Art has always been a way of expressing sentiments in a way that may or may not be appreciated by others. And just as emotions range from despair and hate to joy and love, art takes on many forms.
Visiting Brazil’s largest city São Paulo is a tour de force. One of the world’s most populated cities with its 12 million inhabitants, the city is Brazil’s financial hub with an impressive skyline, and spreads for miles. Driving through suburbs that are socioeconomically at the lower scale toward the shimmering inner-city skyscrapers, the divide between the rich and poor is obvious. Local people’s feelings about street art are also divided: many call it as ugly as graffiti and tagging. Luckily, there are still plenty of spaces where street art is encouraged and welcomed.
I immediately spot a type of graffiti I had not seen anywhere else: pixação. This is a type of stylized writing, always black-and-white, reminiscent of Nordic runes, and covering everything, but mostly above and under windows, and high up on roofs and chimneys. I later found out that this type of street writing was born in São Paulo, the script derived from Heavy Metal album covers, and is an extreme form of protest against the inequality experienced in Brazil. Not pretty, but powerful.
To get a balance of the city’s art scene, I start my explorations with a museum: the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) on the wide Avenida Paulista. The MASP building is a red concrete and glass structure, floating next to a busy shopping avenue, and houses a permanent collection made up of 10,000 global pieces of art spanning the centuries, while its temporary exhibitions focus on modern, often local art, video, photography, and installations.
After a short tour of the museum, I head towards the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo in the north of the historic center, which specializes in Brazilian art. The building itself is awe-inspiring, spanning old and new, modern and traditional. Inside, I find paintings, drawings, sculpture, and other installations by Brazilian artists, and the variety is as inspiring as the country and its people.
Momentarily saturated with art, I start wandering along the wide streets, bustling with people, congested with cars and motorbikes –this is truly an enormous city. Standing at a crossroads, wondering where next to head, I look up, and see probably the largest mural I have ever seen, covering the side of a tall apartment block. The feeling I had when I first saw the pixação tagging, that I had come across something quite unique to the city of São Paulo, returns. Now we’re talking! I was going to go out and hunt down the best street art the city had to offer.
The next day I head off to Vila Madalena, a bohemian residential quarter known for its hip cafés, quirky little restaurants and shops, colorful houses, and its street art. Particularly the Beco de Batman (Batman Alley) is THE place for street artists. An alleyway with tall walls, an alley that would normally have looked rather bleak and uninspiring, but that is today a riot of colors. Not an inch is left uncolored and the effect is stunning. Apparently everybody who is anybody in Brazil street art has left their mark here. Plus some known international artists, as not far away I spot a little mosaic by Parisian street artist Invader.
A little further along, where Vila Madalena meets the trendy quarter Pinheiros, lies Beco de Aprendiz, the Apprentice Alley. There those who have not quite made it in the street art scene exhibit their art, and have transformed another space in the city that otherwise would have been desolate and bleak. Such is the power of street art, and such is the difference between street art and graffiti, a form/expression of which is pixação. One cheers up an otherwise bland building or wall and makes a city liveable, while the other might make a heartfelt statement about social differences. Driving along the motorway that connects São Paulo’s many areas, the Avenida 23 de Maio, I look out of the window of the taxi and am amazed by all the murals covering walls and large columns under connecting roads.
Another day, another quarter of São Paulo, as I head out on the metro to the station of Santana, I find a run-down residential neighborhood. These are usually the places where you find abundant street art, as people not only are trying to express themselves through art, but also try and brighten up the neighborhood. Oddly enough, there are few black pixaçãos, probably because they are often tagged on buildings in the richer neighborhoods. Here, below the train line, instead I find a vast array of colorful street art, reportedly painted by 58 street artists on the 77 exposed walls. Each and every piece is different, from cartoon-like drawings to elaborate portraits of people unknown to me. Small and large, they turn the walk to the next station into a visit to an open-air gallery.
Back in the center, I find myself by the metro station of Avenida Paulista, on Avenida Rebouças, and am faced with an enormous mural by local street artist Eduardo Kobra, a colorful face peeking out of what looks like a helmet, below the Brazilian flag. Eduardo Kobra is, not unlike Banksy, an example of a politically motivated street artist becoming world famous, and while not losing his political beliefs and motivation, in the process losing some of the street cred that the pixadores believe they have. Kobra’s work is commissioned and paid for nowadays, and his larger-than-life murals can be seen across the world in cities such as New York, London, Mumbai, and Moscow.
As I take a well-earned breather in the large, inner-city green space, Ibirapuera Park, I find more street art among the well-tended areas filled with families and picnickers. Not only on the walls of the skateboarding area, where I would expect it, but all around there are tiny little yellow and red houses sprayed on walls and buildings. I had been spotting them across the city, but have failed to find out who is responsible for them. Not political, not dramatic, but cute and cheerful.
I leave São Paulo with a huge sense that while all large cities have street art and graffiti in certain areas, in this large Brazilian city it is a daily occurrence, something that is everywhere, something you cannot escape from. Love it or hate it, São Paulo seems to be the street art capital of the world.