imbued with hope, the chance for change and ability to dream again. For most of the residents lives here it was impossible to dream, living a life of suffering, terror and unimaginable hardships. Stuck in a cycle of poverty and gang warefare from which there was no way out. Today, however, thanks to the return of the rule of law and many new projects and initiatives in Comuna 13, the people here can again imagine a better life, a safer life. Street art is just one part of this, along with giant public education programs, security, activities for youth, library’s, increased transportation and economic opportunities. Optimism fills the air these days in Comuna 13, things are still far from perfect but as residents will tell you – “Every day, in every way, things are getting better and better”
The energy of street art here is spectacular, its ability to re-imagine and re-energize an urban space which was otherwise lacking is on full display. No style, rules or conventions seems to apply to the canvases. In this way Street Art is still very much ‘art’ and as such can be figurative, abstractionist, text-based – you name it. However one common denominator becomes obvious after you have spent any time here: colour! Everywhere you gaze the generic red bricks and grey walls which dominate Medellín are transformed into a colour explosion. What once was a drab and uneasy space is suddenly fun, vivid and inviting. You feel the need to linger, to examine and attribute meaning – if nothing else street art has transformed this into a place where people slow down, consider and take solace in the small pleasures on offer.
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And why would you not want to be here? It’s peaceful streets are as safe as the tourist strong-hold of El Pablado but you are afforded here an opportunity to see the real Medellin and interact with it’s locals. Mass tourism has still not exploded here so you can wander in peace, practicing your Spanish with residents of the community who are excited and welcoming of anyone who dares to visit after many years of violence. I enjoyed musing of the intentions behind the artists choices, deliberate or otherwise, and marvelling at the change it had brought to this area. Could this be a model for the rest of the city? And why can I not live in a neighbourhood as brightly coloured as this? Why do people and architects continue to design such grey and drab buildings, devoid of colour and soul when clearly a splash of paint and some imagination can go a long way….
Comuna 13 is now an internationally renown example of urban transformation, an innovative approach to community revitalisation: a not to be missed attraction in Medellín and Colombia. From its outdoor electric escalators to it’s small mom-and-pop stores, Medellín is open to explorers who can overcome their pre-conceptions and choose to wander its streets. Comuna 13 is no longer the most feared corner of the city but instead it’s most colourful, a barrio with a bright future mirroring that of Medellin and Colombia!
How to get to Comuna 13 in Medellin (if you don’t go on a graffiti tour in Medellin)
Getting to Comuna 13 to explore it’s street art is easy. All you need to do is take the new metro line to the San Javier station, exit right from the station and walk immediately right at the traffic light – There is a bus stop where you want the one labeled “Escalas Electricas”, just ask a local if you can’t find it, they always seem happy to help! If you want to hear more about the political dimension of this area and it’s history I highly recommend a trip with Toucan Café who run a tour in conjunction with the community center Casa Kolacho who are responsible for 90% of the graffiti art in Comuna 13 with some of the proceeds going directly towards funding more art!