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The Politics of Rio Graffiti and Unrest Over the World Cup

(Image via Facebook)
(Image via Facebook)

The Brazilian writer João do Rio wrote that the urban street is “born as a man is, from the hiccup, from the spasm. There is human sweat in the mortar of its pavement.” Rio was, fittingly, born in Rio de Janeiro, a city with a now-vibrant graffiti scene which hasn’t always squared openly with the law. But since the art form became officially legal in February (just months after Justin Bieber visited Brazil and got in trouble for spray-painting on a wall there), artists have been uninhibitedly plastering the city with images expressing their concerns about the FIFA World Cup.

Though the event has put Rio in the spotlight, many cariocas (natives of Rio) — not to mention Brazilians in general and their soccer legends in particular — are critical of the bucket loads of cash being poured into preparations for the tournament, even as the nation’s roads and schools suffer from lack of funding and its slums degenerate further into violence. They also suspect the money is being used by corrupt politicians to pad their own pocketbooks.

This work on a train is more direct: FUCK FIFA, which is the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA ... www.fifa.com/ Fédération Internationale de Football Association The official site of the international governing body of football with news, national associations (via LeoOOONunes's Instagramfeed)
This work on a train is more direct: FUCK FIFA, which is the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the international governing body of football, or soccer in North America. (via LeoOOONunes’s Instagramfeed)

On one wall in Rio, a picture of of two greedy politicians (one pig-nosed) sit before the cityscape, flinging the ashes of their cigarettes into a miniature Maracanã, Rio’s prized soccer stadium in which Pelé scored his 1,000th goal. Words above the image read, O Maraca é Nosso (Maracanã is Ours). Though the words are a protest slogan, it’s not immediately clear at first glance whether it’s the politicians or the people talking — and that’s the point.

Another image posted by the Instagram user @maurohussein shows yellow and green hands clenching a money bag beside a masked face and the words Não Vai Ter Copa (There Will No Cup), another anti-government slogan provoked by recent events.

(Image courtesy of Instagram user @maurohussein)
(Image courtesy of Instagram user @maurohussein)

More images — many of which are optimistic about the World Cup or completely unrelated to it — can be viewed on the website StreetArtRio, an online urban art catalogue with over 500 artists that was created by Eixo Rio, a quasi-governmental agency that Mayor Eduardo Paes appointed to regulate the city’s urban artists when he legalized graffiti in the city on February 18. 

His decree, GrafiteRio, allows artists to spray paint away, as long as they don’t tag commercial or historically protected buildings, and as long as the images are not discriminatory or pornographic. It also ordered Eixo Rio to create an 11-member CariocaGraffiti Council, which serves as a liaison for the city’s urban artists. And in honor of Brazilian graffiti pioneer Vallauri Alex, it officially instated Graffiti Day on March 27 — the date Alex died in 1987.

Corruption is a prominent theme in the graffiti of Rio (via Arteruario's Instagram feed)
Corruption is a prominent theme in the graffiti of Rio (via Arteruario’s Instagram feed)

But the law didn’t mark a change in Rio’s attitude toward graffiti so much as it acknowledged the huge role graffiti was already playing in the city’s urban landscape. Graffiti artists first began working in Brazil in the 1960s, and the government has generally been soft on those who create more artistic images. As a writer for Folha de Sāo Paulo observed in an insightful article that outlines many caveats of the new law:

“To curb the spread of pixação [spiky black glyphs] in Rio, the government and property owners have long been more lax in enforcing vandalism laws against graffiti artists painting colorful, generally aesthetically pleasing works that both brighten up blighted areas and serve as a buffer against pixação.

For more than two decades, this gentleman’s agreement has led to a booming graffiti scene in Rio, thrusting artists’ works onto gallery walls, garnering the admiration of foreign artists and public art enthusiasts. It also managed to block some pixadores.”

(Image courtesy of Instagram user @priveca)
(Image courtesy of Instagram user @priveca)

But if Mayor Paes thought that legalizing graffiti and street art would allow him to control it, graffiti writers and street artists are quickly proving him wrong. Ironically, a good amount of the new urban art is directed against the mayor. One mural in the neighborhood of Vila Isabel captured by Instagram user @priveca depicts the mayor smiling as he shoots a gun beneath the words, “As catracas só estão abertas para nós quando a exploracão do dever nos chama. Até quando você será refém?” (The gates are only open to us when the exploitation of duty calls us. For how long will you be held hostage?)

h/t Lebanon’s Daily Star

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