Graffiti near the Selaron Staircase
Blog Post Type: Expert Opinion Piece
When I rode into Rio de Janeiro, a bit jet lagged and groggy, the city startled me to attention. What was going on? There was artwork everywhere. Huge murals covered walls and sides of buildings. Small caricatures sprang out of doorways and bus stops. This was unlike any graffiti I’d ever seen and for good reason.
Rio de Janeiro Graffiti Legalized
Photo: Matthew Beattie via Trover
Almost 20 years ago taggers were everywhere and no buildings were safe from their wild flair in Rio de Janeiro. Graffiti covered the city in a chaotic mash of color and texture. In a decidedly Brazilian way, the city leaders held a colorful competition. They choose 35 graffiti artists to showcase their local styles and in 1999 the “Nao pixe, grafite” (Don’t tag, graffiti) project was born. Ten years later they went a step further and legalized graffiti with a caveat, the artwork had to be approved by building owners.
And so today as visitors enter the city the results surround them. Streets are embellished with huge murals, smaller pieces pop out of doorways and lintels. The work is stunning and yes, some tagging remains, marring at best or outright ruining the work sanctioned by neighborhoods, but they’re in the minority.
Sanctioned graffiti near the Botanical Gardens
Building owners who might not be able to afford to beautify their spaces benefit. The commissioned art prevents tagging and it builds pride into neighborhoods. Some artists are rightly proud of their work, signing walls and inviting viewers to their Facebook galleries.
Brazilian graffiti art is considered among the most significant strand[s] of a global urban art movement, and its diversity defies the increasing homogeneity of world graffiti. – Design Week
Street art in Rio de Janeiro is currently having its “moment.” Rio’s street artists are being invited to leave their mark on foreign cities. Graffiti artists from around the world are coming to the city to show their work and get involved in the Carioca (adopted) movement.
A popular photo stop – the Selaron Staircase
One of the proudest pieces is rendered in a more substantial medium than paint and spray. The Chilean tile artist and painter, Jorge Selaron, adopted Rio as his home. A world traveler, Selaron gathered tiles and pieces from his journeys. He scavenged construction and building demolition sites. Nearly penniless in 1983, he moved into rooms on the steep hillside above the raucous neighborhood of Lapa. Music streamed out onto the streets. The district was rife with bars, brothels and beggars when he began the biggest project of his life. It transformed him and the neighborhood. He became famous for signing his work with his huge mustache and a pregnant belly. At first it’s shocking but perhaps that was his intention. Selaron was concerned about the future of Brazil and especially its women.
Homage to Selaron with his famous mustache and pregnant belly.
The Staircase today
The Selaron stairs are a tourist destination. The steps have been featured in music videos and feature films. Sadly Jorge Selaron wasn’t able to transform his life out of poverty and was found dead from suspicious circumstances in 2013. The city mourned his passing and adopted him as an honorary Rio resident or Carioca.
From the moment I first saw a picture of the Selaron Staircase, I had to see it in person. The passion it took to create it was overpowering on the steamy morning that I finally stepped to the top. This enduring piece of Rio de Janeiro’s street art is tied to the heart of the city. Now it’s part of mine too.
If you go:
- I found it easiest to navigate the neighborhoods and use time most efficiently by joining a small group tour. Consider going with a guide or take a tour to find Rio’s graffiti.
- Plan your flight to Rio de Janeiro and stay close to the areas with the most artwork.
Written as part of the Hipmunk Destination series. Opinions are my own.