Streets of São Paulo | as published in TOKION magazine

It is hard to write about São Paulo. So big, so polluted, so chaotic. It defies any definition. I have a love hate relationship with this city. The very chaos and immensity of it cause some great things. Like graffiti. Nowhere else in Brazil is there such an omnipresent scene. The infinite number of walls, the vastness, the absurd mix of architectural styles, all beg for intervention.

São Paulo could be any other city, like New York. But it is quite unique, for several reasons. Most recently its differences have become more visible and acute due to the complete incompetence and corruption of the current administration, who really just continued the corrupt ways of its predecessors, but elevated the problems and abandon to new levels.

Violence is at an all time high. According to Fernando Costa Netto, editor of Noticias Populares ("the working man's newspaper"), and a Bosnian war coverage veteran, twenty to thirty homicides occur every day, an average above the worst days in Sarajevo. With an underpaid, undertrained, underequipped, and understaffed police force, things are out of control. There are 600 buses held up every month. A population of over six thousand people living in the street. São Paulo is going through an atypical winter. Temperatures have been near zero and yet there are only two thousand beds in public dormitories in the city. Four thousand people or more are braving the cold outside. In July four homeless people had died from the cold. Crack use has reached epidemic levels in the downtown area.

In a very sad way, the current situation is the perpetuation of a system that privileges a very small minority over the rest of the population. Brazil is a beautiful country but a very unjust one. A recent example of the double standard of justice is the story of an unemployed, poor man. He was arrested and convicted for a crime for which there is no bail. His crime, considered extremely grave, was scraping the bark of a tree to make tea for his wife. The tea has medicinal qualities, but unfortunately the tree was in a preservation zone. At the same time, in a remote region in the state of Pará, a farm gets busted for cutting down trees of a protected species. Several tons of wood are found. The sentence for this crime was just a fine. Nobody went to jail. In a place where the big fish get away with everything, there is a lot of anger and frustration. Yet, compared to other Latin American countries, Brazil's history is surely not the bloodiest nor is the population willing to revolt too strongly.

In a city like SP, the vast majority of the population, who is not rich, has the chance to be in close contact with the very fortunate and extremely rich minority. Basically one percent of the country owns sixty per cent of the wealth. All of this leaves people with a lot to think about. Artists with a conscience find inspiration in the streets. Some of these artists are my friends. They find the city in a state of abandonment, where anyone can do anything-if they can get away with it. The result? São Paulo is covered with graffiti in a way unlike any other place in the world.

The majority of it is in the form of pichação, like tags on a grand scale, names of groups or individuals who pride themselves on painting in the most number of places. The bigger the better, but also if it is inaccessible, say, a name painted across several floors of a twenty story building gets a lot more respect than on a ground floor level. Paintings are done with latex paint and rollers, the cheapest material available. Spray paint is also used, but more for graffiti pieces than for pichação. Even mud is used if there is no paint. The letters are unique, in a calligraphy that has evolved from a handwritten style inspired, in the beginning, by heavy metal album covers. São Paulo is plastered with it. This is illegal, but the city is unable to stop it. The latest attempt to curb this widespread phenomenon has been to fine the owners of the properties who have been tagged. This has backfired due to popular rejection (how can the "victims" pay for the "crime"?) and only commercial places are being fined. Instead of paint to cover up the pichação, many commercial places have resorted to hiring round the clock security. This has only made them more desirable targets for the writers, who pride themselves on painting in guarded places. The problem is that often the guards are not trained, not well paid, and they have guns. Often they are cops off duty. That's where the danger lies.

Despite its risks, graffiti isn't the most dangerous illegal activity. Luiz Henrique Tapajós, known as Sabiá (the name of a bird), another friend of ours, sneaks into buildings, rushes up to the top floor, and parachutes off them. This is called b.a.s.e. jumping (base is an acronym for building, antenna, span, and earth, the four "fixed objects" which constitute this sport). He wears one parachute. A reserve would be unnecessary, since there would be no time for it to be deployed. As he likes to say, errors are not invited. If anything wrong happens that's it.
When he is in town, we often get calls around 5 am, inviting us to photograph another jump. The adrenaline and excitement are palpable on the phone. We go, and my legs only stop shaking when he has landed safely. There aren't that many buildings that are suitable for b.a.s.e jumps in São Paulo. The problem is that usually there are no places to land. The power lines in São Paulo are above the ground, like a big net resembling those webs woven by spiders who were given drugs that one can see in those science textbooks.


When Sabiá needs his adrenaline fix, he's got to have it. He thrives on the "ground rush", the incredibly fast approach of the ground as he accelerates towards it. The first time you see one of his jumps, you think he won't make it. He jumps with a tiny chute in his hand, known as the pilot chute. This is connected with a piece of nylon webbing to the main chute. He jumps, enjoys the acceleration for as long as he dares, then throws the pilot chute with his hand. If all goes well, this will deploy the main chute which will then open and brake his descent for a safe landing. Add winds, police choppers, armed security guards, power lines, and sketchy landing areas, and Sabiá quickly becomes more than human. He is like a real life superhero.

Death wish? He says it’s the opposite. From above, he looks at the traffic, five and a half million cars in the city, people stressing, and figures he is the normal one. To him, all the "other ones" are trapped and don't even know it. We believe him. Sabiá does not want to die; he wants to live more than all of us do.

The same disgust at passivity, the quiet acceptance of the unfair reality of life in São Paulo drives some of the graffiti artists here. A small group, formed by osGemeos, Herbert, Vitche, Binho, Nina, Tinho, Boleta and a few others, constantly fight the dullness and gray in the city with paint. Their work is not pichação. They don't merely add color, but provoke thoughts and question the system they live in. They each have their own style. One paints missing children, another critiques corporations. osgemeos, perhaps the most well known artists, mix images of their fantasy world, called Tritrez with work inspired by what they see on the street. Homeless people dig their work. They understand it. Herbert, a poet as well as an artist, questions fame, celebrities, big egos, consumerism, and whatever is on his head on a particular day. Vitché paints sorrowful and sometimes bleeding eyes on the city. They paint together and on their own. Their work mirrors the social problems that are everywhere in the city, so widespread as to become banal, and therefore ignored by the media, too busy with their editorial agendas guided by politics, money, and

There is more to their work than mere aesthetic value. Look closely, and you can see profound social critique, a real conscience, themes which are all but missing from the advertising that is so pervasive in the rest of the city. The main highway, called marginal Tietê, next to the open air sewer which was once a river where once people fished in, is so full of internet advertising that its called To me, their art is like an escape for my eyes. Elections are coming up in October, and soon the candidates will paint over the art on the walls with their names and numbers. I rush to photograph as many pieces as possible before this, then wait anxiously for the fresh graffiti that will inevitably cover it up.



agradecimentos especiais: Jun e Eiji Matsui

bugs and fixes | street | graffiti | b.a.s.e. jump | lost art

text & photos copyright © Ignacio Aronovich