Graffiti writers and street artists have their own complex language, rules, code of ethics. One objective of these urban art creators is to place their work in as many prominent positions around a city as they can in order to be seen by as many people as possible. From this, they receive recognition from peers and the public. For them, this is a way of becoming famous. Graffiti writers have developed their own vocabulary, which began in the 1970s in New York. For example, words such as ‘bomb’ are used to describe the action of painting a lot of over a wide area. Interestingly, this vocabulary is in English, but graffiti writers from all over the world understand it.
Graffiti writing and street art are often seen as separate entities that do not always co-exist peacefully in the same space. There are often rivalries between graffiti writers, who tend to work with letters and a pseudonym, and street artists that work more with imagery. However, Brazil has a rich and vibrant graffiti writing and street art scene. Internationally renowned artists such as the duo, Os Gemeos from Sao Paulo, blend the traditions of graffiti writing and street art to create something more uniquely Brazilian.
Brazil also has its own brand of aggressive urban calligraphy, or tagging, known as Pichação, which creeps up the side of high-rise buildings and appears to influence the letterforms of more intricate pieces. However, many graffiti artists in Brazil, such as Eduardo Kobra, tend to paint works that are more figurative. There is a liberal view on graffiti in Brazil, and it was legalised in 2009. Given my own passion for graffiti, I was excited to have the chance to visit a city famed for its open-minded take on art in urban spaces.
My own interest in graffiti writing started at the age of 14 through skateboarding and using the city as my personal playground. I began to notice the strange cryptic writing and murals in the locale and became obsessed with trying to decipher and understand them. It was not long before I found a marker pen in my hand and was adding to the ‘scrawl’. For me graffiti writing then meant travelling and painting the train lines in the area that I grew up in. Travelling the train lines soon developed into visiting other cities to leave my mark and paint. The opportunity to travel to Rio de Janeiro, as part of this Co-Creation project, to join up with local artists, academics, activists, and students was too good to pass up.
I arrived in Rio and the taxi ride to my hostel provided the opportunity to view the city along one of its main routes. I saw the expected hillside favelas and older architecture, palm trees and, of course, graffiti peppering retaining walls along the highway. The graffiti writing in Rio is distinct and unique, which is unusual in today’s world where easy access to social media has resulted in a more uniform and less regionally-specific style. In the city, marks left by other well-known graffiti writers from around the world were used in the way graffiti was originally intended – to say ‘Look, I was here!’
Graffiti writers are notorious for the adoption and adaptation of tools that they can use to leave their mark on society. Spray paint used for covering scratches on cars and leather dye used to hide scuffs on shoes are just some examples. In Brazil, due to the high cost of spray paint cans, graffiti writers have learnt to use latex paint and bug sprayers as alternatives, although the use of tins of spray paint is becoming more prevalent. These different tools have resulted in a unique style being developed.
By social media and my own status within the culture, I was able to make some connections with graffiti writers in the city. Plans were made, rendezvous points were decided and spray paint was acquired. I met my co-creators for the evening, two women called Klein and Jad, and was taken on a spray painting tour of downtown Rio, an experience that will stay with me forever. Although I hardly knew the graffiti writers that I was with, by the end of the night, through our co-created experience, it felt as if we had been friends our entire lives. Graffiti writing culture had allowed me to experience the city in a very different way from regular visitors and tourists. Barriers of language and culture had been negotiated due to a common motivation – to paint our names in the city of Rio de Janeiro.
In the next few days, I was introduced to one of the graffiti writers involved in the Co-Creation project in the Santa Marta favela. Tick 2 is a quietly spoken man in his early thirties with enormous artistic talent. He also speaks English very well. He lives in a favela near the affluent Copacabana beach, a remarkable contrast of rich and poor. He is able to paint letters and photorealistic faces, but is probably most well-known for his depiction of the chaotic favela architecture. We quickly became friends and took the opportunity to get the supplies we needed for the final day of the Co-Creation workshop. As part of the workshop, we had plans to create pieces of art that represented what the whole group thought about the issues raised and discussed during the time spent together. These topics were centred on tourism, race, stigmatisation and community. That evening before the workshop, Tick 2 and I decided to collaborate and paint a wall together in his neighbourhood. It was during this time that I realised the importance that graffiti had in this man’s life.
Graffiti had given Tick 2 the motivation to learn English, the opportunity to travel globally to countries including Thailand and France, the ability to meet, make and develop friendships with members of graffiti writing culture and those that express an interest in in it. While graffiti writing and street art challenges legality and the concepts of property ownership, and may not be aesthetically pleasing to all, the power these art forms have to transcend boundaries and give those who participate as practitioners a voice, presence and opportunity that may have been less accessible otherwise, is amazing. Together we have co-created a form of communication, folklore and art in public spaces that has the potential to increase inclusivity and develop pathways to other opportunities.
For a week, we had been working in Santa Marta, a favela in the South Zone of Rio, with a local organisation called Grupo Eco. We had spent our time developing Co-Creation methodology while focussing on life in the favela. The Co-Creation workshop event held in Santa Marta’s samba hall was the finale of the Rio de Janeiro for me. I worked with the members of an organisation called Grupo Eco, based in Santa Marta, and asked them to express how they felt about their favela in one word. I collected their words and used them to create a depiction of the favela using the letters of the words as buildings. There was a samba bateria playing their drums with locals stopping by for a dance with plenty of delicious feijoada and caipirinha being served at the gathering! The other artists painted their own versions of the favela and the people in it. I left Santa Marta feeling as though we had more than created pieces of art and exchanged ideas, we had worked together in a shared experience that will contribute not only to the Co-Creation project, but also to our lives.