Purposeful Street art:

the role of street art

in Brazilian cities.

Three observations from the outside..
About Research
The material is based on a series of interviews with Brazilian artists, art managers and producers during a visit to Brazil as part of the VULICA BRASIL project and the opening of the Institute of Arts and Sustainable Development in Brasilia - federal capital of Brazil .
The interviews was attended by:
  • Danilo Costa
    VULICA BRASIL Founder & Art manager
  • Kaká Guimarães
    Musician, Producer, Art manager
  • Norton Ficarelli
    Cultural Manager, Associate Director at Instituto Pedra
  • Speto
  • Hyper
    Artist, Musician
  • Gramaloka
Brazilian culture is distinctive, diverse, and contradictory. Clash of social classes and historical backgrounds, old and new worlds, nature and the city is obvious even to a tourist who has come to the country for the first time. In the public space of Brazilian cities, artistic expressions (street art) are constantly appearing. It is an important part of Brazilian culture. You can find it everywhere: on the facades of residential buildings, in underground passages, on labyrinths of road barriers, in city parks. In open-air clubs – local gathering points – even bar counters and signs are spray-painted.

There is no official approval for street art in Brazil - the law of the street works here. You cannot cover another work, you need to choose a free spot. If the building is commercial or administrative, you need to negotiate with its manager. If this is a fence of a private house, you have to ask permission from the owners. They usually don't mind.
The history of Brazilian street art goes back to the 1950s or even 1940s, when the first urban interventions emerged. 'Wall writings' became a protest tool and a medium of mass communication that served to convey political messages to the public that did not have any access to other information channels. A little later, in the 1980s, under the influence of music and the hip-hop movement, together with street dances, break dance, as well as skateboarding, fashion and cinema, street art began to form itself as an art genre and to form its own professional community. Later, this movement spread to other cities and countries, but across the globe São Paulo is still dubbed The Graffiti Capital.
Street art is not just paintings on the walls, but also an important part of urban public life, the core of identity and solidarity for many.

A couple of months before our arrival, a policeman killed one of the informal street leaders in l, in a skirmish. The killed person was an artist and musician. Forty days after the incident, the walls of São Paulo's bohemian underground district known as Beco do Batman turned black. Artists painted over their street art with the words "Police, stop killing us" on top.It was both a mourning for the murdered and a protest against police violence. Then they began to paint on the walls again, but one painted over black piece with an inscription-message remained as a tribute to these events.

The walls of Brazilian cities are like a gallery with a constantly changing display. And this gallery doesn't need a curator. Just like a living organism, self-purifies and transforms, reacting to social and political processes. On the walls could be works of completely different styles, skill levels, with different messages. The techniques can also be very diverse, but it all looks organic. Among the popular techniques are not only drawing, but also posters, stickers, stencils, mosaic, installations.

One of the popular techniques is Pixação - a cryptic tagging style with sharp edges and straight lines, has become the authentic style of Brazilian street art since the 1950s. It has inspired many pixadores to create their own variations of this type of calligraphy. Estimately, there are over 5,000 active pixadores in Sao Paulo alone.

Ceramic tiles are also very popular among Brazilian street-artists, it is a legacy of the Portuguese azulejos. One of the most famous attractions in Brazil is the 125-meter staircase in Rio de Janeiro, created by the Chilean artist Jorge Celarón. He began work on it in 1990, creating a stairstep by stairstep, manually painting tiles and integrating them into his work. The staircase gradually gained fame. Tourists from all over the world began to bring him tiles, plates, and he gladly found a place for them. This creative process has attracted journalists and photographers. His staircase became famous tourist attractions, Jorge himself also became famous, but fame has not spoiled him. He didn't need anything for himself. He wore the same red shorts for 23 years and one could meet him every day from dawn to dusk on these stairs. One could talk to him and he was happy to communicate with tourists. This story describes well how the world of street art works. It's more about process, communication, co-creation than a finished work of art. Other street art pieces may not be legendary tourist attractions like Jorge's stairs, but each has its own story.
Watching this kind of polylogue unfolding in the public space of Brazilian cities inspired us to explore what functions street art performs in society. Why do the locals need it? What makes it so attractive to tourists? What other countries, in particular Belarus, can learn from Brazil in terms of street art? To do this, we not only analyzed the street art itself, but also spoke with Brazilian street artists and cultural producers to get their views on the importance of street art as a social practice.
Observation 1. The city as a stage for the formation and manifestation of identity
Any city can be compared to a stage on which social practices are presented. It is the urban public space where the social identity of its citizens is formed and represented. For the democratic development of a society in which there is a place for people with different backgrounds, values and views, it is important that there is a 'stage' where citizens can express their interests and desires regarding public and urban life, governance, unite and create something together. Such a scene can be an urban space, and a way of expression can be street art. This is especially true in modern cities, where private property and capitalist relations exclude people who do not fit in. Some people, and even entire social groups, find themselves under-represented in a new city. They and their cultural heritage simply do not have a place there. So they are looking for a way to express their presence.

