Brazilian Graffiti: The People’s Art

A current art exhibit in the library demonstrates how Brazilian graffiti has established itself as an art form of the people by representing the lower classes and expressing social problems.

Brasil 3PROVO, Utah (February 25, 2015)—What images does the word “graffiti” bring to mind? Crude words spray painted on road signs? Messages scribbled on bathroom stalls? Gang names sprawled across overpasses or alleyway walls? Though graffiti is ubiquitous in urban settings, it isn’t always used as vandalism but rather as a means for positive change.

For years now, graffiti as an art form has been growing in some of the world’s largest cities. It is increasingly used as a medium for the lower classes, a tool to bring attention to social wrongs and give a voice to the disenfranchised. And no city makes as colorful a canvas as does São Paulo, Brazil.

Now, students at Brigham Young University have a window into this Brazilian subculture through Brazilian Graffiti: The New Art on the Streets, a new art exhibit in the Harold B. Lee Library. The exhibit features the work of six of Brazil’s most prominent graffiti artists and the issues their art champions.

“Brazil is a country where, traditionally, large segments of the population have not been represented, either politically or culturally,” explained Rex Nielson, assistant professor of Portuguese and Brazilian studies and cocurator of the exhibit. “Graffiti is a way for segments of the population that don’t have representation to be represented or to find a way to have their voices heard.”

Brazilian graffiti has been a powerful megaphone for these voices, and a global audience heard them last year when they spoke out against the FIFA World Cup. Paulo Ito, one of the exhibit’s featured artists, painted a mural of a starving Brazilian child being fed a soccer ball instead of food, and the image quickly went viral. This image and many others like it appeared as criticism of the Brazilian government and their focus on World Cup promotions at the expense of important welfare and social issues. “The artists were asking, ‘Why are we spending millions on stadiums when we have serious poverty problems and cannot provide basic education?’” Nielson explained.

Brasil 1Though the World Cup has passed, discussion of these and other issues continues, and so does the work of graffiti artists. Panmela Castro has become famous within and beyond Brazil’s borders for her vivid art protesting domestic abuse. Her murals run along city walls and up the sides of skyscrapers, forcing the public to recognize an issue long left in the territory of “out of sight, out of mind.”

Castro and her fellow artists know that before any problem can be solved, it must be seen for what it is. Graffiti, which exists entirely out of doors, is the perfect medium for ensuring that their art and messages are seen by the largest audience possible. Christiane Erbolato-Ramsey, BYU fine arts librarian and the exhibit’s other cocurator, said, “A large percentage of the population in São Paulo don’t have access to museums or galleries to see any type of art.  Graffiti, a ‘galeria de céu aberto’ (Portuguese for “open-sky gallery”), offers the masses an opportunity to see street art as they are driving or walking by all over the city.”

However, this accessibility was almost never the case. At one point, a bill was in place that allowed the São Paulo government to paint over any artwork it considered obscene. The bill’s vague definition of “obscene” resulted in many graffiti murals being painted over in gray paint. “Almost all of the art that was painted over wasn’t obscene but rather politically upsetting,” Nielson explained. “Mostly images with critical social images were painted over, not necessarily the images that were sexually explicit or had foul language.”

Ultimately, the bill generated so much outrage that massive changes were passed. (The history of the bill and the movement against it is recounted in Cidade Cinza, a documentary directed by Marcelo Mesquita and Guilherme Valiengo and featured in the exhibit.) Today graffiti is a legally protected art form. It is now common practice for building owners to commission artists to paint on their buildings, both as means of beautifying their property and as a protection against “pixação,” or “tagging,” which is text based and still illegal. And as strange as it may seem, the protection works. Though tagging is as rampant in São Paulo as any other major city, it is rare to find it on a graffiti mural, a testament to the love the Brazilian people have for this art form.

“It’s kind of a question of respect. You don’t tag on top of another person’s art,” Nielson said. As an example, he pointed to “Beco do Batman,” or “Batman’s Alley,” a street covered entirely in graffiti murals. The street features art from Brazil’s most famous artists, including Cranio, Os Gêmeos, Nunca, and Zezão. Though unsupervised, the street operates by an unspoken rule that no artist paints over another’s work. Instead, artists will return every few months to paint over their own work. Nielson commented, “There’s constantly new images in this place. But it’s the artist going over his or her own work. It’s very rare to see pixação on top of an artwork. There’s a lot of respect about maintaining each other’s art.”

Though the library’s exhibit is small, its curators hope that it will move BYU students to take action and treat the world as their campus. “There’s so much happening out there,” Erbolato-Ramsey said. “By transplanting a little piece of a different place and culture here, hopefully it will bring awareness to things happening far away, and the curiosity for students to research them.”

For more information on current and upcoming art exhibits in the library, visit the Art in the Library webpage.

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)

Photos courtesy of Harold B. Lee Library

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