“You have to be a kind of ‘artivist,’ an artist and an activist at the same time.” “And I believe that is the duty of art: to speak what other people do not want to speak. Say loudly what other people don’t want to say.” – eL Seed / Calligraffiti Artist, Harvard University, 2012 Interview
Have you ever wondered how or what a memory is ? Memories refer to a psychological process that acquires, stores, retains and later retrieves information, it creates conditions that affect our quality of life, our ability to live and learn. This makes us extraordinary beings on earth. One of my most fondest memories was the time when I almost drowned at sea. The Pacific Ocean to be exact, it’s been almost fifteen years and I remember as it was yesterday, how my father’s boat rocked from one side to another as a huge wave hit us from the right. Saw one of his crew members pointing at me while screaming ¨she’s falling.¨ I can still feel my father’s hand, gripping tightly to my arm. At that moment I only stared directly at his brown eyes and flowy hair, I was not scared, I knew that he got me, but what was scary was what came next.
Born and raised in a third world country (Guatemala) comes with its challenges. Corruption, poverty, lack of education, human trafficking, drugs among others. It feels like we are inside an arcade claw machine, waiting to be picked and carried away to a better place. But the ones that stay, we fight; with honor, education and within the law.
So there we were, at sea with my father and his crew of men, in total, we were five souls at sea. As the boat was navigating, the sun was almost settling and we needed to return to shore. Then we saw in the distance three floating covered buckets, tied with a rope. It was obvious to us that they were waiting to be picked up, fear came among us, as we knew that we were not alone at sea, fear of death. I stared again at my father’s eyes, this time, as he gave the order to return as fast as we could to shore, but I was scared. I knew that if we encountered whoever was arriving for the buckets that was the end for all of us. For some reason this memory pops through my head from time to time. Today all of the crew members have passed away, including my father, and his boat never returned to sea. This memory felt like an eternity, but it was only a couple of hours. I can’t imagine the fear that other people face everyday in their community where drugs ruled their mornings, noons and nights.
Graffiti has become a way to symbolize memories of a culture or place, bringing a whole other meaning to the saying: ¨If these walls could talk¨. It could also be described as modern poetry. Comuna 13 in Medellin, Colombia is a neighborhood that has radically changed, thanks to social and government programs. It was once known as the most dangerous neighborhood in Colombia for its crime and drug trafficking (nickname: the cradle of Pablo Escobar). Times Magazine declared it as the most dangerous place in the world in the late 80s. Its hillsides and deepness contributed to the fact that its own residents had a hard time leaving the borough to seek better job opportunities. It was easier to stay and work inside the same crime circle of the borough than to seek job opportunities outside of it. Residents lacked resources, with almost no education or job prospects, people turned to gangs and drugs for money. It was a place with no color, where gunshots and dead bodies were normalized.
It was until the year 2002 that the Colombian government implemented Operation Orión to take control of the borough, this operation lasted for months and lots of residents lost their lives. Today it’s a whole other chapter for Comuna 13, over the past two decades it’s become part of the mainstream culture of Colombia, thanks to urban influence. Graffiti has replaced the lack of color that its walls had and it has actively promoted artists to work together to build it up. Today, Colombia has introduced legislation that aims to promote the practice of graffiti, because it has shown that this type of art improves the lives of the people around it, therefore becoming a source of civic pride, it’s no longer rejected or viewed as vandalism. This enables communities like Comuna 13 to tell their memories, past, and future through graffiti by their local artists. There are many graffiti artists that are part of Comuna 13, like:
Chota_13, he has his own art gallery in the Comuna and MariodelBarrio13 who proudly was born and raised in the borough as well.
Comuna 13 has had a beautification by graffiti, it has youth dance programs like hip hop and breakdance, making it unique. It has won an award by the Urban Land Institute and Wall Street Journal for the world’s most innovative city. It has six electric staircases and a cable car system that helps its residents and visitors to go up the hills in just minutes, prior to this it took hours to cross the borough. As you travel through Comuna 13 you can admire all the murals plastered with metaphors of its past, memories that its residents don’t want to forget. Thereby forming the phenomenon of an ¨artivist¨.
An artivist according to the calligraffiti artist eL Seed, is an artist and an activist at the same time, who expresses and speaks what other people don’t want to speak. Remembering the past by the Comuna 13 residents has only created quality of life for them, bringing commerce into the borough, where its residents and visitors feel inspired and honored to visit.
Maybe some memories that aren’t so pleasant to us should pop in our minds for a minute or two, it might just bring us creativity and peace with the past and the places we call home.