Graphics and Salsa in Caliwood

Over the decades, Cali became the Salsa Capital of the World, but in recent years, Pacific has also gained its share of the limelight thanks to the Petronio Álvarez Festival. In addition to this musical potential, other artistic expressions energize this beautiful and vibrant city.


As you walk through the streets of the San Antonio neighborhood, there is a cozy, warm feeling of home; of navigating the familiarity of a small town that floats in the middle of a large city. For a moment, its streets resemble those of tiny Salento, a touristic town in the Coffee Cultural Landscape, and at other times you may feel as though you have suddenly arrived at La Candelaria in Bogota, with its colonial architecture and its tourist offer of comfortable hostels, restaurants with varied cuisine and colorful walls, intervened by talented local artists.

If you don’t know where you are going, one of these façades will be disconcerting and magnetic; you can hardly avoid stopping, pulling out your camera and taking many pictures, and your eyes will most probably lead you over, with curious steps, to the other side of that black gate. If you have come to this place because of constant recommendations, because of the viral epidemic it triggered on social media, or because a friend of yours warned you not to come home without one of these colorful souvenir posters, then you will immediately know you have arrived at La Linterna.

From the outside it is impossible to decipher the color of a huge wall completely covered with posters of all shades, lines and styles. The irresistible façade is a varied postcard of the cultural soul of Cali. There, in all their splendor, are the icons of daily life of the Pacific region: the marimba, a traditional instrument known as the piano of the jungle; the exotic fruit called chontaduro; and the drum with its resonant membrane. Along with these Pacific icons are Celia Cruz, Héctor Lavoe and Ismael Rivera, the great Caribbean masters of salsa music, a latent rhythm in the heart of the city. This façade also shares graphic tributes to Luis Ospina and Andrés Caicedo, icons of the generation that in the seventies coined a fun moniker for this city: Caliwood. When they were young, they also printed the posters of their films in this workshop.

When you open the gate, you can understand where all those posters came from and how they make them. Two huge Heidelberg machines from the late 19th century print mobile fonts with linoleum stamps. The metallic roar of the machines marks the rhythm of the afternoon with the drums and wind instruments of salsa and the voices in several languages of Colombian and foreign visitors who have come to the launch of a new series of salsa posters. Next to the Heidelberg presses are Olmedo Franco, Jaime García and Héctor Otalvaro, the press operators and masters who give life to this place with their work.

With ink-covered hands, Hector takes a yellow, green and red drum out of the machine. They greet so many curious visitors, they are already used to telling their story: “I got here in 1989, thanks to my brother-in-law Olmedo, who still works with me. At the time, posters for movies, shows, sporting events, salsa and rock concerts, and other cultural events were printed here. By then, La Linterna was already very old. There is no precise data on what year it launched, but everything indicates that early in the 20th century it already existed in a location in the Santa Rosa neighborhood, about ten blocks from San Antonio. I didn’t know anything about this; I started out as an assistant, I learned and now I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years,” Hector recalls.


Did you know that almost 60% of the population of Valle del Cauca lives in Cali?


Today, La Linterna is a tourist attraction and a cultural reference in Cali, but this idyllic fragment is very recent in the midst of a long history full of ups and downs. When the graphic designer Fabián Villa first came to La Linterna, in April 2017, the entrance looked very different. He had returned to Cali after working several years at advertising agencies in Bogota and had moved to live in San Antonio; together with Patricia, his accomplice in multiple projects, he was looking for a place to print the posters for an exhibition of emerging artists. “This was not how visitors and tourists see it now. It was just a closed entrance, like a mechanic’s workshop and nobody knew what was going on inside. We went in to ask for the price of the posters and we learned about the crisis that La Linterna was going through,” Fabián recalls in his lively voice of Valluno cadence.


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The situation was dramatic: lithography offered design possibilities against which they found it almost impossible to compete. They were about to close the premises, let employees go and scrap the beautiful, old Heidelberg machines.

