Sometimes it’s easy to think that all governments are the same: they see a social problem and punch down on it with ham-fisted policies (*cough* Sydney nightlife). To reaffirm your belief in any form of government, here are a few examples from our South American cousins that demonstrate social change with a twist.


Zebra - Sleep Pile
Image: The Guardian 

The scene:

The driver of an old, spluttering Toyota, weaving his way through the downtown traffic of La Paz, Bolivia, stops at the lights. As pedestrians cross the paso de cebra, a spritely person in a full-body zebra suit gallops alongside them, holding a child’s hand on the way.

She then trots over to the Toyota and caresses the hood of the car in appreciation. As for the car that drove straight through the lights? He’s now stuck in more traffic only metres in front of the crossing and our zebra catches up to dance around the car. She shakes her hooves at the driver, melodramatically throwing her big zebra head in her hands. Even the driver smiles – a little sheepishly.

The policy:

This scene played out in front of spectators in 2010, and the zebras have since grown into a full-blown educational program that visits schools and public spaces. These zebra suits are predominantly filled by the at-risk youths of the major city, ranging in age from fifteen to early twenties.

While the initiative works towards educating local commuters in a fun and meaningful way, it also provides the performers with workshops that broach self-esteem, technology skills and conservation. And who knows, maybe all we need to stop people littering our beaches is a man in a seagull suit to chase people to the nearest bin?


Antanas Mockus - Sleep Pile
Image: Photo of Antanas Mockus –

 The scene:

700,000 women have flooded the streets of Bogotá, Colombia, for free, open-air concerts and specialty ladies’ cocktails at local bars. On la Noche de las Mujeres (first run in 2001), the main boulevards have been converted into no-man, no-worries zones for an evening of women-only revelry. These chicas are taking back the streets they were too afraid to walk the night before.

The local men have been asked to voluntarily stay at home for six hours to look after their children and reflect on the city’s high rates of domestic violence. In Bogotá’s southern suburb San Cristóbal, women wander past the window of a man in his home carrying a baby; they stop and applaud.

The policy:

The former mayor of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus, engineered this particular social event not to segregate the sexes, but as a pedagogical tool: so that people would rethink the role of women in their society. By offering citizens this new perspective – turning an engrained gender hierarchy on its head – Mockus hoped to build a civil culture based on mutual respect, not institutional watch-dogs.

In fact, the mayor was notorious for his highly creative and predominantly symbolic social strategies, often targeting violence with humour, including one strategy that asked people to draw the face of someone that had hurt them on a balloon, followed by a mass cathartic popping!


Rio-de-Janeiro-Graffiti - Sleep Pile
Image: Michelle young for Untapped Cities

The scene:

In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, street art decorates every urban niche and surface. It is part of the city’s aesthetic and social fabric. On the stretch of wall that shelters the Jardim Botânico, passers-by encounter a vibrant landscape of intertwining art murals that rival the flora behind it. The smell of fresh spray-paint clings to a corner of the wall, built out of concrete, creativity and collective ownership.

There is a distinction here between street art (grafite) and tagging (pichação), between an expression of community and look-at-me-I’m-a-douchebag. This wall is a constantly changing canvas, where the Rembrandt’s and Rothko’s of the street art movement make their masterpieces.

The policy:

Rio de Janeiro decriminalized street art in 2012, a move that recognised the huge cultural part it plays. Brazil itself has been leading the global graffiti art movement since the mid-1980s, giving people in urban centres like Rio a visual voice that was both vital and incredibly varied.

Smael Vagner, a member of the Nação Crew, also sees street art as charged with inspirational potential: “Graffiti has created a new horizon for young people that have gone on to become artists and teachers. There are cases in which drug traffickers are now graffiti artists.”