From Santander to Camilo and Che: Graffiti and Resistance in Contemporary Colombia

By Benavides-Vanegas, Farid Samir | Social Justice, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

From Santander to Camilo and Che: Graffiti and Resistance in Contemporary Colombia


Benavides-Vanegas, Farid Samir, Social Justice


Introduction

IN AN ANALYSIS OF CULTURAL CRIMINOLOGY, JEFF FERRELL (1993) HAS SHOWN HOW graffiti and wall painting have emerged as an accepted and structural media system. Ferrell explores the export of graffiti from the U.S. around the world and its use as part of the imaginaries of resistance. He also shows that graffiti can constitute a way of resistance to imperialism by appealing to icons that are recognized unambiguously as revolutionaries. In Nicaragua, for instance, the image of Sandino was used to express rejection to Somoza's dictatorship and to protest against U.S. imperialism in Nicaragua. Through wall painting, Nicaraguans engaged in a revolution of the walls, that is, the mere act of wall painting was conceived as part of the strategies of resistance to an oppressive regime (Ferrell and Sanders, 1995). Yet graffiti can also show the ambiguities of globalization. Ferrell's analysis of wall painting in the former Soviet Union shows how American-like graffiti could be part of an imaginary in which the youth used U.S. cultural icons to reject oppression within the Soviet Union. In this way, what in other contexts could be perceived as cultural imperialism became in Russia an important part of a subculture of resistance, with youth as its most important agent. As Ferrell and Sanders (1995: 287) put it, "cultural symbols can have different meanings; symbols of cultural imperialism can be used to repudiate and undermine domination domestically." Graffiti and wall painting link crime and culture. Ferrell shows how subcultural activities are labeled as crimes and that crime can be part of a culture. In the structure of graffiti, there is a close connection between the cultural and the legal, because graffiti can only be such as part of different strategies of illegalities.

In this intersection between culture and crime, youth appears as one of the most important actors. They construct a different world of meanings and contest the established one. This is seen in style and fashions, in the way they dress, the way they talk, and the way the act toward the rest of society. In defining the identity of youth and their social activities, there is a question of style, a struggle for style, but also a negotiation of meanings (Ferrell, 1993). Graffiti is a way to reject traditional culture. Against the written word, the young imagine the world differently and use the walls to express their discontent and style. Ferrell's research shows how hip-hop culture is expressed on the walls of New York and Denver, how a new style is fought for on the streets. As he puts it, the fight is not so much about property as it is about style.

By using a different style and means of language, the young can contest the state as well as traditional forms of contesting the state. In traditional resistance struggles against state power, the young in places such as Colombia employed normal channels, e.g., guerrilla warfare, riots, etc., making them part of a revolutionary subject that raised its voice in the name of the oppressed. However, successful revolutionaries--those that stayed alive during the war--ultimately failed in their revolution. As subjects of social change, they were unable to bring about change: as revolutionaries, they often demonstrated some darker sides of the revolution.

In Colombia, traditional forms of resistance used walls as part of revolutionary strategies. Commonly found painted on the walls of Bogota, Cali, Medellin, etc., were expressions such as "Por la guerra revolucionaria, FARC-EP" (for the revolutionary war), or "Celebrar estruendosamente el cumpleanos del presidente Mao, Guardias Rojos" (loudly celebrate the birthday of President Mao, Red Guards), in which authorship and command were clear in the message. Young people used what was available to them to resist the government, with walls becoming another way to express their rejection of the state of affairs in Colombia. However, in an increasingly bloody war in which no rules applied, the young found no path to follow. …

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