No floor left untouched. Photos by Blaine Brownell.
Last week I visited São Paulo to speak at Forum Ecotech 2010, sponsored by AEA Cursos Brazil. After the conference I managed to do some sightseeing in the world's fifth largest city, which is known to the locals as the concrete jungle. Amid a bustling street scene tinged with the acrid smell of ripe fruit and body odor (it is summer here, after all), I had an immediate observation: graffiti was everywhere.
Not only is the ubiquity of graffiti in São Paulo striking, but also the diversity of styles and physical locations. I saw several high-rise buildings, for example, that were tagged in their entirety—suggesting that either graffiti artists here are highly skilled in mountain climbing, or building owners willfully turn a blind eye to the practice. Many of the markings are terse, verbal messages, which is graffiti's most common manifestation. This layer of discordant content surfaces is like a film in the inevitable sequence of natural decay—wait long enough, and your building will also be covered with verbal rust.
Not all graffiti here is undesirable, however. In fact, I have witnessed many "installations" that clearly reside in the realm of art—full of vibrant colors, imaginative patterns, and thoughtful symbolism. Unfortunately, a 2006 campaign to clean up São Paulo graffiti removed some of these masterpieces, while apparently not making a dent in the less skillful form of tagging. Cleaning crews were presumably unable to tell expedient markings from their more inspired cousins. However, the choice of what should be removed and what should stay is harder than it seems, and who should make this decision? The government? The art establishment? A selected cadre of the most frequent taggers?
Now that I have spent some time in this colorful city, I cannot imagine it without its omnipresent markings. Remove the graffiti, and you eradicate an important layer of meaning. Naturally, tagging that is purely meant to deface property could be identified without much trouble, but most of the graffiti falls into a nebulous gray area. Like thousands of voices struggling to be heard, São Paulo's wall paintings communicate in a way that no other medium can. Active, inquisitive, and passionate, they embellish this concrete labyrinth with the indefatigable ebullience of human creativity.