The Story of Guillermo

by Brenna Holeman

Cartagena, Colombia

I started collecting art when I was a teenager, on my first trip to France. Since then, I’ve bought paintings all over the world, a mishmash of styles and colours and techniques. I have artwork from Chile to Japan, Lithuania to Brazil, Laos to Russia to Mexico to Israel – somehow it all works, or maybe that’s just that classic “beauty in the eye of the beholder” adage at work. It’s become a small obsession, finding a colourful canvas I can roll up and take home with me. I’m an extremely sentimental and visual person; souvenirs, especially the artistic kind, are my weakness.

Street art, then, is also a great love of mine. When we think of street art, we think of Melbourne, London, Valparaiso, Berlin, New York, Buenos Aires. I hadn’t given much thought to what would be on the walls of Colombia, but I was overjoyed to find an entire alley in Cartagena’s district of Getsemeni devoted to beautiful, powerful, politically-driven art. I took dozens of photos, including a couple which were signed, seemingly absent-mindedly, by one name: Guillermo.

Later on that day, continuing my exploration of the area, I walked down Carrera 9. The street, like many others in Getsemeni, was lined with brightly-painted buildings, their pink and blue and yellow facades the entrances for small shops, restaurants, and homes. Hardly any cars drove down these streets, even though it was one block off of the busy Media Luna avenue. I passed by an open door, and happened to look inside; the room was skinny, almost like a hallway, and lined with paintings. It didn’t seem like a gallery, it seemed like an art-lover’s home. The paintings ranged in sizes and subjects, but I was immediately hit with that inexplicable thump in the chest, the one that tells you, I love this, I want to look at this. It usually happens in a museum or gallery, when I’ll find something I love and just want to stop and stare and stay a while. This small room filled to the hilt with canvases had the same effect.

They were religious, political, cultural, but also colourful and simple, almost child-like in their execution. There were mermaids and football players, narwhals and cherry blossoms. Much like my own art collection, it was all random, but it all fit. A man walked into the room. “Hola,” he said, very quietly.

This was Guillermo, the same man who had done some of the amazing street art we had seen earlier in the day. I told him we had seen his work, but, not knowing if he could piece together my broken Spanish, I showed him the photos I took. He seemed pleased.

“Yo amo todo,” I told him, though I wasn’t sure if that would sound like some ridiculous hippie overstatement wherein I just claimed to love the entire world. He smiled, but never said much in return, despite my awkward rambling. I had only studied Spanish for three months at that point, and my conversations were all in the present.

“Estoy turismo ahora, así que no puedo comprar nada. Pero…” I was sweating from the mental excursion. I tried to remember my one lesson in the future tense. “Pero voy a volver mañana.” It was true, I was heading to the centre of Cartagena for more sightseeing, and I didn’t want to buy anything I’d have to carry for hours. I promised to return the next day.


Cartagena quickly became one of my favourite cities I had been to in Central and South America until that point; I did little more than walk around and drink limonada, but it was the kind of place I could happily call home. I was love-drunk, and the three days I had planned to stay rapidly became ten. True to my word, though, I did go back to Guillermo’s gallery the next day, only to find the door with the peeling white paint shut and locked.

I went back again, and again, but it was never open. I panicked – I needed to buy something of his. I wanted it on my own walls, I wanted to see it every day and be reminded of Cartagena. Finally, on my very last day in the city, his door was open once again. I heard music. Guillermo was in the back room, a small radio on the table, and he was dancing. He was listening to some cumbia, shuffling his feet in a slightly awkward but rhythmic jig. He was alone. I didn’t want to break the spell, but he saw me.

“Hola señorita,” he came over to me. “Hola señor,” I replied. I wanted to ask, “Do you remember me?”, but I couldn’t remember the word for remember, how ironic. “Vuelvo otra vez”, I stumbled out. “I return again.” He smiled; for my return, for my terrible Spanish, or for both, I don’t know. His conversation was still brief, but he was happy to have us and we spent ages poring over every painting. I wanted them all, but, travelling with a backpack, I knew my options were few.

The yellow one is mine, the other was a gift to my father

In the end, I bought two. Thinking back, remembering all of the other pieces, I curse myself for not purchasing more. Had it not been my last day, perhaps I would have – bought whatever I wanted, and sent it all home. Although I was travelling with a backpack, the art was at a backpacker’s budget: I spent less than $20 on those two paintings. I regret not buying more. I always regret not buying more, but it’s easy to say that when I’m not limited by luggage weight restrictions and daily budgets.

