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‘Good for the soul’: giant murals turn São Paulo into an open-air gallery

Officials in São Paulo, Brazil, once tracked down graffiti artists and muralists, treating them like vandals. Now the city defends, and even funds, their art, and it is everywhere and oversized.

SÃO PAULO, Brazil – When Eduardo Kobra started out as an artist, he was marking the walls of São Paulo in the hours before dawn with gritty depictions of city life, always working fast and always looking for police cars.

Back then, there was no money to be made as a graffiti artist in Brazil and there were many risks. Passers-by regularly insulted him, cops took him into custody three times, and he racked up dozens of citations for infringing public property.

“Many artists from this period fell from buildings and died,” Kobra recalls. “And there were very violent fights between rival groups of graffiti artists.”

It’s a bygone era: Much has changed since Mr. Kobra first introduced his art to the streets of São Paulo two decades ago.

He is now an internationally renowned muralist, and São Paulo, the largest city in Latin America, has come to embrace – and even fund – the work of artists that authorities once hounded and slandered.

The result is an art boom using the once drab walls of buildings as oversized canvases. The dozens of freshly painted murals softened the edges of one of the world’s most chaotic mega-cities, splashing light, poetry and sharp commentary on its skyline.

The art form flourished during the pandemic, as artists found solace and inspiration in the open air for months when galleries, museums and performance spaces were closed.

Many of the murals painted over the past year have spoken of the health crisis, which has killed more than 440,000 people in Brazil and deepened political polarization.

Mr Kobra painted a large mural outside a church showing children of different religions wearing masks. Artist Apolo Torres painted a mural in honor of the huge army of delivery men who fed the city of 12 million people when the quarantine measures were in effect.

While recent mayors of São Paulo were at times hostile and ambivalent towards street artists, the current administration has fully supported the making of murals.

Last year, the mayor’s office launched an online platform called Street Art Museum 360, which lists and maps over 90 murals that can be viewed virtually by people around the world or experienced while exploring. in person from the city.

It’s easy to be captivated by Mag Magrela’s mural, “I Resist,” which depicts a kneeling nude woman, her hands in a meditative pose and the word “present” scrawled across her chest.

A mural by Mauro Neri of a black woman looking skyward with shining eyes wide open under the word ‘Reality’ is one of several works created last year with the aim of highlighting racial injustice.

“The experience of meeting these works of art makes life in the city more human, more colorful and more democratic,” said Alê Youssef, Secretary of Culture of São Paulo. “It’s good for the soul.”

Since 2017, the city has spent around $ 1.6 million on street art projects.

Graffiti art took off in Brazil in the 1980s as artists drew inspiration from New York’s hip-hop and punk scenes. It was a male-dominated activity, fueled largely by artists from marginalized communities.

Doodles and sketches were a form of rebellion, Mr Kobra said, by people who felt helpless and invisible in the teeming metropolis, which is Brazil’s economic engine.

“I grew up in a world full of drugs, crime and discrimination, where people like me had no access to culture,” said Mr. Kobra, 46. “It was a way to protest, to exist, to spread my name across town.”

Most of the artists who rose to prominence during the days when street art was still an underground scene got their education by observing their peers rather than attending universities, said Yara Amaral Gurgel De Barros, 38, who has wrote a master’s thesis on muralism in São Paulo.

“They learned on the streets, watching others draw, studying how they used brushes and paint rollers,” said Ms. De Barros. “Most are self-taught and have passed on their skills from person to person.”

In the 1990s, the proliferation of street art added to a crowded and visually overwhelming landscape. For years, São Paulo had few regulations for outdoor advertising, leaving much of the city – including many buildings with at least one windowless side – draped in billboards.

In 2006, city lawmakers concluded the city was inundated with visual pollution and passed a law banning large, flashy outdoor advertisements.

As the billboards were taken down, the muralists began to treat the sudden abundance of bare walls as invitations to paint, first without permission and then with the blessing of the city.

These giant pristine spaces were captivating and appealing to Mundano, a well-known muralist and graffiti artist from São Paulo who said the works of art on display in galleries and private collections never spoke to him.

“I’ve always felt uncomfortable with conventional art because it was mostly for the elites,” said Mundano, who only uses his artistic name. “In the 2000s, I took to the streets with the intention of democratizing art.”

In 2014, Mundano began painting the drab, drab trolleys of recyclable waste collectors, turning them into colorful, traveling exhibits. The initiative, which he dubbed “pimp my cart,” filled workers with pride. The artist then created a phone app that allows people to contact nearby garbage collectors.

“I’ve always wanted my art to be useful,” Mundano said. “Art can tackle the crucial problems of Brazil.”

One of them, according to Mundano, is the tendency of many Brazilians to forget moments of trauma – a phenomenon at the heart of his work as a muralist.

“Brazil is a country with no memory, where people tend to forget even our recent history,” said Mundano, standing in front of one of his large murals at a busy downtown crossroads. “We must create monuments to the moments that have marked us as a nation.”

The “Workers of Brumadinho” mural is a tribute to the 270 workers killed in January 2019 at a mining site in the state of Minas Gerais when a dam holding sludge burst.

Mundano traveled to the crash site in the town of Brumadinho, where he collected more than 550 pounds of mud and mud, which he used to make paint for the mural.

The mural, a replica of an iconic 1933 painting by Tarsila do Amaral, one of Brazil’s most renowned painters, shows rows of workers, whose faces reflect the diversity of Brazil, looking tired and gloomy .

Mundano said he decided to replicate the previous chart to highlight how little has changed in nearly a century.

“They remain oppressed by the industries,” he said.

Muralist Hanna Lucatelli Santos is also animated by social themes, saying she felt called to describe how women show their strength.

She discovered the unique power of murals, even on a small scale, years ago, when she drew a picture of what she called a “strong but delicate” woman in her living room. Suddenly, the relationships within the household became more harmonious and the energy more positive, she said.

“It triggered a gentler way of treating each other,” Ms. Santos said.

Ms. Santos, 30, has sought to replicate this effect on a larger scale by painting murals of women who gaze at the crowded city with serene and mystical air. Her designs are also a refutation of the way women are often portrayed in Brazilian advertising and man-made art.

“You see women painted by men who have artificial bodies, are totally sexualized,” she says. “These numbers did more to oppress me than to free me.”

One of his recent works, a pair of murals on adjacent walls, shows the same woman from the front and back. The front image includes the words “Did you realize that we are infinite?” The other side shows the woman carrying a baby on her back and holding the hand of a toddler.

“I wanted to get people to ask how society views mothers,” she said. “And I know that a woman of this size, a mystical woman, has the power to change the environment below her, to balance the energy of the street, which tends to be so masculine.”

Lis Moriconi contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro.

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