Peacebuilding Initiative or Tourist Trap? Graffiti in Medellín, Colombia

By Elsey Richards, JNL61004, MA International Public and Political Communication, University of Sheffield.

Introduction

Graffiti is a creative and inclusive strategy for peacebuilding. However, there is a risk that it may become commercialised and too focused on tourists rather than rebuilding community ties. However, this may not necessarily be the problem that it seems. So long as members of the community continue to create the graffiti and it remains grassroots, then the peacebuilding element will remain central. While people can argue that commercialisation removes authenticity, tourism can provide a consistent component of an organisation’s revenue and so allows authenticity and creativity within the community to grow; Casa Kolacho is an excellent example of this.                                                                        

Comuna 13 in Medellín is considered one of the most dangerous areas in Colombia, and Medellín itself one of the most dangerous cities in the world (Vogel et al., 2020). This is a direct result of the Colombian Civil War, and it is here that Casa Kolacho, an organisation striving for peace, is based. The post-civil war context in Colombia is novice; the peace agreement was only signed in 2016. Agreed upon by the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), it ended the conflict that had its beginnings as far back as 1946 (Mariño García and Potash, 2019).

Casa Kolacho

Casa Kolacho is an organisation based in Comuna 13, Medellín that uses hip-hop culture to bring about peace in their community. Hip-hop culture involves four elements: rap, dance, turntabling and visual arts (graffiti) (Williams, 2015). As stated on their Facebook page, Casa Kolacho was created in 2013 and was inspired by Hector Pacheco “Kolacho”, a musician and community activist who was killed in 2009 (Iron, 2016). The focus of this blog is their Graffitour concept. Much of the graffiti in Comuna 13 was created by members of Casa Kolacho. Not only does the production of the graffiti itself involve communication in a symbolic sense, but members of Casa Kolacho carry out tours of the graffiti produced and so in this way are communicating to the wider public and actively engaging with the past. However, is there a risk that peacebuilding initiatives like Casa Kolacho may become too commercialised, prioritising tourist enjoyment over peacebuilding?

This blog focuses on the work of Casa Kolacho to show that a balance can be achieved between commercialisation and peacebuilding and commercialisation can actually benefit the peacebuilding process in inner city communities.

Commitment to peace

Inherent in the ethos of Casa Kolacho exists ‘an ongoing individual and collective commitment to civil peace’ which ‘manifests…in both a…disposition and practice’ (Pukallus, 2022, p. 24). Casa Kolacho emphasises the importance of cooperation, healthy environments, and the strengthening of these cultural projects in Medellín (Casa de Hip Hop Kolacho, 2021). In their statement of cooperation there is a ‘cognitive preference for peace over war’ (Pukallus, 2022, pp. 24-25). As Vogel et al. argue, graffiti ‘reflects past dynamics and experiences of conflict’ and can ‘contribute state and non-state voices to the politics of memory that can contradict or support official narratives of the past’ (Vogel et al., 2020,  p. 2154). Vogel et al. (2020) then point to Colombia, a place where memorialisation of state led violence against communities is common.


Figure 1: Example of Casa Kolacho graffiti, Comuna 13, Medellín (@graffitourcasakolacho, 2021)

Figure 1 is a clear example of how Casa Kolacho are combining memory and art to improve relations in Medellin. This graffiti has a symbolic resonance with the people of Comuna 13. The use of elephants, a peaceful animal, recognised as a symbol of memory is key here.  They embody Casa Kolacho’s, and the communities continued efforts to engage with their past. The white handkerchiefs held by the elephants are a universal symbol of peace, yet here they hold significant power beyond this. It is a reference to Operation Mariscal on 21 May 2002, a military and paramilitary operation that removed guerrilla fighters and civilians from Comuna 13 and caused many civilian casualties (Rolston and Ospina, 2017, p. 34). An Instagram post on Casa Kolacho’s page (2021) explains:

In the midst of the operation, white flags made of curtains, rags, T-shirts and other pieces of cloth began to fly from the windows and balconies of houses. People began to take to the streets en masse to say no more, enough is enough, we are tired, no more violence, we can’t take it anymore.

