Once it was controlled by armed groups on the fringes of the law. Then it was besieged by the army in the largest urban military operation in the history of Colombia. Today, Las Independencias, a neighborhood of fourteen thousand inhabitants in Comuna 13, the “thirteenth commune” of the city of Medellín, is a kind of open-air graffiti art gallery, accessed via a system of outdoor escalators – the only ones ever built in a slum. Graffiti artists are respected figures in the neighborhood. John Alexander Serna, known as “Chota,” is a local celebrity. “My work used to go unnoticed,” he says. “Now, we’re starting to be recognized.”

Through their art and stories, residents have transformed the pain of their history into a sense of place.