Graffiti is nothing new.
As long as man has had contentious thoughts and the means to write them on walls, we’ve done so. From remains of Nordic graffiti in the Hagia Sofia in Istambul to school desks through out the world, we continue to write our names where they shouldn’t, legally, be.
Yet, despite all this history, the impulse to autograph public space did not turn into a viable art and social movement until the 1970’s in NYC (wikipedia.org.) There, born in the Bronx, graffiti proliferated like wild flowers in the subways and city streets, filling neglected urban voids with vibrant images. In this way, the movement offered a public venue for primarily young ethnic minorities to revolt against societal oppression. Due to the fact that graffiti was and continues to be illegal everywhere, artists had the liberty to tag (the process of writing graffiti) anywhere because everywhere was equally prohibited. In the words of surrealist artist, Terrance Lindell, “Graffiti is revolutionary … and any revolution might be considered a crime. People who are oppressed or suppressed need an outlet, so they write on walls—it’s free...” So, in the flick of a switch, space was redefined. Young artists could not only emancipate their world by bringing public art into neighborhoods that couldn’t afford to have it otherwise, they could also paint over the world that excluded them. Places once off limits were now inundated with their words.
The movement spread like wildfire.
By the mid-1980’s, nearly all-major cities had significant graffiti contingencies. At a certain point, graffiti outgrew its reputation as a seedy subculture. In fact, it became trendy and even after trendy, came commercialization(da Silva, 46-47.) By the 1990’s, graffiti began makings its way into galleries, the newest appropriation of high art. Yet, the artists that tended to “strike it big” were by and large formally trained, if not graduates of art schools. The fresher, more potent and politicized graffiti remained on the streets. Graffiti grew, and then grew up, until the culture itself was more a family than a shout in the dark. The marginalized aspect of the art continued not in the eye of the public but the eye of the law.
In Brazil, graffiti made its way to São Paulo long before Rio de Janeiro. According to an art collective called LOST ART that released, Graffiti Brasil, in 2005, São Paulo is the powerhouse and impetus of South American graffiti. From my discussions with Rio-based graffiti artists, the opinion seems to be unanimous. Yet, whether or not South American graffiti is centralized in Sao Paulo does not diminish the fact that graffiti down here is distinctly South American. In an interview philosopher Hygina Bruzzi did with Mineiro graffiti master, Miranda, Miranda said, “O grafite latin-americano tem um sentido completamente differente. Somos muito mais politicos, pois aqui a repressão e o autoritarismo são fortes, sem contra a desigualidade econômica; todo grafiteiro é um desenhista, nem todo desenhista.” (“Latin American graffiti has a completely different feeling to it. We’re more political, because here repression and authoritarianism have a strong presence, not to mention the economic inequality; [for this] every grafftiti artist is an artist but not every artist is a graffiti artist.”) So in South America, outside of a forceful capitalist construct, graffiti had the opportunity to grow beyond the commercial stalemate that it found in the United States. In addition, preoccupied police forces due higher crime rates allow for a more relaxed and accessible creative environment. In fact, many high traffic areas are entrenched in murals, most notably in Jardim Botantico, Urca, Santa Teresa and near the Rodoviaria.
I found in my interviews and discussions with members of Nacão Graffiti, a Rio based graffiti collective, that for them doing the work they do is not always political, not always social and even not always good but it’s innate as air to the way they live. Gais, the youngest of the crew, particularly emphasized that his entire life has revolved around the street and painting there was what he was born to do. Another member of the crew, Ment, mentioned that he saw graffiti has a bridge between classes and spaces in that it allowed graffiti artists of social backgrounds to enter each other’s space. Even more so, they were given the opportunity to leave behind their words, their presence stuck to the walls with some sense of permanence. Fernando Pedro da Silva echoes this thought perfectly in his book, Arte Pública: diálogo com as comunidades, when he writes, “compreendo que a arte do grafite acontece universalmente por um motivo commun, ou seja, a necessidade de o sujeito se expor em público e dizer ao mundo: eu existo.” (“I believe that graffiti happens throughout the world for one common reason, or that is, the necessity for the subject to expose himself in public and say to the world: I exist.”)