A piece I wrote after meeting Bogotá graffiti artist DjLu:
“JUAN Valdez looks a little different today. He’s balanced precariously on his donkey just like normal… but wait… is he holding a GUN? And look closer at that pineapple… tell me that’s not a grenade? There is definitely something strange about the Apple symbol too; it’s merely a core. And don’t get me started on that soldier. Why is he firing love hearts instead of bullets?
If this means anything to you, anything at all, then you’re already streets ahead of most. As one graffiti artist would say, you’ve mastered the art of not walking blindfolded around the highly decorated barrios of Bogotá.
Because these are all examples of the work of DjLu, a classically-trained street artist who can hit between 50 and 100 of these stencilled pictograms in just one night. If you look, really look, you’ll spot hundreds on the Septima.
The artist himself works from a studio in Chapinero. It’s crisply covered with both his stencils and other, bigger projects that are currently taking shape.
But why our streets? If this guy is so good at art, why not exhibit in a gallery? And isn’t this stuff dangerous? This is a city still shocked by the death of Diego Felipe Becerra, a 16-year-old who was spray-painting a wall in Avenida Boyacá with Calle 116 before he was shot and killed by police last August.
“I had the opportunity to exhibit in galleries, but I started noticing that the art in the galleries was dead art. It wasn’t receiving the visibility I wanted,” DjLu explains (we’re not going to reveal his true identity, that’s caused him enough trouble in the past) “You get maybe 10 or 20 fine art people; it’s a very closed world. But I knew the streets could give me bigger possibilities.”
And he’s right. Whatever your views on graffiti, we’re not talking tagging, bubble-painting your name or even gang-related violence here. DjLu is a 37-year-old fine art graduate from the National University. He’s a teacher. He just happens to use the streets, he says, to make people stop and think.
His type of graffiti, he explains, is like a traffic light. You’ve got exactly three seconds to get the message or it’s lost. That’s why he barely uses words in his work and instead allows the tiny pictograms of soldiers with heart-shaped balloons and Jesus crucified on a rifle to speak for themselves.
“I don’t really want to get caught in politics. I’m an organised anarchist,” he grins beneath his hoodie, gliding merrily along in his skater-boy sneakers.
“Besides, the themes can be local or international. You could be looking at something about the guerrilla or, to you, it could be about the IRA.”
But sometimes his images can mean a little too much, especially to Colombians. DjLu was once hauled in by the police while peppering the septima with his stickers. They wanted him to explain every picture. Finally, unable to decide for themselves, they called in a detective.
“We waited for him for two hours and then when he arrived he spent less than 15 minutes flicking through the images,” DjLu recalls, shaking his head.
The detective paused when he examined the crucified Jesus before the artist politely explained it was about religious intolerance. Finally, the officer looked at him.
“I’m glad you’re working for the peace of this country. God bless you,” he said.
But it’s not always so easy. DjLu was one of thousands of graffiti artists who converged on the spot where Becerra died to paint in his memory. He didn’t know the boy, he said, but did the work as a sign of respect. A few days later the police erased just four of the pieces – the ones criticising their actions.
“That was stupid of them,” the artist says bluntly.
“It was like they were giving us the truth.”
But he acknowledges that, with no real rules about the way police will react to the graffiti (sometimes they are tolerant; sometimes they will arrest) there can be different rules for different people.
“Whenever the police speak to me, I’m very polite and very helpful about what I’m doing and why,” he explains. “But maybe, if I’m a kid and I’m writing on the street, maybe I’ve written ‘F*** the police’ or something like that, then I get scared and I can’t tell them anything and maybe it turns out differently.”
Still, this uncertainty coupled with the sheer amount of emerging talent has combined to make Bogotá an edgy, popular city with the graffiti crowd. International artists now come here to paint; photographers and other artists study their work and the city even has its own thrice-weekly Graffiti Tour run by Australian artist and street art fan, Christian Petersen.
Within the circle, this explosion of artwork has brought with it a code of respect but, true to the fluid nature of the street, this code can be broken. It’s sadly not unusual to see a beautiful mural ruined by teenage scribblings or, worse, a spray-painted advertisement for used motorcycles.
DjLu is philosophical: “When I started, it used to bother me. I would look at my work and think ‘What have they done?’ but the only thing you can do is keep working,” he says, “A piece might last a day or four years. If you get mad, that’s really not the point. There are still so many free walls out there.”
As productive as DjLu is – and he is productive, once you start looking, you’ll find his work everywhere – he keeps his street art strictly profit free.
“No, it’s nothing like that,” he says, rolling his eyes when I mention the celebrated British street artist Banksy, who’s made a fortune from his work.
“When you’re trying to make money you get frustrated, you’re selling your ass all of the time. You’re always waiting for the reward. I don’t have that.”
No, he insists, he’s just hoping he can jolt a few people back into Bogotá; the city that’s all around them. Too many people are walking in a straight line, looking at the floor, he says and it would be great to “put a rock in their path”.
“I don’t know if my work will have any affect on a wider scale, probably not,” he sighs. “But if there’s one kid who sees my work and maybe doesn’t go out that night and do something violent, well, I guess that’s the idea.”