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Isabel Makhoul

Fight for Rio's Streets

In Brazil, Graffiti is a weapon of the poor and disinherited. Artists are reclaiming the streets, using their fame to build and educate their communities.

The blazing sun beats down on us and dust hovers in the air as I follow Acme up the steep hill step by step. The well-known graffiti artist, whose real name is Carlos Esquivel, is wearing his signature black cap together with a blue t-shirt with an orange inscription, bright shorts, and sturdy shoes. Colorful paint residue from the day before is still visible on his fingers. His passion for color and art began in his youth with his interest in rap music and his first attempts to immortalize himself with tags in the city after a long day of selling drinks on the beach. Making friends in Rio de Janeiro's world-famous graffiti scene, the autodidact artist discovered his talent. Over time, his ambition grew, turning his hobby into a career. “I wanted to be able to make a living out of it and get famous for my art. So I built up a whole universe – Acmecity – with characters and colors that I often use in my paintings.” Today he participates in international competitions and exhibits his work in galleries, receives requests to paint walls in trendy bars and shops, and is contracted by the municipality to beautify public spaces throughout the city. But for him art is more than a way of expression and making money. He uses it to improve the situation in the favelas.

We are walking through Pavão-Pavãozinho, one of Rio's famous favelas. Acme was raised in this community and lives here today with his own little family. We are only about 450 steps above the world-famous Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, but up here the expensive boutiques and trendy bars where tourists cavort along with the Brazilian upper-middle class seem worlds away. On our way through the favela, we stop at a small wooden shop where Acme enters into conversation with a neighbor while I buy two bottles of water for us. One might assume that up here everything would be cheaper than down in the city, but the prices are the same. After all, the cost of the porter has to be included.

A few years ago, the area on the slopes of the city was declared a ‘risk zone’.

On the top of the hill, residents enjoy breathtaking views over the richest areas of the city, the endless beaches, and the famous Sugar Loaf Mountain in the background – a picture-perfect scene. Everybody greets each other; people stop to chat or have a refreshing drink with neighbors. Children are flying their kites on the roofs. This part of the favela is also called Caranguejo, which means crab, because in the olden days people here were already so poor that one had the feeling they were moving backwards in life. Up here, houses are partly made out of wood or corrugated iron. Waste disposal is a major problem and occasionally water and electricity are cut. Climbing up the hill to reach Caranguejo is exhausting, especially for day-to-day tasks like carrying groceries, the occasional piece of furniture or, in the worst case, a sick or elderly family member. A few years ago, the area on the slopes of the city was declared a ‘risk zone’ due to the topographical conditions and the danger of houses collapsing. People who settled here decades ago and have built up their lives with family and friends now live under the constant fear of losing their homes, as the informal houses could be demolished at any time.

For several years now, Acme has been involved in different social projects. Through his art, he is trying to turn this area into a better place and improve the everyday lives of his family and friends. In 2008, he founded the Museu de Favela, an open air museum where visitors can take a walking tour, guided or on their own, through the favela. Huge graffiti murals depict the history and culture of the community, along with the difficulties it faces. These are the residents' stories and memories of their families and pleasures in life, but also the stories of the struggles, gang and police violence, injustices, and stigmatization the people living in Pavão-Pavãozinho experience every day.

Today Acme shows me his current project up on the hill in Caranguejo. One of the few areas available here in the favela is ‘Praça do Vietnã' (Vietnam Place). The square is flanked by three colorful houses. All were painted by Acme or his friends. In the center is a water tank that provides water for the surrounding houses and also serves as a stage for events. It is a place where neighbors meet and children play. A stone staircase from Acme’s house has brought us up here. Some improvised mud stairs lead from here to a football field just before the end of the favela and the beginning of a dense forest.

“From next month on, we will organize free boxing classes taught by a professional instructor from the community.” (Acme)

Acme would like to use this free space to open up an "itinerant school for urban arts", as he calls it, and thereby shape the public space in the favela. Acme has opened up his atelier in close proximity, which he is planning to remodel and expand to offer various art courses taught by himself and other volunteer artists from Brazil and around the world. “I want to give the locals here a voice to express their needs, but also to claim their right to the city and especially their right to housing. Children and adults will be able to take art classes and attend cultural events. I am installing a mobile open-air cinema here. From next month on, we will organize free boxing classes taught by a professional instructor from the community.” Creating public spaces is a way to empower the community through culture and art, providing them with higher visibility. Via a crowdfunding campaign last year, Acme successfully raised funds and was able to pave the square as a first step. The graffiti artist tries to involve all residents in the planning and decision-making process, and therefore organised a participatory assembly at which the project was presented and residents determined future steps together.