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Many walls of the San Antonio, El Peñon and downtown Cali neighborhoods are full of color, covered by La Linterna posters or intervened by talented local muralists.

Fabian and Patricia raised the alarms: they opened the metal gate and set up the exhibit inside the printing workshop so that all visitors could see these metal dinosaurs up close and in operation; they summoned everyone and began to promote it intensely on social media. Fabian and Patricia’s concern were not only aesthetic; it was extremely urgent to deploy a patrimony rescue operation: “First of all, scrapping the machines would have been a crime against graphic design history; and second, the work of these masters is very important. There are 3 people who have been working here for almost forty years; what would have happened to them if La Linterna had closed?”, says Fabian.

The response among the young Caleños was quick and massive; they all moved to the rescue of La Linterna. The graphic designers and artists of the city turned to the workshop to print their works. New collections with varied themes and experimentation based on classical techniques attracted tourists, collectors, casual buyers. In the words of Héctor Gamboa: “For many years, thanks to the graphic arts, this place adorned the streets of the city; but now, with a new generation, this art has gone, moved from the exterior to the interior and now decorates the walls of homes.”

Fabián and Patricia are the link between the master operators, Olmedo, Héctor and Jaime, and a whole new generation of designers, illustrators and artists who go to La Linterna to learn, to print, and to experiment. The dialogue between veterans and apprentices is a creative exchange that revitalizes both parties. Héctor Otálvaro speaks emotionally of these boys who have changed his life: “They have great ideas and designs, but we have the knowledge of these techniques. Together we make posters that I would never have imagined and that they would not have known how to print on these machines.”

On a Saturday afternoon, visitors and music overflow at La Linterna. The master operators and young people tell the living history of local designers to visitors from all over the continent and Europe who watch in amazement the Heidelberg equipment in operation, while choosing which salsa or movie poster to take home.

The entire neighborhood echoes this colorful and dynamic sound. San Antonio breathes joy, music and culture. A few blocks from La Linterna you can find the hills, two of them, a literal and a musical one. The first is the imposing tutelary hill crowned by a church around which the neighborhood was founded in 1787. The other one, also called La Colina, is a social gathering place, opened in in 1942. Since the very first day, cinema, literature, the arts, loves and dreams have been amiably discussed to the rhythm of the incessant salsa and with the taste of a very cold beer accompanied by a juicy marranita, an aborrajado or an empanada—typical fried snacks of the region.

Without straying very far from San Antonio, Cali offers a diversity of cultural and tourist locations. The La Tertulia Museum is the cultural epicenter, not only of the city, but also of the Pacific region. Like La Colina, this museum was born as a junk shop in the San Antonio neighborhood in the 1950s. Shortly after, growing and bolstering its graphic vocation, it moved to the west of the city, to a tourist corridor facing the Cali River. The historical curatorship of this space confirms the city’s intimate relationship with graphic arts, as acknowledged by Carlos Hoyos Bucheli, the educational director of the museum: “During the 1970s and 1980s, La Tertulia became the center of graphic production in the country thanks to the establishment of the Graphic Arts Biennials, and it is not surprising that a good part of the 1,800 works that make up the collection of the Museum are of this genre, thus narrating the history of these arts in the continent.”

In the neighboring sector of Granada, a new creative and gastronomic circuit begins to break through. The Lugar a Dudas, a space founded by artist Oscar Muñoz, is the focus of this young contemporary visual arts movement. Its innovative curatorship dialogues with and complements the processes led by La Tertulia and retains points of contact with the graphic tradition of La Linterna. In La Tertulia and in the two hills, Cali personifies loud voices, wind instruments and Antillean drums. At Lugar a Dudas, Cali is young, talented and creative. At La Linterna, through graphic design, Cali is black tradition, salsa and Caliwood.

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Photo by Stephanie Montes

Salsa is experienced everywhere in the city. Foreign visitors have the chance of learning the steps in open schools in districts such as San Antonio or or they can enjoy watching local couples display their born rhythm.

Text by Ángel Unfried