For a long time (from a foreigner’s perspective) when someone mentioned a planned visit to Colombia, it was usually accompanied by heeds of warning. When someone mentioned Medellin, old mate Pablo popped into mind. When someone mentioned Comuna 13… well now we’re just getting too specific.
However, talking to a Paisa (a Colombian born in Medellin) when someone mentioned Comuna 13 that’s when the real heeds of warning came up. There are plenty of good areas in Medellin, but avoid Comuna 13, if you can.
So obviously that’s one of the first places I went to visit.
Ok I’m not that crazy. Today it’s one of the top tourist destinations in Medellin and a place Paisas are proud to recommend. It WAS one of the most dangerous, but like a lot of the government’s efforts, there’s been means to make amends. And remember I’m here to talk about art, not danger.
Comuna 13, also known as San Javier is just three metro stops west from where I currently live. It once was a thriving hot spot for paramilitary, guerrilla and gang activity. During the 90s this meant it was actually quite safe. Under the protection of the communist Armed People’s Commandos (CAP) and the FARC controlling comings and goings of the city, it was one of the least violent comunas in the city. This changed in 1999 when the right-wing United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) began to push away the left-wing groups. So between 1997 and 2002 the homicide rate in Comuna 13 tripled to 357 per 100,000 inhabitants.
Then came October 2002 and the controversial Operation Orion. This week-long operation was carried out by the president of the time to remove all left-wing rebels from the area. This means tanks, police and security forces stormed through the area detaining civilians and injuring and killing hundreds. It has been labelled as both controversial for the mistreatment of innocents and the involvement of the paramilitary Bloque Cacique Nutibara and it has also been called successful as the homicide rate dropped to 72.
While it is still one of the more dangerous parts of Medellin, as for every 100,000 people, 162 murders occurred only seven years ago in 2010, there is a small patch of hope evoking change within the community. This is where I come in, and this is where I finally start talking about art.
In 2011, Comuna 13 installed its useful elevators, making it easier to hike up its steep hills… and attract greater tourism. Locals were also donated materials to brighten up their suburb and transform Comuna 13.
So maybe I should stop writing and just show you what it looks like today:
With images such as these scattered up the hill of San Javier, one can’t help but feel a little free. Art, a means of expression, a form of beauty and a splash of colour to what can be a hard life, plays a part in changing the the attitude of the people in comuna 13. While its history is long, its future it looking bright.
So what is the significance of Graffiti Art? For Comuna 13, a suburb once immersed in paramilitary, guerrilla and gang activity, the art has provided a splash of hope and a sense of positive energy to the people and visiting tourists.