Public spaces are places of interaction and interchange, communication and meetings (a street, a square or a park). As public spaces and territories open for all citizens, they are the main source of local identity. A new local identity is being born here, although it does not lose the diversity of the roots on which it is based. However, the general context smooths out the contradictions of little different backgrounds.

In the public space, identity is not only created, but also represented. Here, heterogeneous social groups have the opportunity to openly declare their identity. But at the same time, the city is a space of exclusion and suppression. Therefore, the right to representation has to be constantly defended.

""Initially, the capital of Brazil [Brasilia] was built on an empty space, where there was nothing and it turned into a city for cars and people here are quite difficult to move around. Brasilia for me is a cultural fusion - a mixture of all cities and traditions in one place. And now here, in the center of Brazil - in the capital, we are trying to build our own city identity that would represent the whole country of continental size, because Brazil is a country of continental size", says producer and art manager Kaka about his mission.

Such processes are taking place all over the world, but in Brazil this interaction is played out especially vividly and expressively. Here, as if in a Petri dish, one can observe the processes of identity formation, since many different identities and cultural backgrounds collide in Brazilian cities. This observation of an outside observer coincides with the position of Danilo Costa, a Brazilian, known in Belarus as the co-founder of Vulica Brasil:
"There is a huge cultural wealth of many different people here. And it manifests itself in completely different forms: language, literature, art, dance, performance. All we are trying to do today is to combine traditions and the modern world - to make a 'handshake of generations".

Danilo Costa
Street art helps people create a coherent image of their identity. With the help of artistic means, it is possible to show how contradictory features and traditions are combined. Tell people about their roots, reconcile with a difficult and traumatic past. Street artist from Belo Horizonte Gramaloka says the following about this:
"We want to decolonize culture, show the heritage of people from Africa and Indian tribes. Through art, we try to show these different traditions, since people know little about their roots, we want to show them where we are from, our origins. We have a massive history, but we are not shown it in school or elsewhere. We show it all through art. For us, it's not about making money - it's about showing people good things."

Yuri Lotman calls a city a semiosphere and says that a city is a semiotic mechanism, a reflection and generator of culture. In addition to the historical text in the form of architecture and sculpture, we constantly come into contact with real texts: we read words, expressions, symbols, advertisements, schedules, and various instructions. And in this case, the role of a street artist develops into the role of a co-author of the city, adding cultural codes and visual accents - new meanings on top of an established history. And if we talk about a city as a text, then we mean visual metaphors that help to read it in physical space with all its narratives. The role of an artist, street artist in this context is to be both the author and the translator of the city's text. But artists also act as guides. They build a social bridge between the rich and the poor. And also - a temporal bridge, making references in their works to the roots and taboo themes from the past. Through visual language, they speak of a hidden experience of violence and celebrate indigenous traditions. Speto, well known to Minskers thanks to the mural on Oktyabrskaya, created within the framework of Vulica Brasil, explains the manifestation of the past in modern street art as follows:
"Cultural heritage for me is about identity. And it is in my art. Over time, a lot changes - the things we learn at school, what we see on TV, movies, media, but I feel more connected with the naive romantic side of culture, where there is a place for religion, music, traditions, while for me tradition is this is real magic in Brazil, and of course I am for innovation, and when you use it, you keep the tradition alive".

Using a new modern visual language, artists talk about this with the younger generation and train them to perceive reality through artistic reflection and rethinking. This is important for many artists. Hyper, a street artist from Belo Horizonte (his mural "Kaapora" one can see in Minsk at Oktyabrskaya street by the river) said the following:
"For me, street art is not only the interaction with the urban environment - a change in the consciousness of people, talking to them, both literally and figuratively".

