If you were to walk down Manhattan’s 10th Avenue a few years ago, you’d probably see a piece by Brazilian artist Kobra. The colorful mural depicted the famous photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt of a sailor forcefully kissing a passing nurse during V-Day celebrations on Times Square in 1945. This was just one his of many murals around New York City, and Kobra soon became famous worldwide for his vivid, large scale mural. The V-Day mural was eventually painted over, but Kobra still enjoys a level of fame around the world, doing commission work for public and private spaces.
There are more examples of Brazilian artists who have succeeded abroad, but reality is much harsher for those who stay. Commissioned work at home is rare for many artists and they face hostility and prejudice, a very different scenario from those that work overseas.
The term “pichador” (pronounced PI-SHA-DOR) refers to anyone who paints buildings, murals or monuments without authorization, an act classified as an environmental crime in Brazil.
In a tweet, Porto Alegre mayor Nelson Marchezan summed up how urban artists are being treated – “Pressure on Pichadores. Congratulations to the Municipal Guard for the efficiency of the siege on pichadores.” The term “pichador” (pronounced PI-SHA-DOR) refers to anyone who paints buildings, murals or monuments without authorization, an act classified as an environmental crime in Brazil. Marchezan, elected in a wave of right-wing politicians that swiped Brazilian elections in the last few years, has adopted similar tactics towards urban art and graffiti to those of other Brazilian Mayors. Among them, criminalization, hostility, high fines and a vocabulary that equates urban art to violent crimes. Despite government hostility, urban art is still a common element in Porto Alegre and a recognized art form, even if only in certain scenarios.
Jackson Brum, an artist from Porto Alegre, enjoys a moderate amount of respect and success in the city, painting commissioned murals for corporations and even selling his art in galleries.
“I was an art kid. I always liked drawing and I was also very shy. I lived in a lot of vilas and eventually when I was 10 years old, I moved to Restinga,” Brum said.
In Porto Alegre, poorer communities are called “vilas.” These are residential areas similar to American suburbs, with mostly single-story houses and small grocery stores spread out across the neighborhood. However, the income level is very different. Restinga, a neighborhood in Porto Alegre, is historically a working-class, poor neighborhood in the south region of the city. The area itself was created in 1990 to resettle families that were living in squalor in other parts of the city.
Brum continued: “That is where I formed my first rap group and I met URT, União Rap da Restinga (Restinga’s Rap Union.) I discovered hip-hop and started break dancing. I learned about graffiti one day and it hit me that it was something that I was already doing, the difference was drawing on the street instead of on a notebook. I was shy, but painting on the street made me talk to people.”
For some writers, graffiti should always be on the street, and making money from it is a misrepresentation of the art form.
Brum has a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, studied public education, and has worked as a social educator for 12 years. Brum views art as a job, meaning he expects monetary compensation, but to some in the community this is seen as “being a sellout.” For some writers, graffiti should always be on the street, and making money from it is a misrepresentation of the art form.
Brum, however, has always liked the social aspect of graffiti, and saw it as a way of helping others, as well as a source of income. “If you talk to some guys, for it to be graffiti you should get your paint, go out into the street and just do it. The second you get paid, it’s not graffiti anymore. What I sell here in my studio is a certain technique. I call myself a graffiti artist because I still do it from time to time.”
The commodification of “graffiti” has become a profitable market in Porto Alegre. New real estate developments call on artists to paint huge murals in their courtyards. Some of these are sold and referenced as graffiti, even if artists know the difference.
The commodification of “graffiti” has become a profitable market in Porto Alegre. New real estate developments call on artists to paint huge murals in their courtyards. Some of these are sold and referenced as graffiti, even if artists know the difference. The popularization of urban art has drawn more people outside of hip-hop culture to the medium. Paula Plim, a member of the “Paxart” art studio in Porto Alegre, is one such example.
“I started doing it in 2002, after attending a workshop. Little by little I started connecting more with other artists, going to meetups. There was one called “Exchanging Ideas.” I remember talking with some artists from Chile and meeting them was really good for me. I started going out more to paint and that helped me develop my style.” Plim defines her style as Folk Art, inspired by several different places.
