By Marina Villeneuve
Special to the Washington Post
BOGOTA, Colombia —
Mauricio Rodriguez says he and fellow graffiti artists always knew what could happen to them when they spray-painted on buildings in this bustling city: beatings by the police, nights in jail, paint cans confiscated.
But then Justin Bieber came to town.
The 19-year-old Canadian heartthrob gave a concert on an October night and then took to the streets of this capital, wearing a hoodie and spray-painting a Canadian maple leaf atop a marijuana leaf alongside a tribute to his dead hamster, Pac. It all happened under the watchful eye of the metropolitan police, whose officers served as security detail.
Bieber's night out, which received heavy coverage and both scandalized and delighted the city's residents, has unintentionally seemed to open a door for Rodriguez and his fellow artists.
A day before Bieber left to give a concert and spray-paint the walls of the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo, the national chief of police here said officers "have to evolve and see graffiti as an artistic expression of a feeling, of a motivation."
"Someone who paints graffiti wants to tell us something, and we have to listen," chief Rodolfo Palomino said on radio, much to the delight of artists such as Rodriguez.
Now, hundreds of street artists have taken the police chief at his word, organizing into groups of up to 300 and using paint brushes, spray cans, stickers and stencils to cover walls in Bogota, Cali, Medellin and other big Colombian cities. Artists have planned events replicating the gatherings in smaller cities as well.
This week, the young graffiti artists have planned meetings to discuss how to transform their protests of what they call the police's hypocritical treatment of Bieber into a broader movement for more rights for graffiti artists.
"Now, there's more tranquility between us and the police, and we feel like we have a little more power," said Rodriguez, 30, a goateed artist who took up street art at age 16 and now teaches kids spray-painting.
The weekend after Bieber left, Rodriguez and 300 others went to the same stark highway walls near city hall where he painted. Within 24 hours, they had created 700 vibrant images and messages. They demanded the same respect as police gave to Bieber.
"Justin Bieber did not do this," said Essehomo Pino, who works for a local hip-hop community center called La Familia Ayara that helps poor youths. "It could have been anyone. He was just a catalyst."
The Bieber drama has helped legitimize the street artists' work, said Jeyffer Lozano, alias Don Popo, who heads La Familia Ayara.
"When police officers asked them to leave, they asked them, 'Why not protect us like you did with Justin Bieber? Why not listen to your own police chief?' " Lozano said. "Also, they are asking society, 'Why persecute our youth who are expressing themselves, mobilizing for good, creating beauty?' "
City officials are struggling to explain how officers permitted the international artist to spray-paint to his heart's content.
Mayor Gustavo Petro, who has been tolerant of graffiti, said officers assigned to Bieber were primarily there to protect him. "If that boy had gone out alone on Bogota's streets and something happened to him, you'd be asking a very different question," Petro said on radio.
On the same day, Guillermo Jaramillo, who is responsible for Bogota's public security, told reporters that if Bieber returns, he may have to do community service, such as giving a free concert for children.
Community service or not, Bieber was treated far differently than other graffiti artists here.
"Many of us think the police's treatment of Bieber is hypocritical — those with privilege get away with it," said Alfonso Malagon, 29, who goes by Joems and began creating abstract images at 15.
Bogota's graffiti laws have for years appeared lax, but police are known to overstep their authority.
Christian Petersen, an Australian street artist who leads a graffiti tour of this city's colonial Candelaria neighborhood, revels in the sheer number of buildings covered in art here — from statues of winged angels to politically tinged murals.
Peterson said that as an older and international artist who paints during the day, he is rarely troubled by police.
But he and other street artists say that for younger male graffiti artists, who are often stereotyped as criminals, painting at night can be treacherous. Corrupt police officers demand bribes disguised as fines, bring the artists to jail for the night if they cannot pay, or beat them.
In recent gatherings, artists have painted images in memory of Felipe Diego Becerra, a 16-year-old graffiti artist shot by police in the back in 2011 under mysterious circumstances. The city is still investigating the incident and has removed the officer from his position.
This year, the mayor's office for the first time outlined specific sanctions for defacing private property and public buildings without a permit. Police can no longer detain graffiti artists and have defined options: They can impose a set range of fines, or they can ask the artists to leave or clean up the area.
Cristina Lleras, who works for Bogota's secretary of culture, said the law aims to both "promote and regulate graffiti in the city."
But Lozano worries about the new decree.
"There's a difference between a law on paper and a law in reality," he said.