And Gramaloka believes that street art opens a window to a new reality, to a world where modernity and tradition are intertwined. He tells people about their roots:
"There are many plants, shamanism, signs and symbols in my graffiti. So, through contemporary art and street art, we highlight the importance of people returning to their roots, to history, including nature."

Street artists strive to offer an alternative to mainstream culture and enable people to get in touch with their heritage - indigenous peoples and their knowledge, spirituality and the power of nature through art:
"Native art, Tribes, Roots art - this is the cultural heritage for me. We [as artists] do not show such things as samba and football, because TV is full of this mainstream... The theme that I paint - Indians and their paraphernalia - they are all real, slightly rethought in my head, but they are all as they are. I learn [from them], these are my roots", says Hyper.

Street art is almost ubiquitous, but the poorer the area, the more subcultural art forms there are. In favelas, street art is especially welcome. This is where Brazilian artists love to create street art. Many see it as their social mission to open up poor areas, where there are few opportunities, a new look at what surrounds them:
"Our street art is addressed to all people, but, for example, in poor areas people are more responsive, and we like to paint more in poor areas because people here have little art, they generally have little, opportunities, and we come to show that they can do something (useful and beautiful), this is for them as an opportunity for another optics to the world ", says Gramaloka.

In addition, the favelas have more manifestations of different religions and cultures - a fertile ground for creating street art. By the way, many street artists come from poor areas. For them, this is one of the ways to gain social status.
Observation 2. Street art helps to form a civil society, to integrate different people into the cultural life of the city.
The role of artists in the development of communities shall not be underestimated. When street art becomes a local landmark, it introduces not only new socio-cultural meanings, but also creates new economic relations, and raises the status of "local heirs of art" - those who live in close proximity to works. For example, in Brazil, artists often practice involving the locals from favelas, more often teenagers, to create collaborative art. In impoverished neighborhoods, Graffiti and Urban Art Mural festivals, such as the festival Meeting of Favela (MOF) in Rio de Janeiro, are being held, bringing together thousands of artists. One of the missions of such events is to emphasize the importance of inclusion, openness, and involvement of the local community in deciding how their city will live and look. It is important not to forget that there is a social contract between locals and artists. Residents are more like co-authors of works than just spectators.

Street art practitioners sometimes become a way to reimagine old buildings that have lost their original purpose. Sometimes there can be a transformed historical building, like Vila Itororo in São Paulo, about which cultural manager and researcher Norton Ficarelli told us:

"If to give a good example of revitalizing historical heritage with the help of modern art practices, I will give the example of Vila Itororo. It was an abandoned historical site, a residential building, and instead of restoration it was decided to make a cultural center there, preserving the structures and artifacts that were there. The place has become very popular among artists, creators, and now it is in great demand for all sorts of activities, master classes".

Norton Ficarelli
Cultural Manager
With the help of murals, installations and illumination of the building, this historic villa has become a home for cultural initiatives. It was not restored, but even without this it became possible to rethink its significance for the local community.

Another example is Conic. It is a cultural cluster located in the center of Brasilia. Previously a commercial object, it has lost its significance, but now it is inhabited by the local creative community. Now cultural events take place here, small shops with custom products have appeared. Not only the content has changed - the buildings themselves have become a canvas for murals of various sizes and a site for various parties. Thanks to this, the space has become comfortable for people looking for alternatives to official culture and they feel there at home. A culture of inclusiveness and equality is at the core of the Conic philosophy. Producerclosely immersed in his work Kaka is, he is also a musician and initiator of various niche movements:
"I was disgusted with banal life and I was looking for something organic and at first organized events for the middle class, but then I realized that this was not the right thing, and I chose this place, Conic. It is a mixture of movements, currents, and different people. There are many homeless people, blacks, gays, and marginalized members of society. And it seems to me that people have not yet understood the value of this place, that within 20 years it will be such a cultural cauldron that will result in a new cultural identity of the city. That is why I am here to attract as many of these people as possible. There is already ballet, rock, many different movements, which, it would seem, are antagonistic, but they coexist, there is space for everyone. I want to show people that this is a very important place and together we can create a new cultural identity, integrating marginalized sectors of society too."

