In August 2011, Bogota based graffiti artist Diego Felipe Becerra was painting a bridge just north of the Colombian capital when the police found him. The details of what happened that night are still under investigation but what we can say for sure is that the 16-year-old artist was shot dead and the man that pulled the trigger was a Colombian police office.
Fast forward to last week when Canadian pop star Justin Bieber performed his first ever concert in Bogota on October 29, the following night he decided to hit the streets and show Colombia his skills with a spray can. But instead of stopping him, ticketing him, even hassling him, local police gave him a personal escort.
For several hours he painted about 40 meters of wall on 26th street in Bogota with his entourage and security in town -- local police were on hand, again, not to stop him but to make sure no one bothered him while he "tagged" the wall.
Traffic was redirected and Bieber was allowed to "paint" several crudely drawn cartoons, phrases and his own signature at his own leisure. At one point, Bieber looks to be ordering his police escort to remove the news cameras that were shooting footage of his foray into street art. If this wasn't bratty enough, he even shows his support for fellow-pop-brat with misplaced machismo, Chris Brown, by painting the words "Free Breezy" on the wall.
(In Brazil this week, Bieber was caught throwing up some more of his street art on the side of a £23 million hotel in Rio De Janeiro. How are Brazilian police handling the situation? Not as well as Colombian police -- defacing buildings is a crime punishable by up to one year in jail and police went to Bieber's rented mansion to question him today, but he wasn't there. Maybe Chris Brown will have to take to the streets to spray "Free Beibs?")
But back to Bogota. Why should we be upset that Bieber took to the streets with a spray can in Colombia? Sure, police hassle and assault graffiti artists worldwide, so we shouldn't be shocked that Colombian police are being investigated for murdering a local graffiti artist in Bogota -- in fact -- police in Colombia are pretty much world renown for their brutal tactics and have been accused of much worse. The same reactionary campaigns against graffiti and graffiti artists have been seen around the globe, including North America.
The only thing that sets these two young men apart, aside from questionable talent, is fame. The same people who killed Becerra are protecting Bieber yet both kids were doing the exact same thing.
When artists like Banksy are blurring the line between fame and infamy in the street art world and forcing us to ask these questions -- someone like Bieber takes an already controversial art form that has spent years building credibility to misfit-status.
It goes from high-art to simple vandalism for the sake of street-cred. Nothing Bieber was doing that night, on that wall, in Colombia was for the sake of art or in the true spirit of graffiti. It was just as contrived a move as his attempts at rapping. It's an effort to be rebellious without any risk -- and to have the police there, as your backup, is as soft as it gets.
Without even getting into the quality of the art that Bieber threw up on that wall, the real concern is his coopting of graffiti for his own personal gain. Was this his way of showing the world how "street" Bieber is? And was the open police escort their way of trying to make amends with the already marginalized graffiti community in Colombian?
The same group of people that for years views the police as the enemy? Hard to say. Instead of the police, Bieber could've easily tapped any one of the many local, talented graffiti crews in Bogota to take him out -- and I'm sure they would've gladly taken him on a tour of all the amazing street art in Colombia. But instead, police cars, flashing lights and security guards -- a whole show was put on so that Bieber could clown around with a spray can. Maybe his swag coach felt this was cooler?
When most graffiti artists around the world work in stealth, worried about the police showing up while they're painting, Bieber seemed more concerned with locals showing up while he was throwing up his pieces.
In fact, by the next day, local graffiti activists Mochila Ambulante did show up, with spray cans in hand, to cover up Bieber's "graffiti." They had no police escort and wore bandanas over their faces to cover up their identities. And while their work won't make international headlines or cause outrage, perhaps Bieber got what he was looking for after all -- attention.
On a South American tour that has had Bieber allegedly stumbling out of Brazilian Brothels and Panamian hookers telling all his secrets this is probably the most PG thing he's done -- and yet somehow it seems the most insulting.