As someone from a diverse background, she doesn’t see herself as a graffiti writer, but rather an urban artist. “It’s a different proposal. I don’t want to invade their space. It’s not a clear limit between graffiti and urban art, I think it’s more a gradient. There’s a heavy Hip Hop influence on the art form, playing with fonts, characters and painting murals without authorization.”
Some artists view urban art as a form of activism and community building. Charles Brito and Sabrina Stragliotto, a couple who works together under the name Familia Artesanal. “Our story is always connected to social education and working with youth. In 2015, I was a teacher at an NGO and had been there for almost three years, but nothing changed. I started asking myself how much longer would I have to try to fix these problems? One day we were out with some friends that did graffiti and I had the experience of picking up a can and painting. People are expressing their feelings through art on a wall.”
For Familia Artesanl, urban art is a form of expression, as well as a dialogue with the community. They identify as “artivists,” rather than graffiti writers.
For Familia Artesanl, urban art is a form of expression, as well as a dialogue with the community. They identify as “artivists,” rather than graffiti writers. “We go out into the street intending to create a dialogue through graffiti with the people who see it.” During the interview the couple was in the process of painting a wall inside a community center in Canoas. “We love working in community centers because we believe in the social project they represent. Schools don’t even need to ask us to do something, we’ll volunteer.”
This relationship with urban art has led to difficulties. Brito and Stragliotto’s work had been censored during an event due to the use of the word “resist” in their painting. Encounters with the police are rare if they stick to community centers and schools in poorer areas of the city, but once they enter downtown, the experience is different. Richer areas tend to only have commissioned murals, which promotes greater hostility between muralists and graffiti writers.
Other, younger artists have a different relationship with graffiti and urban art. Santiago Pooter is currently studying Art History at the Institute of Arts in the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. “I began as an artist with graffiti. Actually, it wasn’t even graffiti, it was pichação.” The term “picho” (pronounced pi-sho) and its variations are usually used as a derogatory term for urban art and murals done illegally.
Artists recognize it as a different approach, though it shares techniques with graffiti. The biggest difference is the attitude. “Picho” is usually done in a territorial and aggressive way, with black paint, featuring letters or symbols. “I started really young, hanging out with a tough crowd. My grandma used to live in Restinga and I started hanging out with some guys from the neighborhood. It was a bunch of teens that got together to sing funk, rhyme, and paint. I don’t know if I wanted to say anything with it, but I wanted to be around those guys and do the things they did. I started going down a very bad path and my parents found out about it. So my dad gave me an unforgettable beating and my mom mentioned graffiti to me.”
Pooter eventually drifted away from graffiti and muralism due to the dynamics at play regarding what it means to be a graffiti writer. “A lot of older guys kept telling me that I had to create a brand for myself. I started going insane thinking about this brand and for a way for people to recognize it as mine. I realized that I was always making the same thing, only changing the colors and shapes. I felt it was missing something.”
Santiago’s current work is an extension of street art, but he no longer classifies it as urban art. Now, he collects posters from the street and transforms them into paintings, on canvas or in books. “I’m taking things from the urban space. There is a very strong dialogue with the street, but I don’t consider it urban art anymore.”
Pooter felt graffiti is the artist imposing his will on an urban space, placing something for the public to see without their consent. Now he takes pieces of the street and uses them to create his work, letting the urban space command him.
Urban art in Brazil is a matter of endurance and adaptability. Animosity towards urban art has increased in recent years, with a cadre of politicians vilifying artists in order to support their own agendas.
Urban art in Brazil is a matter of endurance and adaptability. Animosity towards urban art has increased in recent years, with a cadre of politicians vilifying artists in order to support their own agendas. Artists are face a harsh present and a potentially harsher future. Much of Brazil’s legal art and culture depends on government funding and grants in order to organize events and commission new work from emerging artists, but that funding is threatened by politics.
For all the challenges, Brazilian artists are resilient. Art in this country has suffered through onslaughts in the past, thriving despite a conservative civil society and a military dictatorship. No matter what comes our way, we artists yearn to communicate our ideas to the world. We have survived worse, and we will survive this as well.