São Paulo: the world’s street art capital
Brazilian street art takes over the walls of the prestigious MuBE Museum in São Paulo for the biggest graffiti showcase of the year
The first time graffiti artist Mister Dheo went out “bombing” was in the dead of night, splashing cheap supermarket paint on the walls of an abandonded factory. ‘I didn’t even have a name yet. I just wanted to paint, and to feel that adrenaline. I was young, and it was totally different from how it is now.’
Times have changed indeed. A decade later, Dheo doesn’t have to creep around when he wants to leave his mark. This month, his work will feature alongside 65 other street artists at São Paulo’s innaugural Graffiti Fine Art Biennale, held at the city’s prestigious museum of sculpture, MuBE.
The exhibition, brainchild of veteran Brasilian aerosol-fiend Fabio Ribeiro, aka Binho, gathers together some of Brazil’s most exciting urban talent for a month-long exploration of the increasingly thin line between Fine Art and Street Art. Alongside a series of discussions and screenings of classic graffiti films like “Wild Style” and “Invasão,” the Biennale brings the work of grafiteiros like osgemeos and Zezão in from the cold and places it where many feel it truly belongs: the walls inside galleries like MuBE.
Despite the worldwide fame of many of the country’s grafiteiros – just think of the osgemeos’ mural that adorned the front of London’s Tate Modern in 2008 – many feel that Brasil’s art establishment still doesn’t recognise graffiti as legitimate art. ‘For me, art should be seen without judgement,’ says the exhibition’s art director, Andre Luis Monteiro de Carvalho. ‘In everyday life, in the streets, people are passing by and they’re on autopilot: they’re switched off to their surroundings. The museum environment provides the time and respect the work deserves.’
As well as encouraging the fine art world to engage with graffiti, the biennale has also helped the grafiteiros to engage with new ways of working that go beyond spraying paint onto walls, thanks to MuBE’s famous sculpture garden, where visitors can wander among new works in glorious 3-D technicolor by artists like Rui Amaral, NINA and Alex Hornest.
‘Alex who?’, you might well ask yourself. And it’s a fair question. But another of the exhibition’s goals is to highlight some of the lesser-known stars in the seemingly endless galaxy of Brasilian graffiti talent. For Tristan Manco, author of the “Graffiti Brasil” book that help launch many of these artists’ international careers, this is a long-overdue development. ‘Graffiti art in Brasil is finally getting the attention it deserves locally, and other countries can take inspiration from this. And while we know there is much more talent besides the well known names, the fact that osgemeos are one of the biggest names in global graffiti naturally draws attention to Brazilian talent as a whole.’
So what is it about Brasil’s urban art scene that makes it so special? Andre, who lived for 15 years in the original graffiti mecca, New York City, is well-placed to judge: ‘There’s definitely something unique about Brasilian graffiti – it’s marginalized in other countries, but not in the same way. It’s different being broke in New York and being broke in Brasil’ For Andre, it’s the difference that gives Brasilian artists their hunger to get out there and paint.
It’s tempting to try and play this game of spot-the-difference at the MuBE exhibition, which features major players from Portugal, Japan, Chile and the UK alongside a strong Brasilian team. But for the show’s creators and curators, it’s more about highlighting the similarities, and the international connections that graffiti thrives on in the 21st century. ‘Essentially it’s about exchange,’ proclaims the museum’s director of international relationships, Renata Azevedo Silva. ‘Exchange between the graffiti world and the fine art world, exchange between Brasilian artists and their counterparts around the world.’ This sense of exchange has already left its mark on the city beyond the museum’s walls, with an international group of the exhibition’s artists collaborating on a huge mural at a local train station in the Bras neighborhood.
According to Renata, this is an opportunity that many of the grafiteiros have never had before. ‘The artists are just discovering this world of international recognition and collaboration, it’s new to them, but it’s exciting and they’re enthusiastic. It’s not the main thing, though. The main thing for them is still the pleasure of getting out there and creating art.’
Mister Dheo agrees: ‘I prefer painting in the street to painting in a gallery, for sure – and I’ll always prefer it. For me, nothing compares to the street and any artist who started out there will agree with me. It was great to create something at MuBE but if I don’t get out there for a while I don’t feel right. It’s out in the streets where I feel 100% happy and free.’