Such transformations of places with the help of modern art practices, street art, and holding festivals are a way to make the city more "your own". And also to make the urban environment a little more similar to Brazilian culture, as the Brazilians themselves see it: spontaneous, natural, vibrant and ever changing.
Observation 3. Street art turns the city into a living museum
treet art may attract tourists as much as architecture and museums. Eastside Gallery in Berlin, Lennon Wall in Prague, Oktyabrskaya Street in Minsk - both locals and visitors come to see them. Even cities that cannot boast of medieval architecture or world-famous museums are able to appear on the tourist map of the world thanks to a new heritage – street art. Street art is interesting for tourists because of its versatility - it is both tangible and intangible heritage, which loses its value without interaction with the urban space and spectators. Indeed, in street art, the complexity of the technique and what is depicted are not always important - the main thing is how it will be perceived, what it symbolizes for the community.

Not so long ago, street art stopped being perceived as vandalism and began to be seen as a new form of cultural heritage. Some murals are purposefully preserved, others are documented, archives and street art museums appear, there are even street art collectors. However, by modern standards, street art has been with us for a long time. This phase transition from spontaneous interventions to heritage status is also felt by some Brazilian artists.

"Heritage becomes heritage over time, together with empathy and recognition, and now I can say that graffiti is a tradition, a heritage of Brazil. I started 35 years ago as a graffiti artist ... My works can already be attributed to heritage as well", reflects Speto.

When we talk about heritage, it is important to consider the aspect of human interaction with the heritage or the environment through the embodied processes and practices that arise around the heritage site in everyday life. The mural is more than a static artifact. It involves the beholder (passer-by or tursite), forcing him to experience sensory experience: it evokes a personal, emotional reaction. Of course, street art is not the only type of art that interacts with the viewer in this way. However, the viewer interacts with street art in the urban environment, and saturates the experience of being in the city as a tourist, flaneur or a local resident.

Street art balances between tangible and intangible heritage. Both the work itself and practice are of value. The process of creating a work, involving artists and the local community, is often more attractive than the printed image itself. It is not an artifact, but rather an experience of interacting with works of street art and urban space.

The fact that street art is constantly changing, disappearing and reappearing, as if shimmering on the city walls, makes it even more attractive to tourists, because it diversifies the experience of interacting with the city for the locals. Street art is temporary and changeable in nature. This is not a bad thing - not all street art should be preserved. Street art often only works in a specific context, when that context is absent, the artwork loses its meaning and value. This is another factor that makes street art not just a practice for the locals, but a kind of living attraction - it cannot be taken out and exhibited elsewhere - you need to come and not only see, but also "live" this place, this art, immerse yourself in context. It is this kind of complex tourism experience that appeals to more sophisticated travelers who are already fed up with conventional tourist travel and are looking for authenticity rather than postcard views when traveling.
Instead of Conclusions
Recently, street art started to be seen as a new form of heritage and appreciated more. What was previously considered vandalism is now perceived as heritage - culturally valuable work that reflects the identity of local residents, their collective memories. At the same time, it is the embodiment of the struggle for the right to representation and the right to be an owner in one's own city or district. Street art is not just an expression. Murals turn nondescript streets into places of power for locals, become a source of pride and a tourist attraction.

The influence of street art on urban life in Brazil is extremely strong, but in Belarus street art is already becoming an important part of the cultural and urban scene. Street art is the embodiment of invisible processes taking place in society. This is a tool for communication about the past and the present, a way to be seen, for some social groups it is an opportunity to arrange a space for themselves. They themselves and the results of their work cannot be simply excluded, so it is important to start developing a strategy thanks to which street art can develop organically and freely, evolving with the city, not conflicting with the historical heritage and private property, but only complementing and emphasizing the authenticity of space in a current historical moment.

Observations written by

Iryna Lukashenka, an art manager and creative producer of the ARTONIST project

in collaboration with Elisabeth Kovtiak, a researcher of culture and society

Photo credits: Leonardo Hladczuk, Samuel Alves, Kaka Guimaraes, Bernhard J. Smid, Hyper, Gramaloka, Danilo Costa, Mila Kotka, Iryna Lukashenka.
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