“Un regalo para mi padre,” I told Guillermo as he wrapped up the paintings in plastic. Again, just that smile. I paid him, and left. I had barely walked a few metres when I rushed back to the shop. “Una foto?” I knew I wanted to show my dad a photo taken with the artist. He complied, and we posed. I snapped a few more of the shop with his approval, but I felt embarrassed, and left again.


I’m starting to pack for my move to London next month – my whole life in two suitcases. It’s not going well, and I’ll inevitably ship a few boxes of favourite souvenirs, books, and records across the ocean. In my carry-on, however, will be the painting I bought that day in Cartagena by Guillermo, my favourite Colombian artist. Guillermo: a man who I can barely find on the internet, a man who paints sea creatures and celebrities, a man who dances when he feels like it.

Do you collect art when you travel? Have you ever been to Cartagena and seen Guillermo’s work? If you have any information about him, please let me know.


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Ali Henry July 19, 2013 - 8:43 am

Beautiful story darling, as you know that is a YES from me, anything from colourful materials, beads, wooden statuettes, canvases, masks, pottery and so on. Seeking out local art is one of my main passions when I travel. Unfortunately I know nothing about Guillermo but thank you for introducing his beautiful work to us 🙂 I cannot wait to see you in sunny London soon!! xxx PS: my tip for packing for London – bring as little as possible and start from scratch 🙂

This Battered Suitcase July 20, 2013 - 6:46 am

Yes – you always have the most beautiful purchases, too! I’ll be in London in about a month’s time, but you know me…I am far too sentimental to leave my favourites behind. Considering I’ll be living there for a few years minimum, I’m happy to send a few boxes to fill my new apartment!

andrea miller July 19, 2013 - 9:35 am

really interesting story and he is really a very creative person, i enjoyed this inspirational story, i found many things in this story which are good to motivate any person. Thanks for a useful post.

This Battered Suitcase July 20, 2013 - 6:45 am

Thank you!

Katie @ July 19, 2013 - 3:54 pm

Love it! I had a similar experience in Spain:

Tell me – did you remove the canvas from the frame? I took my piece home mounted and it was slightly worse for wear. We love getting art as souvenirs, so if you have tips on packing art for flights, please share! 🙂

This Battered Suitcase July 20, 2013 - 6:53 am

Ha ha, awesome post! You got so many more photos than I did.

I didn’t remove the canvases from the frames, as they fit nicely in my backpack. I carried them around for six weeks and then sent them from Ecuador. If I just have prints, I ask the artist for some cardboard to pack it with. If I have to roll something, I roll it as tightly as I can and wrap it in plastic. I find that most artists are well prepared and have all of the materials I need to keep it as well-preserved as possible. I send them home at my earliest convenience or just carry them around with me!

vegetatingearth July 19, 2013 - 8:31 pm

What a lovely post. I always regret not buying more when I travel, even though I end up with a lot, but usually because I dislike haggling. This looks like it would have been an awesome interaction.
Also, Colombia is climbing my list of countries I want to visit!

This Battered Suitcase July 20, 2013 - 6:48 am

I don’t like haggling either, but I find that I only deal with vendors who will interact with me in a friendly, fun manner. If the haggling gets too aggressive or if I feel uncomfortable in any way, I walk away.

You should definitely see Colombia – it’s an amazing country!

Ruth Dear July 20, 2013 - 9:49 am

I like collecting art from travels as well, although I usually go for artists sketches or photos of the area. It’s definitely nice to take a few of those souvenirs when you move away to make apartments slightly more homey – when I moved to China I took lots of postcards I’d collected on my first backpacking trip around Europe.

Can’t believe you’ll be moving to London so soon. I’ve been following your blog since you were travelling around Asia, and now you’ll be having adventures in the same city as me!

This Battered Suitcase July 21, 2013 - 7:10 am

Yes, postcards are great, too. I just bought a ton of amazing ones from an artist in Tel Aviv, which I think I’ll frame one day…

And YES I can’t believe that I’ll be there so soon. Thank you so much for following along all this time, I love receiving your comments. We will have to get together for a drink in London!

