Our special tour of Comuna 13, Medellin, Columbia

We are lucky to have met artist Topo (John) our host through our Medellin Airbnb stay. He offered to give us a tour of Comuna 13 where he lives below his studio and school for teaching kids arts and life skills. Before coming to Columbia, we knew nothing of its history but what we learned through bad Hollywood and outdated fears of Columbia in general. Through understanding Comuna 13, a person can grasp human potential.

Topo is an artist who like Chota, sees art as a way to lift people in Comuna 13 from the history of violence and extreme poverty here. The culture is born out of making from what is around you, using your mind to see differently, imagining a new world, clawing life from a violent past.

Shameless plug for John’s place: Favorite Airbnb is John’s in Sabaneta, Medillin, stay here because it’s so good and because it supports the arts of Medellin.

John and the fam.

Comuna 13, Medellin, Columbia is exploding with color and action, however this is new. Tourism has come in response to the artist culture blooming here.

The Comuna 13 neighborhood of Medellin, Columbia was originally agricultural land on the hills of Medellin. In the 1950s it was occupied by factory workers. Like now, in times of peace, a large population of working people descended the hills to Medellin’s neighborhoods with more opportunities and returned in the evening.

Then the Escobar era dominated Comuna 13 from the 1980s and early 1990s. The area continued to be used by organized crime to move people and drugs after his death into the early 2000s because the homes are without a map. DHL and FedEx can’t deliver here. People can get lost and never found in Comuna 13.

Rural people fled from the drug trade hot spots throughout Antioquia, Columbia to Medellin to avoid being killed. John described that the landowner of the Comuna 13 area did not have an heir so, people started taking small sections out of desperation for a home.

Comuna 13 was ruled outside the laws of Columbia. Street justice included marching people at gun point for public execution, because the police could not enter the neighborhoods. In 2002, the army fought for control of the area by shooting from helicopters (Orion) into the homes of people. Many innocent people died. Artists now in their 20s and 30s lived during these times and are attempting to build a new future for the kids by putting art in front of them every day.

Chota captures the indigenous people, nature, hope, and the neighborhood rising from the violent history.
Rough transition: “My memory tells me the step to follow” by Chota.
Escalators were installed in 2012 to assist access to the lower parts of the neighborhood. Imagine growing old in the neighborhood and having to be carried down the hills by relatives to see a doctor. That’s how it was until recently. Of course, the escalators also help with tourism.
People who came first, live at the bottom, newcomers build at the top. This photo is about mid-way up the neighborhood. Those lucky enough to have a home on the new road are rising economically through business rents and tourism access.
Young men from the Pacific Coast of Columbia make a living by personalizing rap on the spot for visitors. The Comuna 13 music scene is mashing new sounds together to create a new Hip Hop genre. Our rap was about our family, mom, dad, daughter, love and travel. Sums it up. Topo’s school hopes to have an open access recording studio for musicians like these.
Businesses are booming along the narrow improved road being installed with public money. Where the road stops, the business stops. There is a race by locals here to improve their lives while also not being eaten by changing too fast.
Florescent 3D artist, Jeison waiting for Topo’s school to open where he will give art class.
Art class at the school taught by established artists from the neighborhood. A heavy rain prevented some mothers from sending their kids down the hills to the school today but, the kids who did come practiced making a monkey face. The atmosphere was calm, music played gentle songs, kids loved their teacher. The kids will also be fed with food cooked in the school. The lessons and food are free, the school runs on donations and volunteers. Kids are taught to develop skills rather than learn to beg. Culturally, kids who beg have little option but to join some form of crime. “Don’t give papaya” on Jeison’s T-shirt means roughly, don’t be an easy victim or “nunca des papaya”.
Jeison’s art uses florescent paints. The woman is his mother who funded their family through sewing repairs.
Here you can see her sewing machine. There is care to honor the women in the Comuna 13 through art and employment in the cafes, stores and bars. Topo specifically pointed out that he hires people from Venezuela at an equal pay rate as Columbians. In the art economy, there is care to lift people.
The neighborhood is expansive. Because the buildings were built without codes during hard times, infrastructure is needed. The government is responding through hospitals and roads. As women prepare to give birth, they stay low in the neighborhood as there is no clinic in Comuna 13.
Columbian teens who have come to Comuna 13 to dance and make music here, find a future. The school assists with dance instructions, events and life skills.
Topo’s studio above the school.
Inside Topo’s studio you are invited to look out into the neighborhood to see art on the walls that aren’t accessible by road yet.
Topo (John) outside his studio showing how he takes the used toys and shoes of the kids and transforms them into art objects so they feel belonging at the school. His larger pieces are cast from molds and then finished with spray paint. He is preparing his studio for a newspaper interview tomorrow and plans to stay up late creating to fill the studio with larger pieces. He can ship worldwide. Wife Camila is inside, tending the till.
Kid playing on the stairs going down to the classroom from Topo’s studio.
Students can take their art home or show it in the school gallery.
So much life, so much life to live, so short and long this time together. Thanks John!

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