|Abstract:||El Grupo Excusado, a graffiti collective that emerged between 2002 and 2003, introduced stencil into the street art community of Bogotá, Colombia, and emerged as innovators of a style that exposed the relationship between status, identity, image, and representation through the provocative manipulation of recognizable icons and symbols. As members of Grupo Excusado related in interviews, manipulating icons and symbols at their index proved a more powerful tool to interrogate social hierarchies of power than creating original images.
Furthermore, Grupo Excusado’s influence effected a new direction in graffiti production in Bogotá, distinct from that of earlier decades, when street writing entrenched itself in political strategy, opposition, and consolidation. Moreover, changes to infrastructure, such as increased access to telecommunications networks, the Internet, and travel, changed the quotidian experiences post-millennium of many Colombians. The types of images, styles, and approaches to street art that emerged in the wake of Grupo Excusado thus reflects the twenty-first century change in perspective concerning image, representation, and status.
Notably, graffiti is not illegal in Bogotá, Colombia, in contrast to cities like New York. However, it is not legal either. Yet, theoretical analyses of street art foreground an assumption of graffiti as illicit. George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson perceived this visual medium as a symptom of disorder and crime, Armando Silva focused on its value as iconoclasm, and others have considered urban art as an instrument of representation for hip hop or youth sub culture. Henri Lefebvre, Edward Soja and urban theorists consider the relationship between space in itself (physical/geographical) and political space (regimes of power). In particular, their focus is the economy of space in the urban environment, where one’s role in the economy reinforces one’s relationship to self, others, and to the spaces of production. In addition, Soja posited space itself as its own subject of discourse, capable of revealing strategies for consolidating influence, power, and control. Therefore, Soja and others like him, contend that the spaces of street art production also outline the dimensions of “thirdspace,” representative of alternative actors who can utilize its existence to subvert the dominant order. Yet, the ideas central to each theoretical framework are contingent upon graffiti’s illicit status, whether by law, rule, or custom.
Graffiti’s gray legal status in Colombia: neither legal nor illegal, creates the discursive space necessary to consider its producers and its artistic value in a broader context. In addition, twenty-first century changes in everyday life and infrastructure, including access to Internet, provided means toward livelihood, resources, and community otherwise impossible through traditional state structures.
In order to illuminate the value of the street art style pioneered by Grupo Excusado and further developed by artists and collectives Bastardilla, Lesivo, Guache, and Toxicómano, it is vital to utilize a different theoretical framework: that of cartography. Cartography, the process of stratifying objects and social types according to a hierarchy within the borders of declared national space, reinforces specific relationships between constituent social groups and those in power. More importantly, enlightenment-era naturalists acting on behalf of the Spanish crown used mapping expeditions into Colombia as a means to identify natural, financial, and social resources, often appropriating local knowledge for their own use and renaming or reclassifying a plant, animal, or social type according to their hierarchal system. The images of particular social types produced by these eighteenth and nineteenth-century expeditions became recognized as representations of a specific ethnic, gender, or social class, where one’s ethnic origin and phenotype often reflected spatial and social distance from the projected ideal of the ruling class. Similarly, one’s perceived identity reflected and impacted future possibilities for social and spatial movement throughout the land. Consequently, social and spatial perception of self and others relative to the ruling class strengthened the existence of a social ideal, and naturalized the relationship between image, identity, and representation. The street art images of Grupo Excusado and others like them manage to expose the tenuous relationship between image, representation, identity, and perception, and thus this thesis posits their style of graffiti as counter cartography.
Grupo Excusado, Bastardilla, Lesivo, Guache, and Toxicómano create images that act as counter cartography, with the power to disrupt and deconstruct perception of social hierarchy through the manipulation of symbolic icons. In sum, utilizing cartography and thus counter cartography as theoretical framework broadens the scope to analyze and interrogate sign systems underlying the construction of representational images and images of representation that correlate with processes of mapping.