Just a week before the inaugural game of the World Cup in Brazil, a vibrant wall-painting of a boy crying hysterically as he is served up a football instead of dinner, went viral. The image, shown above, by Sao Paulo based artist Paulo Ito was widely interpreted as an indictment of FIFA and a symbol of Brazil’s popular discontent with the World Cup.
But, just how powerful are images such as this? How far do they reflect the concerns of the Brazilian populace? And what can political street art really achieve?
Street art has been mobilised time and again as an instrument of protest and means of expression. Historically a low technology means of mass communication, it serves an important function in relaying political messages, both pro-system and anti-system, to publics lacking access to other information channels.
In this way, street art can turn urban surfaces – city walls, building facades and pavements – into communicative media with the potential to instruct, elicit feeling and invoke action.
Today, street art decorates every conceivable surface and space within Brazil’s sprawling urban zones. The production of street art, particularly forms of muralism and graffiti, accelerated at an unprecedented pace from the mid-1980s in Brazil, coinciding roughly with the period of democratic transition, economic opening and the import of hip-hop styles and practices from the United States.
Now globally renowned and commercially successful, many of the street artists who emerged in the post-transition context spent their formative years listening to rap, beat-boxing, and closely following the newly imported trends – socio-cultural upshots of the country’s political opening-up.
Os Gemeos, famous at home and abroad for their distinctive yellow characters were break-dancers before they started to paint. Meanwhile, the artist known as Speto, who gained global notoriety with his characters for Brahma beer, attributes his graphic style to the influences of hip-hop culture as well as traditional wood-carvings from the North East of Brazil.
The colourful and playful graphic works of the 1990s and early 2000s mirrored the optimism of the time; the idea that a newly democratic Brazil could make its advance, shedding the vestiges of military repression with its people looking steadfastly onward and upward.
The image of a sanguine and exuberant populace is one that President Dilma Rousseff was keen to nurture at home and abroad in the run up to the World Cup. But this framing occludes the harsh reality facing many in “rising Brazil”. The multiple and often inter-locking challenges include soaring rents, urban displacements, as well as increased violence and polarisation as a result of the government’s “pacification” program within the favelas.
All of this has been compounded by overspending, mismanagement and allegations of corruption linked to FIFA and the incumbent government.
Although they would probably prefer to call themselves apolitical, the globalising street artists of the 1990s who initially formed part of a hip-hop counter-culture, might be more accurately described today as “pro-system”. For the World Cup, Os Gemeos accepted a commission to cover the Brazilian football team’s airplane with a diversity of their signature yellow figures.
Meanwhile, Speto collaborated with Argentine street artist Tec to produce Coca-Cola’s “Happiness Flag”.
Yet, in the wake of controversies surrounding the World Cup, others, including Paulo Ito have taken a more critical stance, their interventions recalling an oft-overlooked lineage of anti-system street art.
Since the 1960s, urban interventions, such as pichação (a cryptic form of tagging) and graffiti, have played a key role in both (re)laying and mediating Brazilian social history; representing a range of marginalised and oppressed groups.
The Grupo Tupinãodá formed part of an under-studied generation of graffiteiros who used their collective works to rally against the circumscription of political rights and freedoms under the dictatorship.
For artists such as Jaime Prades, who formed part of the Grupo Tupinãodá in the 1980s, the current indignação (indignation) is hardly surprising. In his view it signals the need for a change in attitude from the government and society. In a statement accompanying his most recent work, Trono (Throne), he sums up:
I feel ashamed that we should have to rally against the president and I am ashamed of the cultural poverty exhibited with the opening of the World Cup. I am ashamed of our police and of the mandatory voting system. I am ashamed of the corruption as well as the inability to choose a third party route. I am ashamed of the mediocrity into which we are sinking and at the same time I am ashamed of the lack of real participation in politics.
I am ashamed of the positive statistics used to mask the realities and I feel ashamed of the palpable reality of misery and abandonment in which millions of Brazilians live today. I feel very ashamed of this culture that treats the poor as if they were guilty of being poor.
Prades, whose work continues to relate to the textures and negative spillovers of industrialism and the built environment, last week exhibited “Trono” alongside a number of younger artists as part of Ação e Reação (Action and Reaction), an initiative premised on repudiation and indignation, expressed on behalf of a population discontent with the whirlwind of corruption allegations involving FIFA, the government and companies.
Strikingly, many of the artists involved have made a point of their refusal to take backing from corporate sponsors or public bodies in the wake of the World Cup protests.
As the world is currently focused on Brazil, can these anti-system artists keep up their momentum? Some commentators rightly point out that in the run up to sports mega-events contentions and controversies do tend to emerge but that, quite often, as soon as the action starts, salient political issues get swept aside as publics get caught up in the flurry.
Yet, with another sports mega-event lined up for 2016 in the shape of the Olympic Games, Brazil will remain a global media spectacle for some time to come.
The government’s next steps will be crucial in determining how long, how intense and how influential the protests and their visual adjuncts will be.