‘Good for the Soul’: Giant Murals Turn São Paulo Into Open Air Gallery

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Officials in São Paulo, Brazil, once hounded graffiti artists and muralists, treating them as vandals. Now the city champions, and even funds, their art, and it’s everywhere and supersized.

By Ernesto Londoño

Photographs by Victor Moriyama

May 30, 2021

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — When Eduardo Kobra started out as an artist, he was tagging walls in São Paulo in the pre-dawn hours with gritty depictions of urban life, always working fast and always on the lookout for police cars.

At the time, there was no money to be made as a graffiti artist in Brazil, and the risks abounded. Passers-by routinely cursed at him, cops took him into custody three times, and he racked up dozens of citations for defacing public property.

“Many artists in that period fell from buildings and died,” Mr. Kobra recalled. “And there were very violent fights among rival bands of graffiti artists.”

That is a bygone era: Much has changed since Mr. Kobra first took his art to the streets of São Paulo two decades ago.

He is now an internationally acclaimed muralist, and São Paulo, Latin America’s largest city, has come to embrace — and even fund — the work of artists the authorities once hounded and maligned.

The result is a boom of art using the formerly drab walls of buildings as supersized canvases. The scores of freshly painted murals have softened the edges of one of the world’s most chaotic megacities, splashing flare, poetry and pointed commentary on its skyline.

The art form has thrived during the pandemic, as artists found solace and inspiration under the open sky during months when galleries, museums and performance spaces were shuttered.

Many of the murals painted in the past year have touched on 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. The artist Apolo Torres painted a mural honoring the enormous army of delivery workers who kept the city of 12 million fed when quarantine measures were in effect.

While recent São Paulo mayors were at turns hostile and ambivalent toward street artists, the current administration has fully supported mural-making.

Last year the mayor’s office launched an online platform called Street Art Museum 360, which catalogs and maps more than 90 murals that can be perused virtually by people around the world or experienced on an in-person exploration of the city.

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

A mural by Mauro Neri of a Black woman looking toward the sky, with her bright eyes wide open under the word “Reality,” is among several works created last year with the intent of highlighting racial injustice.

“The experience of running into these works of art makes city life more humane, more colorful and more democratic,” said Alê Youssef, São Paulo’s culture secretary. “It’s good for the soul.”

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

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

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

“I was raised in a world full of drugs, crime and discrimination, where people like me didn’t have access to culture,” said Mr. Kobra, 46. “This was a way of protesting, of existing, of spreading my name across the city.”

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

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

By the 1990s, the proliferation of street art added to a cluttered 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 that the city was awash in visual pollution and passed a law banning large, flashy outdoor ads.

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

Those giant blank spaces were enthralling and enticing for Mundano, a well-known São Paulo muralist and graffiti artist who said the artwork displayed in galleries and private collections had never spoken to him.

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

In 2014, Mundano began painting the beat-up, drab carts of recyclable trash collectors, turning them into colorful, roving exhibits. The initiative, which he dubbed “pimp my cart,” filled the workers with pride. The artist later created a phone app that allows people to contact nearby trash collectors.

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

One of those, in Mundano’s view, 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 without memory, where people tend to forget even our recent history,” Mundano said, standing in front of one his large murals at a busy downtown intersection. “We need to create monuments to the moments that marked us as a nation.”

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

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

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

Mundano said he decided to replicate the earlier painting as a way to underscore how little has changed in nearly a century.

“They remain oppressed by industries,” he said.

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

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

“It sparked a more gentle way of treating each other,” Ms. Santos said.

Ms. Santos, 30, has sought to replicate that effect on a larger scale by painting murals of women who stare down on the crowded city looking serene and mystical. Her creations are also a rebuttal to the way women are often portrayed in Brazilian advertising and art created by men.

“You see women painted by men who have artificial bodies, are totally sexualized,” she said. “Those figures did more to oppress me than liberate me.”

One of her recent works, a pair of murals on adjacent walls, shows the same woman from the front and back. The frontal image includes the words “Have you realized 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 make people question how society looks at mothers,” she said. “And I know that a woman that size, a mystical woman, has the power to change the environment below her, to balance out the energy of the street, which tends to be so masculine.”

Lis Moriconi contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro.

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