Street artists have transformed this notoriously dangerous city into a tourist attraction for art lovers.
Comuna 13, a neighborhood in Medellín, Colombia, is not where most people would have gone for a walking tour 10 years ago.
In fact, travelers were actually told to avoid the area because of high murder rates and the lingering influence of powerful drug lords in the 1980s and '90s.
But today, Comuna 13 has a totally different story: Local artists have created a vivid street-art scene, and murals cover almost every wall. Now Comuna 13 is one of the most visited neighborhoods in Medellín, and it's showing the world how art can change things in a big way.
During the 1980s and '90s, powerful drug lords like Pablo Escobar controlled multiple comunas. They made Medellín one of the deadliest cities in the world.
A staggering homicide rate of 381 per 100,000 people during the worst of the drug cartel cast a shadow over the community. Youth were susceptible to a seemingly unbearable cycle of violence and guerrilla warfare, and things seemed incredibly hopeless.
But recently, the community tried a new tactic for reducing crime: art.
First, local government leaders sent free paint to the homes of at-risk youth to give them a creative outlet. Then local businesses and schools followed suit. They wanted to add a renewed sense of identity — and a bit of color — to the daily lives of the community by commissioning local artists, and their idea worked.
Integrating resources for art in the community was just the beginning, though. The local government also worked diligently to implement urban renewal efforts meant to help Comuna 13 distance itself from its violent past. Infrastructure efforts, the implementation of escalators around the comuna to help residents avoid the steep climb to work, and lowering the tolerance for drug-related crimes have also contributed to making the community a safer place to live.
Medellín now sits at the lower end of the world’s most dangerous cities — 49th out of 50 — and the murder rate has dropped to 26.8 per 100,000 inhabitants.
"Taking people off of the streets and reducing violence is a large task, but giving people the resources to do art is a tool that helps to make the process a little easier," Colombian native street artist Perro Graff told me.
"With art, you’re given a way to become a part of the movement for peace with no judgment by using your talent to express what’s happened in the community."
Check out 10 of the many beautiful murals in Comuna 13.
They show just how much talent exists in the community, and how much has changed in the past 20 years.
1. This visual masterpiece was painted by Perro Graff.
2. This wall features a piece titled "Opip" by Poe13.
3. Jamie Solomon snapped a photo of this unnamed but gorgeous mural by Chotas.
4. There's also commissioned art around the staircase at the popular Charlee Hotel.
5. And mind-twisting pieces like this, also seen at the Charlee Hotel.
6. The hotel also features underwater scenes.
7. And even the hotel's hallways are covered in incredible work.
8. Children walk to and from school surrounded by artwork by their neighbors.
9. They can now look toward a brighter future.
10. Best of all, this piece welcomes guests in the entrance of Comuna 13.
It is meant to remind everyone of the comuna's strength and resilience and of their desire for peace. The art overlooks a neighborhood that has overcome so much and continues to push forward.
The art movement has picked up so much traction that real estate developers are even moving to Medellín to promote tourism.
"The Charlee Hotel was founded on the basis of community and art," said developer James Evans. "Each floor is painted by different local street artists, and we have rotating art shows that are on display as well."
Evans' property in nearby El Poblado is one of many helping to make Comuna 13 a popular destination for travelers, bringing more money into the area and creating a chance for the local street art to become profitable for those behind it.
"It’s like a little mini renaissance going on — complete with fashion, art, and a growing sense of pride from the people that have lived through it all," recent Comuna 13 visitor Jamie Solomon told me.
Comuna 13 is an incredible example of what happens when the government values creative outlets: Everyone wins.
During the darker days of Medellín’s history, residents took a stand by hanging white banners and towels outside their homes as statements of peace. Now, large murals welcome visitors to the neighborhood in the same way, reminding both residents and visitors of how far the neighborhood has come and how far they still have to go.
At its best, Medellín has shown the world that supporting the arts and humanities can help to build a community that thrives. When people are allowed to express the depths of their past and the possibilities of their future through art, amazing things can happen.