Forget Banksy, Meet Bogota's Graffiti Queen

Hera sees herself as just a chick with a spray-can, here the elusive painter talks about everything from trip-hop to love and chocolate-chip cookies...
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Hera sees herself as just a chick with a spray-can, here the elusive painter talks about everything from trip-hop to love and chocolate-chip cookies...

Hera see's herself as just a chick with a spray-can, here the elusive painter talks about everything from trip-hop to love and chocolate-chip cookies. Thanks to Paula Ricciulli for interview and translation assistance.

In the year 1882 the Irish writer, poet and flamboyant dandy- Oscar Wilde, made his first visit
to the United States of America. The purpose of his trip was a year-long series of lectures on
aesthetics, Wilde was the godfather of what is today known as- interior design. After he had
been in the States for some time Wilde was asked by a journalist why America was such a
 violent country? His response was typically succinct and eloquent- Because your wallpaper is
so ugly!

It seems at first a flippant response, but taken at its base level the interpretation is clear, if you
put people in an ugly environment they will do ugly things- they will become uglier. And so, as
 Wilde was aware of the impact of interior design, street artists today are aware of the value of
exterior design. Graffiti art gives our environment a little more creativity, colour and style- and 
perhaps makes us all a little less ugly as a result. But what drives these beautifiers of our city
walls to create this oft-maligned-yet-magnificent public art? Why do they dedicate themselves
to such a creative cause- despite the obvious risks?

In the year 2009 I visited Bogota for what would soon become a permanent residency and I have been studying the Bogota street art scene ever since. Initially this process involved endless Graffari´s (graffiti safaris), pounding the city streets with my camera, hoping to stumble across new work. In time I began to recognise certain artistic styles and eventually met several of the artists- my favourite of which was Hera. Her style shows the distinct soft touch of a womans hand, both physically and metaphorically. We persuaded her to put down her spray-can and tell JACK just what makes her tick.

Hera arrived for the interview in her normal low key style- her diminutive frame immediately recognisable through the frosted glass of our front door. Dressed in baggy jeans and a Colombia tracksuit top- both a little splattered in paint, her brilliant smile instantly makes me forgive her the 30 minutes by which she is late - I had expected no less. I sit her down with a cookie and cup of tea and decide to begin our conversation (inevitably) with the subject of femininity in street art....

"People are usually impressed when they hear about women doing graffiti. For me there’s nothing extraordinary about that! We women can do graffiti also, it´s no different. Femininity is very present in my work, because I mostly paint portraits of women. We have the same strength with the spray-can as men, but we have a more delicate line, as well as different sense of aesthetic appreciation."

Most of the street art I´ve seen around the world has involved more sexualized or stereo-typical representations of women- whereas Hera´s work has a distinctly softer, more sympathetic edge. Hera herself is an interesting mix of pretty and tom-boy, and her bashfulness in front of the camera for her photo session was charming. Hera has an understated confidence of her own, however I first met her as part of a double act. Hera was in an on/off personal and working relationship with another very talented Bogota graffiti artist- Franco (FCO) for 6 years and I´m interested to see if she is willing to talk about the effect these relationships had on her work...

"We met through graffiti and I guess that was what bound us. We discovered how to make money from art together, set up the foundations together and I think had an equal creative influence on one another. It´s true that you need space creatively and emotionally, but we always persued personal projects and travelled around Colombia to do individual work. Maybe we grew apart emotionally but we´re still friends and still work together with Estereo Graphico."

Does your emotional-self affect your art or do you detach yourself from it?

"Can I paint when I´m furious? Yes! Happy or sad, emotion is the energy!"

Hera removes her tracksuit top and reveals that she is wearing a mock-pearl-button cardigan beneath, a great demonstration of her mixed style. I wonder if her musical taste is equally as varied and this prompts me to enquire how music affects her painting...

"What I listen to does depend on my mood, but generally while I’m sketching I like to listen to more mellow stuff like Tricky. While I’m painting I listen to something more upbeat that keeps me motivated, dancehall´s good! I actually like to listen to any kind of music while I am painting as long as there’s sound. I hate silence- so any noise is good."

I feel a little embarrassed for the un-coolness of the silent backdrop I am providing for the interview, grasp my I-pod and select some Massive Attack, Hera seems to approve and we get down to the specifics of Bogota´s graffiti style and the public´s reaction to it.

"I think Bogotá’s graffiti is in the process of developing an independent and unique style. Right now there are a lot of very good artists doing a lot of great work, so Bogota’s graffiti is definitely on its way to becoming stronger and better, and defining a style of its own. There´s so much variety out there and a lot of it has an indigenous influence and I guess that is the root of our artistic identity and is a vibe that the public can appreciate."

In theory street art represents a true freedom of political and creative expression and Colombia has much to say in both respects, to what extent does the government suppress or support street art in Bogota?

"What do they do? Nothing! Three years ago with the last mayor they had an initiative, they dedicated some walls and had a competition, but that was it, since then nothing. After what happened to Tripido (a 16 year old artist killed by Bogota police earlier this year) it seems relationships between artists and officials are at a real low."

Have you ever been arrested?

"Yes, I was in the UPJ twice (24 hour jail) and it isn´t very nice. The first time was the worst- women and men are split and I was the only girl in the group-I remember sitting on the floor and crying. The main reason for that was because I knew my mom had to collect me and she would kick my ass! After that I had to keep my graffiti a secret from her for two years until I started to earn some money. Now she often comes to watch me work."

Tell us about your foundation?

"I have three different projects: Horda S.A, Casasha and Bosque Estereográfico, all them in Soacha. Young people can learn about graffiti, rap music, break dance and self-expression. It provides an alternative to stealing or getting involved with drugs, but I don’t really see them as foundations, just as a group of friends who hang out and have fun, it´s informal- and I believe that is the only way it can function. Kids come and go and we try to encourage them to express themselves creatively and give them the tools to do so- and then to teach others!

At the moment we are doing a project in La Florida (Soacha) with the United Nations because that is where displaced people often first arrive in Bogota and the conditions there are very tough. We have found some really talented people through the foundations and the main way people can help is to look at their work on my website and hopefully employ them!"

Commercial graffiti is pretty evident in Bogota, what´s your view on it?

"I don't necessarily have a problem because it shows that brands are interested in it as a way of expression, as long as the artist is free to incorporate his or her personal style it still has artistic value. Some companies don't appreciate the time and effort a person puts into a wall, so they pay poor prices for a piece.

I disagree with the fact that some companies have exclusive permission to paint certain walls. It shouldn't be like that, because eventually everybody is going to see it and it's public property."

Is graffiti an addiction?

"Yes, there’s certainly something addictive about art, because there’s the constant anxiety to be better. I paint to evolve and have a new challenge every day. I think these cookies are addictive too!"

My meeting with Hera has been as entertaining as ever. As she takes a third cookie and swigs the remainder of her tea, which she seems to have made last for an eternity- we have a flick through her piece book. It contains some great sketches and it seems foolish not to incorporate them into the opening spread of the feature. To round off the interview I ask an obvious question and Hera pauses for thought before answering it- with a Wilde-esque twinkle in her eye.

What would your chosen epitaph be?
…Warrior goddess!

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