Graffiti to most Western eyes is something illegal, intrusive and somewhat dirty, something that exists purely to deface a city or town.
In Brazil, it’s the opposite. Here, graffiti is a work of art, a sense of pride, an activity that is actually encouraged and even endorsed by the government. In Brazil, street art isn’t thought of as something that detracts from the beauty of your surroundings, but rather it enhances it.
If street art is your thing, far and away the place to be in São Paulo is Vila Madalena, in the Pinheiros district. This bohemian neighbourhood is fit to burst with the colourful artistic expressions of locally and nationally renowned street artists such as Boleta and Kobra amongst others. You can barely round a single corner without coming face to face with a new masterpiece.
There are actually three different types of street art present in Vila Madalena: graffiti, Pichação and murals.
The first is your traditional, recognisable urban art: colourful, clear cut pictures with bold colours and lines that often don’t really make sense but are pretty to look at. Such works of art aren’t signed – there is no signature anywhere on the wall – but is recognisable by the individual characteristics of each artist’s work. Boleta, for example, uses a combination of birds and snakes in all of his works. The nice thing about his type of street art is the camaraderie that it boasts – when an artist paints a wall, he becomes the ‘owner’ of that wall, meaning nobody else can paint over it without his express permission. And the artists respect each other in this sense.
The second – Pichação – is specific to Brazil, particularly São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Put simply, it’s a slightly more complex form of tagging, characterised by its unique use of cryptic style letters. It’s mainly done by gangs, and the higher the tag, the better, which explains why so many high rises in the city have random shapes sprayed on each side. Pichação is the one form of street art that is actually illegal in the city, but who cares about the law right?
The third and final type of street art is murals , which are basically a lot like graffiti but the image is a lot more defined, easier to understand and often has a message behind it. The other main difference between graffiti and murals is the fact that the signature is always present in this type of art. Kobra is particularly well known for his murals.
Although the whole area is covered in art, there are two back lanes in Vila Madalena that are particularly famous for what’s on the walls- in English they are known as Learner’s Alley (Beco do Aprendiz) and Batman’s Alley (Beco do Batman). The latter gained its name from the fact that once upon a time in the 1980s somebody graffiti-ed an image of Batman onto the wall. It’s not there anymore, having been painted over time and time again, but Batman was the start of what is now one of the most colourful corners of São Paulo and so his name remains!
The pieces in Batman’s Alley in particular are special in that most of them are there for a reason, they have substance and aren’t just painted on the wall to look pretty. In February there was a pretty bad flood in the area, to the point that apparently cars were floating away. To commemorate (or commiserate?) this event, one wall became a cartoon dedication, on display for all to remember and count their blessings. Then there was Paris.
There’s a sneaky little quirk for music lovers here – at the far side of the alley there is a picture of a rather grotesque looking man with a guitar on his back jumping out of a clock or something (artists are weird). Well, you see how the tongue on his knee kind of looks like the Rolling Stones symbol? That’s because it is. Ronnie Wood – the Ronnie Wood – made a special little visit to Vila Madalena when he was in Brazil and painted the tongue on himself. Pretty cool, right? Now it’s apparently like some sort of pilgrimage site for Brazilian Stones fans, where everyone comes just to take a selfie with the tongue.
There is honestly so much for your eyes to take in in that one little corner of São Paulo that it kind of made my head hurt, but in a good way of course.
The area is super easy to get to by foot or public transport (within walking distance from Fradique Coutinho metro station) and is apparently quite safe, although there are an alarming number of men with teardrop tattoos hanging around Learner’s Alley drinking beer at midday.
By far the best (and most informative) way to experience the street art of Vila Madalena is as I did, on the Free Walking Tour, led by guides who know what they’re talking about.