But the grafiteiro understands why exhibitions like the Graffiti Fine Art biennale are important. ‘We’re trying to give the public the opportunity to really see what graffiti is, what it involves, how it’s made, and to promote the kind of conversation between this public and the artists which is basically impossible without this kind of event. After this conversation, I think ordinary people will start to see the art that surround them differently, and graffiti will be more and more valued.’
The sculpture museum seems like the perfect place for this conversation to happen. One of São Paulo’s most respected and revered exhibition spaces, its modernist concrete structures make it an ideal venue for the world of fine art to meet the world of street art. For Andre, it’s one of the least difficult exhibitions he’s ever had to curate. ‘From an art direction point of view it wasn’t much of a challenge. The work is amazing; the colours are great… it was easy. It’s just gonna be heart-breaking to take it all down in a month’s time!’
His colleague Renata isn’t worried, though. After all, this is only the city’s first Graffiti biennale. ‘The last thing I want to say is, there’ll be another one in two years. And that one will be even better.”
1st International Biennial of Graffiti Fine Art São Paulo
Binho, The Godfather
Fabio Ribeiro (aka Binho) is the Graffiti Fine Art Biennale’s curator, and one of the old-school legends of the Brasilian street art scene. Jungle asked him how the whole thing came about: ‘It started when Renata [Azevedo, MuBE’s Director of International Relations] first invited me to bring graffiti art to the museum. We did 3 exhibitions in 45 days, which helped to open some doors and break down a few preconceptions about street art. This time around, we’re hoping to really show the strength of graffiti’s many different varieties and styles, and help people to better understand how this art is made.’
‘There had been a few exhibitions in Brasilian museums before. But this is the first time that street artists have had so much space to work and to show the force of this culture. Plus MuBE is the perfect space; its architecture feels like it could have been specially built for this type of show.’
‘And already, the number of visitors and all the attention from the media has justified all our hard work, and made this a really special moment in the history of our culture.’
The artist is one of the biggest talents on display the biennale, and you don’t have to walk far in São Paulo to discover one of his trademark female faces. These dark, distinctive figures show traces of influences from Tim Burton to Japanese Manga, but Nick tries to avoid labelling his work. ‘I don’t like to define what I do. I’ll leave that up to the people who see my work. I think if I define myself now then I’ll never evolve. So I don’t have a style. Maybe I’ll have one once I’m dead.’ Nick says that graffiti for him is all about freedom. ‘It’s a freedom that can never be taken away, even if you’re locked up. It’s enough just to close your eyes and dream.’
27 year-old NOVE is Brasilian graffiti’s new king of colour. His vibrant murals often make use of neon paints and mind-bending motifs drawn from his heroes, Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dali. He says he fell into graffiti almost by accident, but finding his name – which means 9 in Portuguese – felt more like fate. ‘I was working as a courier, and one day I just kept noticing the same number all over the place: it was in the address of the bank where I made a delivery, it was my number in the queue, the number of my bus. That night I wrote my first piece as NOVE. These days I think it wasn’t me that chose the number 9. I think the number 9 chose me.’
Portugal’s Mister Dheo is one of the most traditional graffiti writers on show at this innaugural biennale, remaining true to the visual language of the New York street art scene of the 80s and 90s (see below) but adding an unmistakeable twist of Latin flair. It’s this flair that’s made him one of the most sought-after artists by commercial companies looking to grab a bit of urban “edge,” something which remains a contentious issue among many graffiti writers. ‘It’s controversial for a lot of people,’ says Dheo, ‘but I don’t have a problem with it. As long as they’re coming to me because they like my work then why not? There’s no shame in getting paid to do something you love and work hard at.’
Andre Dalata has been getting his kicks out of tins of paint for over twenty years, and started out spraying the distinctive pixação letters that have become a kind of São Paulo signature. But unlike the majority of Brasil’s most famous grafiteiros, Dalata isn’t from the metropolis itself. The Minas Gerais native is one of a handful of artists at the biennale representing the flourishing street art scenes in cities like Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro and Recife. His style is unique, too, a style he likes to define as ‘bizarro apaixonante’: loveable but weird. ‘I like to stay away from the traditional language of graffiti, and paint in places that let me really interact with the space.’
Words by Tom Crookston