Grey Matters: Urban Cleaning and Graffiti on the Streets of São Paulo

Here I will refer to some recent events in the city of São Paulo, Brazil, and the public backlash as street graffiti is erased by the recently elected Mayor João Dória. The decision started as part of a larger project called “Cidade Linda” [Beautiful City]. Consider some the video below showing some of the images of the art on the walls of the city (in Portuguese): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LE2HyBMy4NU

Screenshot 2017-03-11 15.52.41

São Paulo, a grey metropolis with high skyscrapers, has a history of street art dating back to the 1980s: please refer to Marcelo Pinheiro’s blog in brasileiros.com.br on the relation between graffiti, Hip-Hop, and the empowerment of the young generations from the poor suburbs of São Paulo, or the distinction between graffiti and pichação in the Cities Project, created by the Guardian with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. The relationship of the city with graffiti has also led in the past to a series of events called Bienal Internacional Grafitti Fine Art, in its third edition in 2015, and which brought about 60 artists from all over the world to the Parque Ibirapuera, in São Paulo.

My goal is not to initiate a dialogue on artistic merit of graffiti versus street writing, as many have already done (see the books Street Art: The Graffiti Revolution, Graffiti Worlds, Protest Graffiti, for example), but to probe the models of urban resistance that have been occurring since these very recent events. By cleaning the city center and eliminating undesired art forms, these institutions are initiating a strong process of commodification of protest art, specifying areas for that purpose, as well as “authorized art courses” to teach what the government is defining as such. Thus, the governmental discourse is engaging in a dangerous dynamic that determines that art needs first to be appropriated by mainstream discourse before being “allowed” on public space.

As background information, “Cidade Linda” [Beautiful City] was announced by the new Mayor João Dória on December 30th, 2017. A recent court decision from February 14th, 2017, will prevent Mayor Dória from erasing any more grafittis without authorization from Conpresp (Municipal Council on Heritage)(Gonçalves do Carmo, 2/14/2017). What the events have been pointing to is a perception of art, street art, and cultural intervention contributing to political programs of urban gentrification.

His twitter post erasing some walls in the city, dressed up in an orange jumpsuit, has also brought national attention, in this case due to the performativity (or excess) of the political action.

To further complicate how the decision-making of erasing the graffiti was done, in later justifications the Mayor equates street intervention artists with criminals:

“A prefeitura não vai ter tolerância com pichador. Não há diálogo com contraventor. Todo pichador é bandido. (…) Pichador não tem nada a ver com grafiteiro. A prefeitura vai gastar o que for necessário para proteger a cidade”

[The government will not have any forgiveness with street artists. There will be no dialogue with transgressors. Every street artist is a bandit. (…) We should not confuse taggers with graffiti artists. The city will spend whatever is needed to protect the city] (Folha, 2/17/17).

It is clear that a clear-cut distinction between certain forms of urban wall intervention called pichação (graffiti writing or tagging) from grafiteiros (graffiti murals) is being drawn. But as a result of the first interventions, “Secretary admits that Avenida 23 de Maio became ‘too grey’” (my translation, Diógenes, 1/24/17), now considering redoing other graffiti and promoting a festival to go along with it.

As a response to the erasure of the graffiti, another intervention was done on January 24th on Avenida 23 de Maio. This time, instead of the tagging of the street artists, we find an ironic joke with the signature of the Mayor, the artist behind the grey artistic intervention. It is unclear how the rest of “Programa Cidade Limpa” will affect public space, and whether the criminalization of graffiti will be carried out. What we know so far is that the decision is leading to a larger discussion that begs further examination of the relations between street interventions, public space, and city gentrification under the lenses of urban studies.

Further Reading:

Gonçalves do Carmo, Sidney. “Justiça proíbe Dória de cobrir grafite sem consultar órgão do patrimônio.” Folha de São Paulo. Feb. 14, 2017. Web. Feb. 25, 2017.

Folha de São Paulo. “Doria diz que pichadores são possíveis ladrões de celulares e serão vigiados.” Cotidiano. Feb. 17, 2017. Web. Feb. 25, 2017.

Diógenes, Juliana. “Secretário admite que a 23 de Maio ‘ficou muito cinza.’” O Estado de S. Paulo. 24 Jan 2017. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.

Juliana Luna Freire (Ph.D). is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Framingham State University.