Lou Vest August 18, 2013 - 8:01 pm

We live part of the year in Cartagena. My wife and daughter discovered him about 3 years ago when he was living in an old house in Centro. He was painting on walls, plywood and old boards. They bought a couple then and there and asked if he would paint one of the murals again on canvas. We went out and bought canvas for him and are proud owners of a 2m x 2m painting of his (link to photo below). He said it was the first time he painted on canvas. I think we have about 8 by him and our daughter has a couple more (coincidentally, she lives in London, where you’re headed.)

The canvas:

Guillermo in his studio with a mural

Cartagena is a fantastic place. Glad you enjoyed it.

Brenna August 18, 2013 - 9:43 pm

Thank you for your comment! Did you notice that I already linked to your photo in the post? 😉 It was the only information that I could find about him, so I’m really glad to have more info directly from someone who knows him. I absolutely love his work and I really regret not buying more. I actually asked my dad to give me back the painting I originally gave him – rude, I know, but I wanted to take it to London!

Thank you again for commenting and letting me know a little bit more about him. I really hope to get back to Cartagena soon!

Margaret May 8, 2014 - 2:32 pm

Love that you discovered him about the same way my mom and I did (as my dad told above!) We were on our way to get manicures and I almost got whiplash as I caught sight of his art filled corridor. We took a look around but had to dash as we were running late, and I still remember my mother fanning her hands to dry her nails faster and saying “we have to go back and get that mermaid!”

This is taken at his old place with the aforementioned mermaid:

My parents go back regularly and I do to… so if you ever want me to bring you back one just let me know! I have about 5 here and counting

Brenna Holeman May 8, 2014 - 3:15 pm

Oh wow, that is so cool. I felt the same way – I have to go back and get more! I still regret not buying two of his pieces, but I have two here in London with me.

I would love to take you up on the offer – if you are ever there for a while, take a few photos and send them to me and I will pick one! On top of the cost of the painting and shipping, I would offer a trade from something in London. Thank you so much for this comment and for offering!

Margaret November 14, 2014 - 2:56 pm

Hi there! Have kept up with your blog via Facebook… “The Last Time I Saw You” series is particularly captivating… I feel like I should thank you for sharing … and so eloquently.

Also took your recommendation for the afternoon tea bus tour recently and truly enjoyed it… you’ve earned a follower here all right!

Looks like I’ll be heading to Cartagena in February, so I will try and head to Guillermo’s at the beginning of the trip to suss out what he has been working on and send you some images so maybe you can see if there’s any I can bring back to London for you.

Enjoy the holiday season!

Brenna Holeman November 20, 2014 - 1:58 am

Thank you so much for your comment, Margaret! That’s so great that you are heading to Cartagena soon, I hope you find Guillermo’s shop. 🙂 And that’s awesome that you also did the bus tour, I think I might have to do it again when my mum visits!

Thanks again for your comment, I’m really glad you’ll be following along.

Margaret January 15, 2016 - 4:34 pm


My parents are in Cartagena now and just sent me pictures of some of the stuff Guillermo is up to, they’re due to visit London in March so if you’re still interested I could send you some pictures and they can bring you back another one or two? Would be a fun excuse to meet you for a coffee or drink. If you want, let me know to which address I can send pictures so you can do some “on-line shopping”… he’s got mermaids and fruit still lives and whales and spiders and birds (oh my!)

Brenna Holeman January 16, 2016 - 12:29 am

Oh amazing!!! I love how this is all working out. You can email me at [email protected]. Can’t wait! Thank you so much for helping me/thinking of me, you are way too awesome.

Gui Stampur January 13, 2015 - 6:00 am

My friend just came back from visiting Guillermo in Cartagena and she showed me his incredible work. Do you know how I can contact Guillermo OR find a way to buy one of his works? Thanks very much. Gui

Brenna Holeman January 13, 2015 - 2:05 pm

No, I’m sorry, I don’t! I really wish that I do – I’d also love to purchase more of his art.

Lou Vest August 18, 2013 - 8:11 pm

We have a bunch of his stuff including a 6’x6′ canvas that is the first canvas he painted: My daughter got him to start signing his work and his signature was evolving for the first year we knew him. She lives in London now where you are. I think she has 3 of his works including a portrait she did from a photo that we gave him.

He’s a naturally talented painter who is driven internally to let it out in paint. One of Cartagena’s treasures.


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