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El Tigre: an unbreakable leader

The Santo Domingo barrio lies inside the Carpinelo sector in the northeast of Medellín, Colombia. Its brick houses covered by zinc roofs contrast its piled urbanity with backyards that grace potatoes on the slopes of the Andean Mountain that hosts its people. It portrays the typical image of the “comunas” that make up much of Latin-American cities. Carpinelo, originally spelled with two l’s, refers to the Virgin of Turin and Piemonte in the north of Italy. It was a name given by the Italian migration that Colombia saw as the second World War ended in Europe. The barrio expanded explosively in the 80s and 90s. It lacked any sort of formal urban planning and for many years it was seen as an invasive neighborhood by the municipality. City officials took a long time to be worried about the scarcity of primary need resources and on laying sewers and linking the informal houses to the city’s infrastructure. It was only in 2011 that the barrio was officially incorporated into a “comuna”, the official territorial division of Medellín.

Comuna 1 in Medellín, Colombia. Home of El Tigre. Source: Convivamos.

Medellín is a city of stories. It was the murder capital of the world during the reign of the Medellín Cartel led by Pablo Escobar. Its people, even more so in the poor neighborhoods like Carpinelo, have seen their people killed right in front of their houses. The reality of violence and crime in the city’s history contrasts with the liveliness and determination of its people, who earned it the title of “most innovative city in the world” in 2015. The amount of suffering has fueled the population’s wish to move on to better times.

“El Tigre”, or “The Tiger”, as he is known as due to his strong character, is one of the 10,000 people that come from Santo Domingo. Despite economic hardship and violence in his neighborhood, El Tigre has created and driven various social projects to give his people “what he never had”. Yet, after meeting El Tigre, what he is at heart, is an artist.

He has seen all the shapes and forms of violence growing up. He had uncles that disappeared into the mountains to join the guerrillas and participate in “revolutionary wars” that had become an excuse to run narco-terrorist organizations. He had cousins that were killed in their motorcycles as they scaled the mountains that hug Medellín working as “sicarios”, or gunmen for the local mafias. The close contact with violence has always made him repudiate it. Yet, due to mandatory military service, he faced violence when he graduated from school and joined the military academy. The entire time he was there he wished to flee and become a conscientious objector. “I saw too much stuff, terrible stuff,” he said. But before leaving, El Tigre flirted with both leadership and social frustration for the first time in his life. He became the person in charge of distributing the budget among his squad for the food they’d buy when they were in their missions walking through the jungles of the Andes. He noticed that as the money moved from generals to colonels to lieutenants to staff sergeants, it dwindled as corruption collected its due. It, frustratingly, robbed his team of precious calories that fueled their humid, hot, and heavy walks across the mountains.

He fled the military and came back to Medellín to study civil engineering, winning a hard-fought spot at the city’s public university. He had always been fascinated with architecture, but his innate talent for numbers led him to engineering. As a student, Tigre faced economic hardships, sometimes having to eat the mangos that fell from the trees on campus when he couldn’t afford lunch. Still, his mother’s love and presence kept him going and every day he would come back home to his family. As well as his domestic pet, Fiona, the chicken.

He has also been passionate about football his whole life. With his friends from Santo Domingo, they created a fan community for the local club, Atletico Nacional. It was here when he started graffitiing the club’s emblem around Santo Domingo in a show of support. Shortly after, some graffiti artists from a brother neighborhood noticed his prowess and asked him about his urban art. He was questioned if he was the artist that had been spraying everywhere. El Tigre, intimidated by the word, didn’t dare call himself an artist, and just said he did the murals. From then on, he decided to explore the world of urban art to earn the title of an artist through effort.

His exploration of the world of art gave wings to Tigre, who as a child had always scratched his name with drawings on any school desk, piece of paper, or lonely wall he could find. It gave form and method to an innate impulse he held. Slowly, he realized the power that art held to transmit the social frustrations he had inside of him. He found that “art is a form of salvation for a lot of people” and, trusted with this secret, he wanted to spread the word. He started to give workshops to the children in Santo Domingo about urban art. He would encourage them to explore and express their emotions. He dealt with strong emotional crises that his students would have as they came from hard economic and family environments where drugs and violence made up the day-to-day.

In 2019, a social uproar overtook Colombia as the government planned to introduce taxes that would hit the already struggling lower class hard. El Tigre decided that he needed to “raise his voice through art” and “learn how to use the desire of rebelling”. He joined up with 150 artists throughout all of Colombia and gained the support of the municipality to bring them to the city and paint murals over the mess that the protest had left on public grounds. Their efforts were recognized by Residente, a famous Puerto Rican reggaeton singer who included their murals in one of his music videos.

Nos necesitamos vivos (We need ourselves alive), mural by El Tigre in Medellín, Colombia

It was also during these times that Tigre started his movement “Somos Barrio”, where he would educate the teenagers in Santo Domingo about the different forms of sexual expression, in a community where homophobia was an important element of the culture. Under the spirit of art, he taught how the different forms of expression of sexuality, are equally as valuable as the different forms of expressing yourself in front of your canvas. El Tigre deeply cares about people winning the inner struggle against “what we must be” and believes that a lot of people “live another life than theirs”. The Mayan motto that drives his collectives is “In lak’ ech, hala ken”, “I am another you, you are another me”.

During the pandemic, he grew frustrated as the children in his community were locked up and missing school. Only 20% of his neighborhood had internet access. He then decided to open a public library on the first floor of his house with some friends. They would go out and collect any book anyone would give them and then they separated, classified, and filtered everything they got. In their library, the rule was that there were no weapons allowed, as many teenagers hold pistols handed to them by the mafia. They set up a trade: one book, for one gun, even toy guns. Their trade generated so much enthusiasm that children started drawing and cutting paper guns to receive more books.

Toy and paper guns collected by El Tigre and his Friends in the library

Tigre’s hate for violence has sometimes got him in trouble. “The guys that run errands”, as he calls them, have increasingly targeted him as a menace in Santo Domingo. His books, graffiti, and art have seduced the youth that the mafia normally recruits with promises of easy cash and handouts of cool new shoes and football jerseys. His lessons have taught these children that it is better to find yourself in the depth of life than opt for the “easy life” that only cares about money. Tigre’s social efforts have earned him love and respect in all of Santo Domingo, but not immunity against the violence that frustration can illicit in the wrong hands. After things got heated with the wrong people, he made the hard decision, a couple of months ago to leave Medellín and his beloved community. He didn’t want to get himself killed.

He has been living in the east of Colombia with an uncle, away from his murals and spray cans. Away from his mom and Fiona. He has learned to help his uncle with farm work but, after 8 years of devotion to social service, he questions what he has gotten in return. “I gave up 8 years of my life and now what do I have to show? I don’t even own a motorcycle”, he said. He feels like he has helped everyone but himself. Now, every day he wakes up and cycles to the closest city to find any work that he can find to help with the day-to-day of his uncle. He told me how now, with some sadness, he guesses that he must focus on himself.

El Tigre in his neighborhood, Carpinelo, with students of his urban art workshops.

A couple of days after our conversation, Tigre texted me for help buying some art supplies for kids in the closest city that had an interest in learning about urban art. I laughed as I read the message, and as my heart filled with hope and joy, I realized that there are people who are genetically engineered to be good. And I had the privilege to meet one of them.

If you wish to help with El Tigre’s vision to educate the Colombian youth and sponsor his art workshops in Villavicencio, Colombia, you can donate through the following link:

He is compromised with delivering updates on the process of the classes.


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