In the creation of the graffiti, Casa Kolacho is allowing the community and the public to understand different perspectives of the past and the conflict that oppose the official narrative and experience of the past (Vogel et al., 2020). Not only this but the graffiti and the creation of it empowers the community; it represents community stories and the stories of victims (Pukallus, 2022). Graffiti opens up alternate ideas and perspectives for local people and shares experience to an external audience (de Ruiter, 2015).

Casa Kolacho is a grassroots organisation open to all members of the community as well as those outside it; members join forces to create art, perform oral histories through tours and also offer workshops to teach young people (Leavy, 2011).

Activism

The way in which Casa Kolacho uses graffiti not only focuses the community on peace, but is also a form of activism. The examples of graffiti used are inherently political; they tell a story of political and social history. In his research into graffiti in Medellín, Cadavid understands that the ‘district has used the walls as a social, cultural and political instrument to communicate governance and memory’ (Cadavid, 2013, p. 3). It is an organisation focused on improving the socio-economic conditions caused by civil war and to resolve tensions and build peace. According to Pukallus (2022) peacebuilding involves fighting for equality and active attempts to improve opportunities. Casa Kolacho succeeds in this. It educates young people in the arts of hip hop and gives them an opportunity to share their experiences.

Medellín suffered huge displacement following  Operation Mariscal and Orion (Rolston and Ospina, 2017). Conflict and displacement can have enormous psychological impact on communities and individuals, and this can manifest in negative emotion (Musisi and Kinyanda, 2020). Casa Kolacho has given the community an opportunity to work on this. Art has long been considered an effective form of therapy and through art, conflict may be solved, and trauma healed (Mariño García and Potash, 2018). As a form of art, graffiti can be viewed with the same standard. Negative emotions can be channelled into the graffiti via metaphor which, according to Nash and Wise (2013) can create a safe environment for trauma to be explored.

The graffiti in Figure 2 simply states “desarma tus palabras” which translates to “disarm your words”, a clear indication of a channelling of negative emotion into artwork and the ability of participants to resist using negative language that may inhibit peace.


Figure 2: Example of Casa Kolacho graffiti, Comuna 13, Medellín (@graffitourcasakolacho, 2017)2

Graffiti in action

Part of Casa Kolacho is the Graffitour in which members of the organisation that are victims of the war, guide visitors around Medellín, discussing the history and meaning of the art they have created. While this is not necessarily communication between those involved in the conflict, it is still perspective-taking. As Pukallus (2022) states, perspective-taking involves multiple perspectives that include victims and bystanders, not simply an act between victims and perpetrators. The examples of graffiti shown can challenge the audience to empathise and listen and hear the stories of victims.

A look at Casa Kolacho’s Instagram page reflects their commitment to making contributions only for the pursuit of peace. In one caption they describe their Graffitour (graffitourcasakolacho, 2018):

“More than a fashion tour, the graffitour with @casakolacho is an invitation to understand a little of the reality of our city, the one that many lived and today are an example of perseverance and strength, to understand that in the midst of the most dense and complex moments it is necessary to arm oneself with courage to move forward and move from the opaque of war to a neighbourhood of colour and hope.”

However, of course, it is not without its limitations. The organisation itself relies on these tours and their shop to fund their project so there is a risk that the project may become commercialised. There have been debates in the literature about the commercialisation of graffiti and whether this impacts authenticity (Merrill, 2015 and Vogel et al., 2020). In his research into subcultural graffiti, Merrill argues that the commodification of graffiti represents a ‘deepening of…market-oriented pressures’ (Merrill, 2015, p. 383). This is unfortunately what Casa Kolacho risks when it relies so heavily on their Graffitour. So as Vogel et al. argue, it can blur the line between what serves as a peacebuilding artwork and what is used to draw in customers; that is, can we ‘actually read the local voice’ (Vogel et al., 2020, p. 2161)? Of course, though the civil war may have officially ceased, violence has still continued, so this represents an inherent weakness in their peacebuilding project. However, it would be unrealistic to say that it could bring peace immediately after so many years of conflict. So long as members of the community continue to create the graffiti and it remains grassroots, then the peacebuilding element will be central. Their Graffitour is essential to funding their education programme and creating more graffiti that expands communication in the community and provides alternative opportunities to the people of Medellin. So, yes, while people can argue that commercialisation removes authenticity, I think it allows the authenticity to grow; Casa Kolacho is an excellent example of this.

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