There’s a huge amount of fascinating street art pieces throughout South America, and every time I take a photo of a particular piece of graffiti, I immediately think I should write a graffiti-focused post.
Maybe a “Top Ten Awesome Graffiti Pieces in South America?” or, as I’m steadily becoming more awestruck, “Top Ten Graffiti Pieces I’d Strongly Consider Getting as a Tattoo”?
During my recent explorations in São Paulo, though, I came across a place called “Batman’s Alley” – somewhere with so much ridiculously photogenic graffiti that I simply had to write about it. This little alleyway holds a staggering amount of ever-changing pieces of graffiti, for a start; but it’s also a visual representation of what graffiti itself stands for.
And, ultimately, it’s the place where I started to realise what graffiti can mean to its city and its population.
São Paulo in black and white
In 2006, the mayor of São Paulo passed the Clean City Law, which banned all public advertising. Quite a remarkable act for South America’s largest city – not to mention one of the world’s biggest business hubs.
But as Vinicius Valvao, a reporter at Folha de São Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper, explained in an interview:
“São Paulo is a very vertical city. That makes it very frenetic. You could not even realize the architecture of the old buildings, because all the buildings, all the houses were just covered with billboards and logos and propaganda. And now it is amazing. They uncovered a lot of problems the city had that we never realized. Like the shantytowns. People were shocked because they never saw that before, just because there were a lot of billboards covering the area.”
Viewed by many as ‘visual pollution’, a great deal of São Paulo residents were very happy to say goodbye to the numerous signs, ads and giant billboards – but then the graffiti started to disappear too.
And with the graffiti wiped clean, São Paulo became a grey, washed out city. Walking around the financial centre, things were simply black and white. A myriad of office buildings competing for space; free from advertisements, sure, but also devoid of colour and imagination. I started to feel like the mayor had got things terribly wrong in his efforts to improve the look of São Paulo.
It took a journey to the top of Altino Arantes, the city’s tallest building, though, to realise that there may be more to this city than meets the eye.
Batman’s Alley: a Brazilian graffiti haven
In a country as vibrant and colourful as Brazil, it’s almost impossible to prevent people expressing themselves. And all around the world, graffiti is known as a form of self-expression. Which is why Batman’s Alley, in the quirky neighbourhood of Vila Madalena, was possibly the most expressive place I’ve ever seen.
On first arrival to this little street, though, it’s hard to absorb anything more than, “holy crap, that’s a lot of graffiti!”
The sheer skill and individuality displayed in every single different piece is staggering. Obviously, there’s a constant turnover in what’s visible along the alley, as an influx of artists consistently start afresh, covering up other work in the process.
It means you’ll probably never see the exact same pieces again – which is a very unique element of graffiti, as opposed to other art mediums. While certainly regarded as valuable by people in the graffiti community, there’s still no enforcement of preservation.
Graffiti is designed to be impermanent.
A lot of the graffiti pieces in Batman’s Alley are simply stunning; bold, brash colours, swirling shapes, a veritable feast for eyes and camera lenses alike. I had to keep stepping further backward in an attempt to capture everything – but then running forward to a new piece I’d just spotted.
But as you walk further, turning each corner, you slow your pace down, and really look at the details on the walls surrounding you. Little touches and particular elements begin to jump out; and you realise there’s a lot more to this alley than meets the eye.
Graffiti in São Paulo: what’s the significance?
Batman Alley isn’t just a colourful street meant for tourists to take photos. The place is positively brimming with ideas; with opinions; with worries and beliefs and convictions.
And the people who paint them have such visual minds that they’re able to paint their thought processes onto broken walls, in the hope that someone else will understand their train of thought.
So often, in cities and streets worldwide, you’ll see a single piece of graffiti that inspires you – one image, from one mind. But in Batman’s Alley, you’re attacked on all sides by a barrage of colour and confusion; a thousand different minds shouting their opinions by way of a spray can.
Some are explicitly documenting an element of culture, while some make comment about specific issues – like a constant concern that Brazil’s favelas may eventually face destruction.
Others express religious sentiments, or make slightly tongue in cheek observations about the current relationships in today’s world. The blue Indian Brazilian pops up all over São Paulo; his creator, Cranio, uses him to show the tensions between the modern life and the rural in Brazil.
Regardless of the theme, all these pieces have a meaning, and a purpose. And because we, as the audience, are unable to question the artists about their intentions, it’s up to us to theorise on what they meant to say.
Graffiti from an emotional perspective
Graffiti has never just been about pretty pictures. The very nature of the art form essentially ridicules that idea; an artist who faces the challenge to first find an appropriate space on public property for his art form, and then to execute it – all the while without getting caught, fined or even imprisoned for his actions.
And graffiti artists seem like they face a great deal of difficulty with their work. Unlike more conventional artists, who usually have a plaque next to their pieces in an art gallery, explaining who they are and what they stand for, a graffiti artist has to put his intentions across in every single piece of street art he creates.
But the cityscape of Sao Paulo is a unique space for graffiti artists. By dint of the mayor’s eradication of mainstream advertising, the city almost seems to have been gifted to them; like the advertisement of a fresh, new, city-wide blank canvas.
And I got the impression, from Batman’s Alley, that creating graffiti is ultimately an expression of emotion; whether it’s a passion for the art form, a way to communicate a belief system, or a love for the community it’s being presented to.
Or, hopefully, because painting the streets is a way to reclaim them, and make them better.