As a kid, Marino Macedo saw 40 of his friends killed while making graffiti in Rio de Janeiro.
Some fell as they painted, [and] some were shot by police as they worked, said Macedo, a lifetime resident of Rio. Others — the lucky ones — were only arrested.
“If you had a graffiti can with the paint, with the spray, it would be the same thing as having a gun. The police would treat you the same,” Macedo said through a translator. “It’s dangerous.”
In Brazil, there’s a distinction between types of graffiti. Tagging, or pichação, is illegal, whereas “grafite” is legal. Graffiti covers most walls in the urban cities in Brazil, and it’s uncommon to come across a wall that isn’t full of art or tags.
Since the 1960s, Brazil has had a strong history of graffiti and street art, filled with controversy and protest. Now, the urban cities in the country like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are epicenters for the art, much like New York City and Berlin, said Elena Shtromberg, an art history professor at the University of Utah.
Art, including graffiti, plays a vital part in Brazilian culture, Shtromberg said.
In the ‘60s, graffiti was used as a form of political protest, and movements took to the walls of the streets, said Baixo Ribeiro, owner of Choque Cultural Gallery in São Paulo.
“We were living at the time in a dictatorship, very strong and hard, and everybody came to the streets to protest in any way they could,” Ribeiro said. “The streets, at the time, were maybe the only communication platform possible to be used.”
Graffiti was a way to communicate that wasn’t controlled by any official channels, Ribeiro said, so its popularity grew quickly.
In the ‘70s, people started to take to the streets not only to protest but also to share their paintings. University art students discovered the streets could be a vessel for their work.
From then on, graffiti became the norm, and art grew on walls all across the country, Ribeiro said.
Pichação was outlawed in 1998, according to research done by P. Gil Larruscahim on academia.edu. But the criminalization of it started much earlier, in the late 1980s, when Macedo and his friends were growing up.
Macedo started doing pichação when he was 13. At that time, police were cracking down on people creating pichação, which is why so many of his friends were killed. After his friends started dying, he got scared and would hide whenever he thought he saw the police.
He slowed down on the amount he painted, but he eventually realized he couldn’t let his fear stop him from reaching his dreams.
“[My friends dying] gave me strength and motivation,” said Macedo, who is now 40. “Now, we have more time to express ourselves without having trouble with the authorities.”
He achieved his dream to paint on the Berlin Wall, and he added one of his close friends’ names to his work. He’s done about 600 paintings, but that one and a card he painted in France are his favorites.
No matter what he’s doing in life, Macedo always makes sure he has time to paint. His friends know him as the painter.
“It’s my life,” Macedo said. “It’s the first thing I learned. It’s kind of a job, my career.”
While painting is Macedo’s life, it also creates a tie between people in the city. Art in both São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the two biggest cities in Brazil, isn’t just in museums and galleries; it’s accessible for everyone.
“People on the streets have gotten to see art,” Ribeiro said. “We get our own dynamic of a relationship between street artists and the population.”
That connection between people is what makes art so special, said Dereck Marduco, who works at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, the first modern art museum in Brazil.
“When you see an art object, you’re capable of seeing part of you there,” Marduco said. “You feel like you’re not alone, and there is a pleasure with seeing beautiful things.”
Kara Berg is a senior journalism major at Ball State University, and has been obsessed with the Olympics ever since she can remember. She was a competitive swimmer for 12 years and loves the sport more than anything.