street art & stairways: the colour of comuna 13

Fifteen years ago, we would never have been able to set foot in Comuna 13. Even for locals, this was a neighbourhood you avoided.

Located in the western hills overlooking Medellin with strategic access to a main drug-trafficking route, control of Comuna 13 meant control of the guns, drugs and money which entered and left the city.

Narcos, gangs, paramilitaries, guerrillas and the government have all vied for control here and run the Comuna as their own personal fiefdom at various junctures: murder, kidnap, intimidation and violence were never far from the clustered, steep streets.

Following a bloody government military operation in the area in 2002, the state was able to exert greater influence to make the barrio more secure and integrated into the city. Stairways and street art are two of the most vivid representations of how things are slowly changing here in Comuna 13. 

the stairways

Previously, residents of 13 would have to access their home after an exhausting walk up the hill. Now, there are several outdoor escalators.

Completed in 2012, these were one of the first of their kind in the world, and comprise a key symbol of the innovative infrastructure and urban planning for which Medellin has become globally renowned in the last decade

The escaleras eléctricas haven't just improved security, mobility and accessibility - particularly for the elderly or disabled - but also brought the unintended benefit of tourism to the area; it's not uncommon these days for foreigners to be more likely to visit than locals for whom history and reputation still weigh heavy.

The houses around the escalators are now brightly painted following a donation of materials to help foster a new identity and a fresh start for the area. 


the street art

In order to provide kids with alternative opportunities to gang involvement or crime - for too long their sole job prospect here - a number of arts-based community education initiatives were established. 

Focusing primarily on street-art lessons and hip-hop, these programmes are responsible for the murals and graffiti splashed on every inch of wall here. 

As a consequence of this and its painted houses, Comuna 13 now stands out against the city's architecture of orange-brown brick as the most colourful place in Medellin, rather than its darkest corner. 

And, although it still has more than its fair share of violence, volatility and gang problems to contend with, the future is certainly brighter in this community.


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