Nicolas, bicycles, graffiti, and Bogota

by Andrew Stein

Nicolas is out of breath, a bit disheveled, and late for our bike tour. He’s what you would expect in Colombia (though it’s difficult for us to judge considering we were also late). When we began the ride, we started to see this character emerge, one far removed from his first impression.

Some parts of the ride were obligatory. The stop at an expensive juice stand just outside the rich part of town, characterized by European architecture. Even the ride through the red light district, which arguably may have made him more uncomfortable than it made us, as this was the only point in which he lost one of us in a crowd. Then there were other moments in which he lit up. The Garbage Museum. “He just has a different way to see life,” he told us before we wandered into a hoarder’s den. (There was some message in there about consumption in a consumer culture.) Tejo. A game in which you drink beers while throwing rocks at a steel disc lined with gun powder. “This is where I like to bring first dates. That way you know she is okay getting her hands muddy… and drinks beer.” The fruit stand and vegetable stand. “You don’t know spicy until you try this pepper.” We thought he was exaggerating. We thought wrong. But the thing that made him beam… graffiti.

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First, a little more about Nicolas. Nicolas is a 26-year-old local that was born and raised in Bogota. His mother and sister are both psychologists, and his father did something business related that was lost in translation when he attempted to explain it to us. He attended university just a couple years back where he majored in visual arts, and today he is part of a city-wide graffiti group called “MAL” painting the walls and buildings of Bogota.

As we pause by many of his graffiti works, Nicolas shares why each was painted. Reasons varied from politics to history to beautification of rougher areas. It is so easy to pass by graffiti and either not notice it or dismiss it as being inferior in some way, but Nicolas’ works and messages had purpose. Riding on his steel-framed, yellow road bike, Nicolas shared stories of how some of his creations came to be. Next to one was a homeless man that Nicolas and his crew had befriended and who would protect the scaffolding overnight when the painters left. In gratitude, MAL provided the homeless man with clothes, food, and more. Stories like these that are just as much a part of the art as the art itself unfortunately usually get lost.

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We feel fortunate to have learned more about Bogota, about graffiti, and about Nicolas in this 5-hour adventure on our first morning in Colombia.