Brazil: street art makes its mark

By Samantha Pearson

Eduardo Kobra’s Oscar Niemeyer mural©Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

If there is one thing that graffiti artists do not usually have to worry about it’s somebody running off with their work. But Os Gêmeos (“The Twins”) – Gustavo and Otávio Pandolfo, identical twin brothers from São Paulo – have already been the victim of at least four robberies.

“Dealers hire a builder to cut our work out of some wall in the city and then they sell it in the secondary market,” says Gustavo, in the chaotic office above their studio. “They’re taking away the opportunity from people to have access to public art. That art wasn’t meant to be inside somebody’s apartment just for the enjoyment of one person.”

However, the recent spate of wall snatching is testament to just how much Os Gêmeos and Brazil’s graffiti scene have changed. The 39-year-old brothers – “contemporary, not graffiti artists”, they insist – are now represented by the same New York gallery as Tracey Emin and sell work on canvases for more than $100,000 apiece. They’ve been hired by everyone from the former Brazilian footballer Ronaldo to the owners of upmarket office buildings.

The transition from working on public spaces to private interiors has helped change perceptions of graffiti. But it is a transition that has also come fraught with contradictions for both collectors and artists. The commercialisation of this subversive art form is a thorny issue in Brazil, where corruption and income inequality mean that private interests invariably win out over public ones.

'Untitled', by Os Gêmeos
©Eduardo Ortega

The scene was born in the 1980s, when the US hip-hop scene arrived in Brazil, inspiring the brothers to swap paper for walls. São Paulo is a city that encouraged them and their peers, including Eduardo Kobra and Zezão. Starved of parks and with no beach in sight, the concrete megalopolis is so oppressively grey that it begs for colour. Lax law enforcement also means that Brazilian artists have more time to experiment in the streets than their peers in the US, who are constantly looking over their shoulder for the police. “The simple fact that the city is vulnerable also allowed us to occupy it,” says Gustavo.

Not everyone has been so lucky. Kobra, the São Paulo artist best known for his 52m-high mural of the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, spent two days in jail as a teenager for pichação. A form of “tagging”, pichação is where rival gangs compete to scrawl their names across the city’s hardest-to-reach walls in what is often viewed as straightforward vandalism.

After being kicked out of home, Kobra decided to switch to the more acceptable option of graffiti. His success with the Niemeyer mural has led to so many Brazilians offering up their walls to him that today he couldn’t do anything unauthorised even if he tried. “To avoid any problems in the community I just call myself an ‘urban artist’ now,” he laughs.

Gustavo and Otávio Pandolfo
©Todd Oren/WireImage
Billy Castilho, an art director and one of the city’s leading graffiti collectors, has spent the past 12 years taking street art off the street and filling his house with it. “When you bring a little bit of the street inside, this gives you a feeling of new energy and makes you reflect about the city you live in.”

But therein lies the dilemma for the artists hanging on his wall, such as Zezão, whose work focuses on the idea of the “excrement” of urbanisation. Encased in a frame in Castilho’s home, Zezão’s scrawl on a piece of scrap metal has lost much of its rawness. It is easy to imagine that the pieces of broken wall bearing Os Gêmeos’s graffiti in some luxurious apartment in the city must look equally out of place.

What it has lost in leaving the street, however, it has certainly gained in commercial value. “I’ll never be able to afford anything by those twins,” Castilho says forlornly. “Buying Os Gêmeos is for investors now; it’s basically the same thing as investing in the stock market.”