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Graffiti Tour in Communa 13 is (Hip) Hopping

More fascinating stories from Colombia’s tragic past

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The highlight of my final day in Medellin would be a Communa 13 Graffiti Tour

After yesterday’s amazing walking tour, the Communa 13 Graffiti Tour had a hard act to follow. We would head up the hillside by public transport in a group of 10 guided by Walter, who seemed a nice and friendly guy. We took the metro first, then a cable car, and finally a public bus. Our goal was to learn about this poorer neighborhood which was the scene of a lot of the violence during the civil war years in Colombia. A focus would be checking out the incredible graffiti painted on the walls by the residents.

Communa 13, one of the poor hillside districts of Medellín

From the station on the first stop of the cable car, we looked out over the panorama of the neighborhood. Walter took that opportunity to give us a historical background on the formation of Communa 13. It was started by residents fleeing the fighting in the countryside. With the flat ground of the Medellín valley already full, refugees began building their homes on the hillsides. There were made out of whatever materials the could scrounge up - tin roofing, wood, etc. Actually, this process is still going on, today. Walter pointed out a neighboring barrio that was “illegal.” It had not been granted Communa status by the city government and had no electricity, water, or other services. He said that it may take years but eventually it would be granted official status and given a number.

Communa 13 started out as an illegal squatters settlement, like some hillside barrios are today

This was also how Communa 13 began. Residents had fled the countryside hoping the government would protect and take care of them in Medellín. That didn’t happen. In fact, the police would come from time to time and knock down their shacks and try to drive them off. Government indifference and hostility drove the Communa 13 residents into the arms of the leftist guerrillas. The guerrillas would attempt to impose some kind of order, acting as a court to solve disputes and overseeing some basic services. In return, the guerrillas taxed the residents. This income led to turf wars between the guerrillas. Shootings happened every night with residents caught and often killed in the crossfire.

Today, Communa 13 enjoys amenities provided by the city government such as the cable cars and escalators

Periodically, the government would launch military operations to try to drive off the guerrillas. Inevitably, this led to even more civilian deaths. At long last, peace began to arrive in Colombia and the Medellín government actively tried to improve the lives of the residents of Communa 13. The cable cars were one step. Escalators were also installed on the slopes making it easier for residents to make their way up and down the steep slopes.

Graffiti decorates many of the walls of homes and buildings in Communa 13

More importantly, the residents themselves banded together to improve the lives of their young. Walter said they focused on four paths for the kids to make their way in the world. One was the graffiti. The most talented and successful graffiti artists were actually hired locally and abroad for commissions and became internationally known. Another was rapping and hip-hop music. With social media as an access to the world, successful rappers have come from Communa 13. Break dance was another venue. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the community focused on educating their young. Learning was emphasized as a path to a better life.

Education is one of the ways Communa 13 residents have focused on to improve the lives of their young

As stability returned to Medellín and tourists began to arrive, Communa 13 was ready to take advantage of the opportunity. We saw a number of rap performers entertaining visitors and likely making good money on tips. Walter took us to one of these, as well as a break dancing exhibition. It is good to see these young men and women using their talent to make their way in the world. Musically, it is definitely not my cup of tea. The audience during the rap were laughing and enjoying the lyrics, but since it was all in Spanish, I couldn’t enjoy their cleverness.

Young hip-hop artists break dance for our group and other visitors during our tour

My favorite part was definitely the graffiti. The murals were beautifully done and Walter explained the political and social commentary that was going on in the paintings. What I thought was also really cool was the use of Instagram and social media to market themselves. In the corner of many murals were the Instagram accounts of the artistic, providing them a chance to advertise their services. Once again, one of the four outlets was providing a way for the most talented to make a living in the world.

Many Graffiti tours comb through the staircases, alleyways, and streets of Communa 13 every day

I really enjoyed when Walter broke down a mural and explained what everything meant. I would actually have preferred more of this and less of the refreshment breaks. It was a graffiti tour, after all! I did my best to snap as many photos of the graffiti as I could. The portraiture and shading was incredible. The imagery was creative and showed that these are true artists.

Graffiti artists in Communa 13 use Instagram and social media to advertise their talents

The tour wound down and Walter gave us a choice of remaining in Communa 13 or returning to our start point with him. Everyone chose to leave with him. I never felt unsafe in the barrio, and there were TONS of tour groups present. So, I could have stayed, but not knowing where to go, which street or staircase would lead to more graffiti, I decided to call it a day. Walter did a decent job. His historical background was enlightening and his analysis of the graffiti was helpful. He had not surpassed Dio and his heart-wrenching stories. However, it was a good way to spend four hours and learn more about Medellín.

Leanring is the key to unlock the mind is the theme of this piece of art

It was our last day in Medellín, so we finished it off doing some things we hadn’t had a chance to do yet. We walked around the corner from our hotel to a religious shrine we had seen people visiting every day. We were curious what the heck it was. The answer was well beyond anything I could have imagined. A statue of the Virgin Mary stands in a little grotto, with a pulpit for a priest (who was present and sermonizing). The V-shaped walls of the grotto are covered with plaques honoring deceased friends and family members. I know - all very Catholic, so far. However, it’s nickname is the Shrine of the Assassins. It was where the infamous Pablo Escobar’s hitmen would come to pray before going to kill someone. Yep. Praying before murdering someone on a drug hit. How very religious! Escobar paid for the upkeep of the shrine and its part of his “Robin Hood” allure. The mind boggling contradictions at work here only highlight the craziness of a man who murdered thousands of their fellow citizens somehow remaining popular with a segment of modern Columbian society.

The Shrine of the Assassins (really?? Yes!) was a religious sanctuary near our hotel

As night fell, we ticked our final item off our list: a pub crawl of Medellín microbreweries. With the help of Dio, we had tracked down the locations of three and we visited them before calling it a night. Both Walter and Dio fervently hoped that the visitors they guided on their tours would return home and tell family and friends that Medellín is a safe, beautiful, thriving city and encourage others to visit. I agree wholeheartedly. It is one of the most scenic cities I have ever visited. It is inexpensive, friendly, and incredibly easy to navigate. I enjoyed my time in Medellín and will always remember it’s stunning views and the way it’s citizens have been through tragedy and triumphed over it. Viva Medellín!

A final look at Communa 13 and Medellín’s scenic hillsides

Posted by world_wide_mike 02:08 Archived in Colombia

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