Graffiti and Hip-Hop – Questions Left Unanswered

Colombia - Medellin January 2016 186

Comuna 13 – Once the most dangerous place on earth

It has taken some time for me to wrap my head around the tour we participated in yesterday. Though the name of Graffiti and Hip-Hop was plain and simple, neither of us understood the connection. We had witnessed many graffiti tours in Bogota, which we had intended to join, but the days got away from us. We never did officially do the tour, but we were bystanders a few times overhearing the guide. This tour was nothing like those in Bogota.

Eighteen of us met our primary guide, Andres, at the Toucan Café. Ron and I were the oldest participants by at least one generation. Initially, it did not seem to matter much, but it seems our lack of knowledge and experience may have been lacking in some areas, while being overly developed in others.

Off we went down the hill to the metro station, where one has to climb a hill of stairs before reaching the actual station. Once through the turnstile, it is down stairs once more to reach the metro platform. Jack LaLane or a sadist must have been the designers of the metro stations.

When we reached the designated stop, Andres directed us to the street level where we were meeting up with the local guide. This is where things started to disintegrate and gaps in knowledge and experience presented problems. Our local guide does not speak English, so Andres is the translator. Most of the group does not speak Spanish.

Jeihhco, his hip-hop name and not his real name arrived to tour us around his hood. His young son accompanied him. The destination was Comuna 13, in the past considered the most Colombia - Medellin January 2016 146dangerous neighborhood in the world. A tingle went through me as this was an area we wanted to explore, but would not have done it individually. The few ex-pats we have run into all have negated our interest, swearing they have never been here either.

Before boarding a transit van, Jeihhco provided a brief autobiography. He is a Hip Hop rap artist, founding member of Casa Kolacho and the one who inspired the Graffiti Hip Hop. He then went on speaking of this barrio and that, which was not clear. Wanting information, I asked how many barrios are in the city? There are 16 comunas (districts), 5 corregimientos (townships), and 271 barrios. Comuna 13 is the poorest.

Colombia - Medellin January 2016 147Taking us on a walk, Jeihhco stopped in front of a wall sized mural of a young man. This person is one of thirteen heroes of the comuna. Jeihhco explained that rather than memorialize these people after they are dead, they decided to pay homage to them while they are living. This not only shows the person respect, but also makes that person more visible in the community. Who were the others? Who chose those to for a memorial? Where are the other murals? I had these questions, but like other questions asked they went unanswered or were answered without satisfaction.

Casa Kolacho is a grassroots organization, though they do not seem to identify it in those terms. Jeihhco is proud of this place, a small house among others on a neighborhood street. He along with others created this space as the heart of their Hip Hop organization. One room has multiple shelves of spray paint in every color manufactured. Another room is a recording studio with an Colombia - Medellin January 2016 150adjacent room providing a drum set. Jeihhco’s son immediately went to the drums and starting playing softly while his dad continued to lecture.

Here is where things became murky. What I knew about hip-hop could fit in the space of the phrase hip-hop. Of course, I have heard the term, but never cared to know more. There was no understanding of what hip-hop had to do with graffiti. I asked what the connection was since it was not offered otherwise. The younger tour members, who represent a number of countries, seemed as curious as I did; this was not a generation gap in knowing.

When asked questions, with what seemed to me was a bit of attitude, Jeihhco started off with the four pillars of hip-hop. Shouldn’t this have been in the introduction? There are four pillars? What are they? Inquiring minds want to know. Should there have been a pre-test to evaluate our previous knowledge before being admitted to the tour? Is this something everyone knows and I missed out somewhere? The pillars are breakdancing, rapping, DJ’ing, and of course graffiti. What is the rationale for these? The answers to these questions and others would hang in the air unanswered.

Jeihhco had a large board outside of the center, in the yard. He wanted each person to tag it

Ron adds his tag

Ron adds his tag

with spray paint. Trying to engage the group, he encouraged us by claiming that by our tagging we were becoming one with the community; we would be a part of the community; it would be with us forever. Our legacy will go on forever. I was not buying any of this, so I refrained from staining the board with paint. I wondered where all the other boards from previous tours went to live. They certainly cannot be stored in this small space.

The next thing that pricked up my ears and got me to thinking was his announcement about taking as many pictures as we wanted. Following this, he said do not be afraid to take pictures of people. They enjoy being photographed and appreciate it that outsiders are interested in their community. This seemed to much of a blanket a statement for my comfort. Surely, there would be people who did not care for their images to go home with strangers for whatever purpose.

To reach the top of the comuna meant climbing the equivalent of a four-block street with a 90-degree incline. There were a few stops along the way to point out graffiti art on the walls, but

A small portion of the hilly street

A small portion of the hilly street

the thoughts of the next portion of the hill occupied my mind. In cities like San Francisco, streets on a hill with this grade have steps on the sidewalk to facilitate the climb.

Actually, the climb did not bring us to the top, but to the first escalator. Due to the steep incline of the hill that the community had built on, vehicles were not able to make the climb. Residents had to climb stairs comparable to 23 flights up. The government implemented a plan to install escalators. There are now six escalators transporting people up and down the mountain. The escalators cover 1,260 feet or 384 meters. This is the longest escalator network in the world.

From here, there is a panorama of the entire ghetto. Painted tin rooftops decorate the scenery

One section of the six escalators

One section of six escalators

along with colorful clothes hung out to dry. We were left to wander, encouraged to speak to people and to take photos.

The last speech that Jeihhco gave was one that really raised my hackles. He claims he was not able to obtain a Visa to visit the US because he could not speak English. Then he went on to say that, it disturbs him that this tour is not in Spanish only, without a translator. He understands that English is the international language, but if you are visiting his country, you should speak the language.

This diatribe continued in this vein for more than any of us was comfortable with, including Andres, our translator. What I wanted to respond with was that first, hip-hop was created in the US. If he wanted to adopt it, he should learn English. Second, if he is as appreciative of tourism coming to his community as he claims he is, he should embrace the participants regardless of the language. These tours are providing support for the projects of Casa Kolacho; they are not receiving any government funding.

Colombia - Medellin January 2016 203This is last speech seemed a little paradoxical from this quote he had given to TedX. “Medellin isn’t a model of a perfect city, Medellin is a laboratory city, where we experiment on a daily basis, because we’re tired of suffering, because we’re tired of living what we’ve lived. Because we believe it’s possible to have a better world and that we’re capable of doing it” – Jeihhco

On one last note, I have to say that Andres was a fabulous guide and translator. Among the impressive things he did during the day was continually stop at intervals to count the participants. No one was forgotten. Knowing enough Spanish to understand Jeihhco, Andres translated beautifully, even when what needed translation was uncomfortable to us having to listen. Andres is works for Palenque Tours.

After completing my Ed.D., the frustration of finding a teaching position where I was willing to live, led to Ron and I leaving the country. We intended to travel for a year before settling somewhere in MA or RI. We left the US without any credit card debt, no car payments and our house mortgage paid by renters. We had $10,000 in the bank to make our way through a year.