It’s rush hour and the traffic in Chapinero, one of the most populated neighborhood in Bogotá, is stuck, you can’t budge an inch. Toxicómano was born and raised in town, and I keep on wondering why, among all the places he knows, he chose to meet me in a book shop.
Little did I know, Valija de Fuego is an independent book shop that combines literature, art, wines and more. Punk music squawks constantly from the speakers, on the shelves there are no best sellers but anarchical and philosophy books.
We sit outside and I tell him that during the past days I have walked a lot along the streets of Bogota. Unlike all other places I have visited, it seems that the city is entirely invaded by graffiti. I have learned that the major in charge now is against this phenomenon and squads to clean walls every day have been designated.
«It’s true what you say but the magical thing about Bogotá is that you do whatever you want. [laughs]
Artworks are not concentrated in specific areas of the city and this may lead to believe that the phenomenon is tolerated, actually it’s not that simple. The great majority of the artists paint independently, constantly seeking opportunities and new walls. There’s a lot of support and respect among us: if you get first on a wall or you had troubles with the police you won’t have further issues with your colleagues. It’s rare that you ask for permission from the owners of a house, since here the law does not allow this and they could get into troubles and get a fine. Honestly it’s better to go out and start painting. When someone comes to check we always try to dialogue, we show our project and talk about it together. Sometimes it works, they offer us a coffee or some food and we exchange opinions about our work. Some other cases, unlikely, if we don’t stop immediately they could call the police.»
Colombian police. What happens at that point?
«They want money. They’re not interested in what we do, to them it’s just a chance to make some money. They try to scare us in every possible way, also threatening prison. According to the law they should only issue a report, but the truth is that they take the money and sometimes our materials, too. One ore two times it happened that the cops, once arrived, congratulated for the job done. It’s easier to succeed in painting in the south areas of Bogotá, people are more friendly and open minded. In the north, on the contrary, they are richer and there are more controls, more private security, dogs and cameras.»
From the stories I read, a few years ago the risk with police was higher. How did the situation evolve?
«Absolutely yes. The worst period started back in 2004, when you still could see few art in the street and police didn’t know how to behave, yet. I have been assaulted multiple times and had my own paint sprayed all over my body. In 2011 things touched rock bottom: a policeman killed with two shots in the back Diego Felipe Becerra, a teenager aged only 16, while he was painting a pedestrian bridge a short walk from home. The city obtained less penalties for crimes concerning graffiti even if, like I was saying before, there’s a lot autonomy in action. The policeman who killed the boy, sentenced to 37 years in jail, is missing and still fugitive…»
Let’s suppose that tomorrow your phone will ring twice. The first call, someone offers you a commissioned job, giving you a wall, all the time you may need, but you must comply with their ideas. The second call, is a friend who says: ‘this night is ours, let’s get a wall and do whatever we want’.
To which call will you answer muy bien?
«If I have enough time and energy I’ll try to do both! [laughs]
Joking aside, this kind of art evolves very quickly. The second scenario is pure street art: you spend your time, buy materials with your own money, you risk your life since you do something illegal, but you have much more incentives and full freedom of action. The first case is muralism: you do the same thing, but in an opposite way. Some sponsors are financing the materials, you get a wall where to work undisturbed all the time you want and in the end you also get paid. To answer you, I’d choose the night adventure. In the street I have thousands of possibilities since anything can happen and I am free to decide what to do and what not to do. I think that the time spent in this way is the best. I believe that the street is a very powerful place to spread an idea, think, for example, of the advertising surrounding us everywhere. So for me, like for the other artists, it’s a chance to say something in a tangible way. Then many take pictures, many write about it, other people are inspired to create something, some realize social projects, they are all people who agree with us and the street, in this case it helps to involve and gather people.»
Let’s focus on you. When and how was Toxicómano born?
