Where form meets function

Image: AP

Rounding out our World Cup Month, we take a look at the tournament’s effects on the country and its flourishing street art scene.

While graffiti and most other forms of street art carve out a politically neglected and legally prosecuted existence in most parts of the Western hemisphere, the developing and threshold countries’ major cities have become the hatcheries of these independent and down-to-earth art forms. Brazil has proven to be home to one of the most important and prolific street art scenes among these countries, both in regards to diverse aesthetics and social and political function. There, street art is not considered a public nuisance but a public interest and, at times, also a public voice. With the 2014 FIFA World Cup behind us and the 2014 Olympic games ahead, we take a look at Brazil’s approach to the polarizing art form.

When a graffiti sprayer friend of mine told me about a painting trip to Brazil where a local shouted at him while he was working, it was hard to believe that this could ever happen in the United States or Europe for the reason it did – someone approached him and called out to my confused friend not because he was spraying a piece but because he was upset that my friend wasn’t painting his wall. This incident didn’t seem to be an exception either but a fine example of Brazil’s attitude toward street art.

Graffiti even became legal in Rio de Janeiro in February, when Mayor Eduardo Paes signed a bill that allowed anyone to put up their pieces on designated, non-­historic city property. Incidentally, just a few months after Justin Bieber got in trouble for spraying particularly bad graffiti on a former Rio hotel. However, the popularity of street art in Brazil is way older than the law that finally (partly) legalized it.

Major cities like São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba have been hot spots of Brazilian street art since the mid-’80s, thanks to the local artists who have managed to cultivate a scene that is now among one of the most vivid, eclectic and artistically significant in the world. After the fall of the military dictatorship, the desire to break the silence and voice opinion freely trickled down through society. Soon, public intervention kindled by a reinvigorated political counterculture descended upon urban areas.

Artists who were born to predominantly poor families in the late ’60s and early ’70s set out to regain the streets with spray cans or – due to the costs – more often than that with simple paint and rollers. They expressed their political opinion against the former leaders and those who still secretly or even bluntly supported them. But when the political agenda shifted to more pressing matters than the prosecution of public enemies in the following decades, younger artists entered the stage to issue their protest. They revolted against the growing social inequality that saw the wealthy isolate themselves from a burgeoning impoverished part of the population; they protested against the economic decline with an annual inflation of a 1000% in the late ’80s and rebelled against the increasing social and ecological problems stemming from the mass eviction of indigenous people in order to deforest their land.

Today, most of these social and political problems exist in one way or another. With the 2014 FIFA World Cup and upcoming 2016 Olympic games, new fuel for conflict troubles the nation. Throughout these decades and up to today, Brazilian walls have borne witness to this everlasting protest.

The World Cup and the Favelas

Last year, I had the chance to visit Rio de Janeiro’s favela Rocinha, the biggest of its kind in South America. A local guided me through the steep streets and narrow alleyways, introduced me to his life in the neighborhood and some of his fellow favelados, all of whom I asked about their perspective on current social and political challenges that the city faces in what was then the final preparation stage of the football world championship. Their answers aligned with the public opinion that international press tried to capture ever since the World Cup was on the agenda. They complained about the government’s ordinance to have military policy invade and brutally pacify (as it is officially called) their community of 250,000.

In an effort to suppress the drug gangs, they took over control a few years ago and soon established a harsh and often violent rule of distrust and despotism. Shortly before I visited Rocinha, police even had a resident kidnapped, killed and tortured. One of the residents told me that he felt safer under the reign of the drug lords who were cruel but kept the community safe for everyone.

Image: Reuters

The favelados of Rocinha had a simple explanation for the government’s sudden interest in their long-neglected lives: Brazil wanted to welcome its football-mad guests and beautify its cities. Stadiums, subway lines, bridges, roads, and a vast number of hotels and other touristic infrastructure were built. However, the poverty-stricken favelas and their residents didn’t benefit from this sudden revamping. Today, they see their neighborhood further falling apart while the rest of city shines in new splendor.

The reason for these radical changes, however, remains distant. Tickets to the football games easily exceed a worker’s monthly salary. Take a look at Brazil’s football fans rooting for their team in the shiny, new stadiums and you’ll find people almost entirely of Caucasian ancestry, even though they make up only half of the country’s population.

However, the people of Rocinha share the thrill with their worshipped seleçao and its superstars Neymar, Thiago Silva, Oscar and Ramires. After all, every Brazilian, whether poor or not, is a bonafide football addict. Every bar and café, even the workshops and stores, show the national team’s games. The craze surpasses even the Brazilian enthusiasm for soap operas, the other cultural topic of the day, everyday. When their divine attacker Neymar sustained a severe injury during the match against Colombia, the case was nothing short of a national interest.

Image: Reuters

Football-Themed Street Art

It would come as a surprise if this ambivalent relationship to the World Cup would not somehow find its way into street art. Perhaps Mayor Paes’ bill to partly legalize and thus foster the touristic potential of colorful murals even spurred the artists to express their opinion on Rio de Janeiro’s walls.

Some of the paintings celebrate or encourage the national team, while others criticize the financial excess in building the stadiums or the government’s attempts to cover up the country’s severe social problems. The artists often connect the dots and create grim impressions of their national sport hijacked by financial and political interests and its collateral damage to the hoi polloi.

Image: Getty

Politicians and the World Cup’s mascot, “Fuleco” (an armadillo that was named after “futbol” and “ecologia,” unwittingly having the same name as the Brazilian slang term for “ass”), are depicted flushing money down the toilet, making dodgy pacts or, in a more straightforward mural, fucking Lady Justice. A particular expressive image by Paulo Ito that gained some prominence portrays a starving child who’s been served a football to eat.

Image: Reuters

Other, milder murals reflect the hope and anticipation of seeing Brazil’s national team compete in a thrilling World Cup and perhaps win the trophy. Neymar, Thiago Silva and other players are frequently depicted leading a nation of sport enthusiasts to their sixth championship, while former football stars keep watch and protect this important matter of national interest. One particular painting shows Neymar smacking a Uruguayan phantom, making a witty remark at the seleçao’s shameful defeat in 1950. The hope continues with one Rio street artist trusting attacker Hulk to bring the historic St. Teresa cable car back into service, even though it’s been out of operation since a serious accident in 2011 involving six fatalities and fifty injuries.

In Rocinha’s poverty-stricken alleyways, World Cup-related street art set a humbler yet genuine tone. A simple mural close to the winding main street depicts a simple football at the heart of the Brazilian flag accompanied by the hopeful phrase “A festa do hexa,” or “the party of the sixth.” The seleçao didn’t make it so far this year. Their losses against the German and Dutch teams came hard for every Rocinha resident just as any other Brazilian. But their hope for the next championship stays undiminished. Street art such as this bears timeless testimony to these joyful but ambivalent emotions. And perhaps, some day, these time-weathered murals might become relevant again.

What To Read Next