‘Grafite’ in the form of colorful designs as well as ‘pichação’ (tags) are not only visible in Pavão-Pavãozinho, but in the rest of the city as well. This new form of expression in the public sphere has been on the rise over the past years. Brazilian graffiti and especially the "Carioca Street Art" in Rio de Janeiro is known worldwide for its unique, colorful, and energetic expression. Artists like Marcelo Eco, Smaël, Marcelo Ment, Joana Ceaser, and Toz are well-known beyond national borders for their individual works or for their work in artists' collectives like the "Flashback Crew", the "Santa Crew", and many more. Many art galleries exhibit street art in Rio, such as the "Olho da Rua" gallery in Botafogo, "Homegrown" in Ipanema and Tijuca, and "Galeria 80" in Copacabana, where Acme is currently showing his work. Rio’s street artist scene has created networks, and social initiatives have been launched in recent years to beautify and upgrade favelas or revitalize quasi-abandoned areas in Rio, like in the city center and the port area.

Modern street art has its roots in New York and emerged during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but quickly spread all over the world. It has since become a language of opposition and was later closely linked to the hip-hop movement. In Brazil, the first graffiti emerged in the 1960s, but when the military dictatorship took hold, graffiti was criminalized and seen as vandalism. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, graffiti spread in Rio de Janeiro in the periphery and urban areas like Tijuca and Ilha do Governador. During that time, the capitalist crisis followed by the neoliberal era and the Washington Consensus all had tremendous impact on the urban lower- and middle-classes and increased poverty and inequality levels. By the beginning of the 1990s, urban art had also reached the center and the city’s southern zone, home to rich neighborhoods like Ipanema or Copacabana, and was slowly gaining acceptance from inhabitants.

"You can really perceive a change in mindset nowadays. Street art is being valued in the public space.” (Nina)

In Brazil, street art has also become an important form of expression for underprivileged sectors. It allows writers and painters to express their feelings about their monotonous, urban, everyday lives, but also to show political consent or protest certain measures and decisions. In 2009, the Brazilian government passed law 706/07, which officially decriminalized street art in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Nina from Rio Street Art Tours tells me, "You can really perceive a change in mindset nowadays. Street art is being valued in the public space and even financially supported by the city's municipalities and local residents' associations." She also explains that as street artists are gaining more and more recognition, they can really make a living from their art, and that legalization was an important aspect of this. As host of the most important international mega-events, the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Summer Games in 2016, Rio de Janeiro – a city of six million - is striving to become a modern and efficient global city. This has led to high speculation on the real estate market and transformed the city into an exclusionary and expensive space only accessible to a few privileged urban dwellers. Graffiti can be a medium to change the metropolis and reconquer the urban space. After spending months in the favelas, my impression was that urban art has become a social practice to balance this growth in highly urbanized Brazil.

Rio is not the only city to show this type of development. In Cairo, for instance, graffiti played a major role in communication during the Egyptian Revolution. Before the uprising, very few public spaces were not subject to the thorough control exercised by the merciless police state. Starting around Tahrir Square, the city's walls became showcases for democratic slogans and political claims from youth activists in 2011. Since then, street art has expanded throughout the city and become the voice of a new generation of young urban artists. Another famous example is Buenos Aires, globally known for its speaking walls that depict a turbulent past and present. Memories of the Argentinian military dictatorship, the restoration of democracy, and the economic breakdown in 2001 have shaped the country and are still very present in the public debate. Many pieces of urban art deal with these subjects and have become an instrument for overcoming national traumata, while preserving the nation’s memory.

The world is becoming more urban day by day. Gray, noisy and crowded - this is the reality for many urban residents in the metropolises of the Global South today. In many cities, the appearance of walls and gates has increased significantly in the last two decades, turning urban centers into exclusive territories only accessible to a small group of privileged urban elitists protected by security staff and with high prices for entrance and consumption. For a long time, the poor majority of the population has been excluded from this world. In the past few years, however, a new trend has become visible, as urban dwellers around the globe demand equal access to the cities in which they live.

Competing with giant neon panels and commercial ads for the public space, graffiti as the ‘new contemporary art of the street’ has conquered the walls of cities around the globe. It has become an important means of free expression, without limits and accessible to anyone who sees it. Artists like Banksy, JR and their contemporaries are shaping the cityscape with their political messages, stories, and signatures, and have become an essential part of urban identity.

“Graffiti is our weapon.” (Acme)

Back at the bottom of Pavão-Pavãozinho, it almost appears like Acme is returning from his dream world back to harsh reality. With a scornful smile on his face, he says, “Nothing has changed. Now with the new law they say you don't need permission to paint. But you always need permission. Politics is always done for the rich; they won’t change anything for us up here.” He kisses me twice on the cheeks to say goodbye. While turning around, he hesitates briefly and adds, “But we won’t give up. Graffiti is our weapon.”

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Photos by Isabel Makhoul

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