Almost everyone who visits Medellin ends up at Comuna 13 at some point. Once one of the most dangerous ghettos in the world, a hideout for gangsters and guerillas, its fortune began to change in 2002, when the president at the time, Alvaro Uribi, launched a full-on assault on the neighborhood, bringing in 3,000 troops and helicopters. Then in 2011, a series of escalators were installed, to help improve the mobility and morale of the residents. That brought the children and artists out of the woodwork, and now the area is famous for its street art and festive atmosphere.
One of my roommates, an African now living in France, had taken a tour of Comuna 13, and admitted that he would’ve preferred to go it alone, but that it was difficult to get there on foot from the Metro station. When I looked it up, I saw how this might be the case, but wrote down the directions, which included a dozen twists and turns. A woman from the hostel had a Metro card she let me have, and I went to the corner store and put 30,000 pesos on it, which sounds like a lot, but only came to about six dollars.
From Parque Berrio, I took the B train to San Javier, and got out with the directions in hand, only to find twenty or thirty guides standing around, trying to hustle up customers for a tour. When I couldn’t even find the first street, I loitered around, eventually approaching a couple who were deciding rather to pay for a tour or not. They were waiting for someone’s brother to arrive, who apparently spoke fluent English. Rather than joining them when he finally showed up, I merely followed them, onto a bus that was parked around the corner. Five minutes later and we were dropped off at the entrance to the commune.
Street art is my favorite kind of art, not the angry scrawl of graffiti, as much as the recent movement of murals, both beautifying and challenging public spaces. In his Futurist Manifesto, the Italian poet Filippo Marinetti threatened to destroy all museums. It’s a sentiment I can relate to, as I always believed that art belongs to everyone, not just those who can pay to see it. It’s what attracted to me to folk and old blues music, as well, in that it was made in a very democratic manner, by people who had no ulterior motive outside of celebrating the moment they were living in. In the absence of technical proficiency, all I’d ever been able to aim for was honesty, and I admire anyone who does the same, no matter how crude the outcome. In recent years I’ve often lost myself in the living galleries of street art popping up around the world. It is folk art done up on a high, magical plain, with a power that can’t be contained inside a building or a frame.
Ascending the stairs that led to Comuna 13, was like entering a fantasy world, populated by eagles, space embryos, burning jaguars, visionary elders, serpents, honeybees, DJs, and mystical children, and that was before I’d even reached the first elevator. I continued on past thumping human hearts, electric roosters, dancing fruit, inflamed lovers, and creatures that had never existed before coming to life on these walls. There were bars to stop at and meals to eat, but I was just walking. Once I began passing from escalator to escalator, the ascent to the top was fast. From there you could see miles of red rooftops, stretched out below.
I’d seen that tours to Comuna 13 also included cable cars, but those were separate, an actual part of the transit plan, as opposed to an amusement park attraction. To get to them, I had to return to the Metro station, but then was able to use the same card I’d used for the train to get on a cable car and go swinging out above the streets. A couple sat across from me, blocking most of the view. That was OK. Just to be that high, looking down at what I could see, was exhilarating. Some of the houses below were only being propped up by shaky looking wooden stilts. It seemed like the slightest tremor could cause whole neighborhoods to come crashing down.