«So many years have passed by now! [laughs]
In 2003 I invented and designed a fanzine together with a group of friends, I must say that it came out quite good. Once finished we told ourselves: ‘now, we have to sign it‘. At the same time the TV was on a Spanish show and I remember a couple of rich and good looking ladies. One of them said: ‘I hate toxicómanos‘ indicating a group of people on the road. We observed them carefully: guys with a friendly look, minding their own businesses, some of them having fun and some were smoking weed. We look at each other and we shouted: ‘hey, we’re the same!’. That’s where the Toxicómano Callejero Collective was born. Furthermore we liked the sound of the word and, more important, this word is used only in Spain, here in Colombia we use other expressions for this reason it’s not well understood.»
This piece of yours that I saw in Miami gets back the most difficult question: is it art or vandalism?
«Hard to say. The answer is: both.
It’s always the same question, repeated continuously. Art or vandalism? Am I an artist or a vandal?
We should take a step forward and change perspective. Look. They keep on discussing, on a car that runs at a breakneck speed, careless of that happens around.
I think that graffiti are a mix of both. Or none of them: graffiti are graffiti. [laughs]
This stencil I did Wynwood is very simple and is inspired by Marcel Duchamp, the inventor of ready-made. He decontextualises an everyday object putting it into another setting, transforming it into art, in this way. I took a famous comic, introduced the subject into the conversation and set up the car plate Tales From Graffiti. This is it.»
This stencil, instead, seen in Santa Fe neighborhood says: ‘Message for good looking people. We ugly people are more’.
«All my work is influenced by punk culture, here in particular by Siniestro Total, a Spanish band in activity since the 80’s. In Spanish language countries, when you have an accident and destroy completely your car, the insurance company writes on the form Siniestro Total. This lyric come from their song Chusma, a slang word that here you can refer to poor, ugly people, those from the South, those who usually, while walking beside them, you never look at. TV and advertising always shows beautiful people, the house you don’t have, the car and stuff that you can’t afford. Fuck them. We are poor, different and we’re proud of it. Many people identify themselves in this way of thinking since we are the majority all over Colombia and this piece is a tribute to everyone of them, of us.»
Did your family support you in your artistic journey?
«Negative, at the beginning they did not agree with what I was doing. Punk culture was not common here and see me with hair and particular clothes made them think that I was crazy or a criminal. Same thing about the graffiti: spending time to get out in the street, with paints, instead of looking for a job, was considered insanity. You know, my dad belonged to another generation, he worked his whole life without a chance to study. They have passed for years now, but luckily I started traveling and becoming someone thanks to what I painted. They could realize that “I had made it”, from the time lost in the street I had been able to get invitations to work abroad and they were proud of me. Maybe they could not fully understand what I was doing but seeing that people appreciated my work made them happy. I remember of a Christmas where they gave me with a mask to paint anonymously; this, in my opinion, has been one of the best gestures ever.»
Toxicomano: hay futuro?!
«Yes. It’s an important question. Is there a future or not? In the beginning here in Colombia it was difficult to believe, but now we see a chance. Maybe it’s thanks to the peace agreements with the rebels, maybe to the society changes, maybe to women’s more power… it’s a lot of maybes but we’re more and more convinced that the sum of these signals is a better premonition for our country. I like a lot this consideration, extremely real. Street art often leaves poetical or symbolic messages, not that easy to decode. This, instead, is direct. You know, Bogota is cruel, obscure and sometimes hostile. The punk influence on my walls is very powerful and always appropriate. I have an everlasting will to share strong and positive contents in the street. Then: yes, we have a future.
For this wall it took me 2 days of preparation, between the drawing realization and the stencil cut on different levels. Then two more days to paint it on the wall, in this case very distant days between them, since soon after starting the private security of the building came out telling me “if you don’t get lost right now, the police will arrive…”»
Didn’t you ask for the permission to paint?
«Sure I did not. I tried to explain my work, adding a rich breakfast, but no way to convince them.
I could only draw the black background. The only option was to leave and let some time pass, so I came back about two weeks later to finish my work. I arrived at night with a ladder, ready to paint the stencil with all the details. Immediately another guard came out asking me what I was doing, but this time he was willing and he let me do my work without further issues. This is street art. If it is called like that it’s because you have to work in the street.» [laughs]