‘Leniency is over’: the controversial plan to scrub off So Paulo’s famous street art

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Mayor Joo Doria has been down on his knees, spraying grey paint over the citys beloved graffiti murals. Locals not to mention the artists are furious

For many of the 12 million people who live in So Paulo, sitting in traffic and staring out the window at the graffiti-coated walls that line the 23 de Maio thoroughfare is a daily ritual, defining life in the city like the shake of a London umbrella or the swipe of a New York Metrocard. In a city locked in by traffic and grey high-rises, these long swaths of colourful, ever-changing graffiti images beautiful, ugly, political and sometimes offensive serve as jagged cuts in the citys visual monotony.

And then, one morning, the walls were grey.

Among those doing the grey-painting was a tanned, trim man dressed in a fluorescent orange jumpsuit, a dust mask covering his broad smile: Joo Doria, the new mayor of So Paulo. The painting of the citys chaotically graffitied walls is one of his administrations priorities, part of a project called Cidade Linda, or Beautiful City, aimed at tidying up the urban landscape. The programme calls for Saturday morning cleaning events, in which workers replace broken street lights, patch crumbling sidewalks, trim unruly tree branches and repaint walls tagged with spray-paint.

The city is dirty, poorly cared for and covered in spray-paint tags, Doria told the Guardian. And this isnt my opinion, but the opinion of the people who live here. He calls spray-paint taggers criminals, and in an interview on Brazilian TV he hypothesised that taggers probably steal cell phones to pay for their paint.

The hardline approach of this centre-right politician (the former host of Brazils version of The Apprentice) has set off a debate across Brazil over the societal role of tagging, graffiti and street murals and how to tell the difference between them.

Previously, the walls of 23 de Maio had been the location of the former administrations concerted effort to encourage graffiti artists by subsidising their work there. By focusing on grey-painting that avenue in particular, Dorias vice-mayor, Bruno Covas, notes that Doria was signalling that the leniency of the last administration is over. Currently the programme is paid for by outside companies and volunteers, but Doria says after four months the city will start to pick up the tab.


How the residents of Latin Americas most populous urban centre feel about their citys famously spray-painted walls is a complex issue that has turned Dorias Beautiful City programme into his most controversial act as mayor. While most Paulistanos seem generally on board with the clean-up project, many are concerned that the graffiti and murals for which the city is known and which serve as a form of expression within the dense urban environment are being sacrificed in the name of cleanliness.

A close-up of graffiti artist Nuncas work along the 23 de Maio Avenue. Photograph: Alaine Ball

The blowback was swift. An outcry on social media cast the project as everything from pointless to a form of censorship, and protests were organised. In another blow to Dorias plan, a So Paulo judge has passed a ruling prohibiting Doria from painting over any graffiti without consulting with the city department governing historic preservation, effectively suspending that part of the Beautiful City programme.

Mauro Sergio Neri da Silva, one of So Paulos most recognisable graffiti artists better known as Veracidade saw his own 23 de Maio graffiti painted over. The previous city government had paid him to graffiti the streets walls. Since that time, his graffiti had suffered the expected wear and tear and, according to Doria, Da Silvas work had been partially mutilated by taggers, or pixadores. Doria said the vandalism of the taggers justified painting over Da Silvas work, adding: The directive was that any graffiti that had been tagged should be covered up.

Da Silva disagrees. The new administration chose to get rid of this graffiti in a sensationalist way. Though they said the project was against vandalism and tagging, they also painted over graffiti at the same time. The day after finding his wall covered in grey, Da Silva began gently sponge-washing the paint off, revealing the bright colours beneath but police officers stopped him and hauled him to the police station, where he was charged with committing an environmental crime. Soon, journalists gathered at the police station as well and by the time he was released a few hours later, his plight had evolved into a symbolic case in the simmering fight over graffitis place in So Paulo between competing definitions of what makes a beautiful city.

So Paulo is a traffic-clogged commercial centre often referred to as the locomotive of Brazil; its the location of most foreign company headquarters and its where many of the countrys richest keep an address. Correspondingly, the city is densely populated with high-rise apartment and office buildings; the citys horizon looks like downtown Manhattan, except that the high-rises expand much further in every direction. The drizzly rain for which the city is infamous often casts a melancholy grey pallor on the street traffic below.

A mural on Rua Vergueiro in So Paulos largely Japanese neighbourhood Liberdade. Photograph: Alaine Ball

So Paulos creatives punctuate the dreariness with cultural manifestations not just in the form of street art, but also in the citys vibrant gastronomic and music scenes. The rapper Criolo, one of Brazils most successful music acts, is often considered the pop-culture mouthpiece for the citys urban issues. He told the Guardian that the great tension of economic inequality in the city messes with the emotions of every citizen, and that the imagery on the citys walls are an expression of each citizens lives.

Over the past 30 years, the city has become known internationally for its graffiti. Without the natural beauty of Rio de Janeiro to draw in tourists, So Paulos graffitied walls often make the shortlist of sights to see. Today, high-rises are punctuated with grand murals by some of Brazils top artists, who launch international careers on the citys concrete canvas.

One of those artists is Eduardo Kobra, who is currently painting 25 murals around New York City and whose colourful kaleidoscopic images flood walls around So Paulo. In a sign of the times, another graffiti artist partially covered Kobras graffiti on the walls of 23 de Maio with an image of Doria painting it grey, an explicit protest against the Beautiful City programme. On cue, workers quickly painted the entire wall grey.

The conversation running beneath the controversy about the Beautiful City programme centres on a subtle distinction between graffiti and pixaao, or tagging. While many of the citys walls are covered in beautiful murals, even more of the citys walls and monuments are covered in black spray-paint tags. While graffiti is considered by many residents to be a form of street art, tagging is a crime. Doria plans to crack down on tagging by toughening the punishment.

Graffiti along 23 de Maio near Bela Vista. Photograph: Shannon Sims

Kobra says: If the mayor is declaring war against the taggers, but no one can tell for sure what is tagging and what is graffiti, many people making street art will be deterred.

There is, however, one element of the Beautiful City programme most people seem to agree with: the establishment of areas where graffiti artists can paint legally.

Theres no way to restrict graffiti

In the latest version of the plan, five areas around the city will be designated as legal graffiti spots, and Doria is promoting a museum of street art, mollifying many of the schemes original critics. Da Silva believes the concept is a really positive idea and notes that it would encourage people who are too timid to do graffiti in the streets to practice their art. But he views the designated spaces as supplements rather than solutions. Theres no way to restrict graffiti to certain places, its impossible, he says.

Some believe the controversy around the Beautiful City programme might indicate that times are changing in So Paulo. Kobra believes that since the controversial episode on the 23 de Maio, the opinion of So Paulos citizens and maybe even the government has shifted. I think there has been a significant change from when this programme began to today, and I think most people are now in favour of public murals and artwork here, he says. I am anxiously awaiting the next chapters.

Criolo points out that the outcry has raised some fundamental questions: Whose city is this? Does the city have an owner or is it everyones?

Rosangela Lyra, the former director of the fashion brand Dior in Brazil, is a supporter of Dorias programme. She volunteered to help out with the clean-up one weekend. The programme is being very well received by the population, she says, because we want to live in a public space that is clean and beautiful. She is optimistic about the plan for designated graffiti centres, and she thinks painting grey over the old graffiti makes sense.

It isnt offensive, she says, It is a way of camouflaging the walls in the city grey is the colour that already dominates this city.

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