By Ricardo Viveiros (ABCA-AICA)
Photos: Kobra Studios, Alan Teixeira y Mari Souza
In recent years, graffiti has gotten increasing attention as a legitimate art and form of social expression. Like social media networks, graffiti has become increasingly significant as a way for young people to express criticism. But this representation of the collective unconscious, which can sometimes appear violent and delinquent, is not so new.
Coined by archeologists to describe designs and inscriptions discovered on ancient monuments, the word “graffiti” was first used in the 19th century to describe a caricature of a crucified Jesus drawn on the wall of the Domus Gelotiana on Palatine Hill in Rome (Italy).
Stop Wars, Wynwood, Miami, Florida.
In both its textual and pictorial form, graffiti gradually evolved into art. In the beginning, graffiti served to mark territory, express feelings, and shake the restrictions of laws and social regulations. Later, it was used to protest the high cost of books and the exclusivity of the visual arts. These days, it may mark the boundaries between urban tribes, or delight hearts and minds as expressive street art.
Graffiti spread rapidly during the height of the so-called counterculture in the late 1960s in Europe and the United States. Soon “tags” in the form of letters, words, and phrases morphed into outsize murals. Several different movements gave rise to “schools” of this art, which had previously been considered marginal. The most important movement may have been hip hop, the voice of the streets.The pioneers of modern graffiti include Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), whose immortal poetic works have burrowed into the nooks and crannies of art in lower Manhattan.
Influenced by the U.S., graffiti appeared in Brazil —São Paulo— in the mid-1970s. However, it was not long before a globally-acclaimed Brazilian style emerged. One of its best-known artists is Eduardo Kobra, who you’ll meet here in an exclusive interview he granted Panorama of the Americas.
David Colorido / Colorful David, Carrara, Italia.
You went from copying images of old São Paulo to being an admired international muralist with works in twenty countries and a Guinness World Record for “Ethnicities,” the largest spray paint mural by a team. What was the process like?
It was natural, spontaneous, and intuitive. I got interested in design and painting at the age of eight. At twelve, I was already defacing walls with paint, and I was detained some three times by the police. I did several graffiti works inspired by comic strips. As a street artist, I often experienced prejudice and disdain, but that did not stop me from making a name in São Paulo.
I did “pichaçãos” [lettering that looks like runes, written clandestinely in high, hard-to-reach places, and typical of São Paulo and Río de Janeiro]. I was self-taught. I learned to paint by copying classic works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Gustav Klimt, etc. I cycled through several urban art movements, from doing illegal “pichaçãos” and spontaneous graffiti to plunging into murals with perspective and old urban scenes in black and white.
I went back into previous works, which gradually started to take on the color and vigor of graffiti. It was not a quick process, but rather three decades of constant, grueling creative work to reach the stage of lawful mural art done at the invitation of the property owners. I am still as passionate about art as I was as a teenager. When I get a proposal from anywhere in the world, I take it on with love and enthusiasm, and I throw myself into it completely in order to do the best possible job.
Etnias / Ethnicities, Rio de Janeiro.
Where does your art fit in big cities where the architecture transitions from old to new buildings?
In addition to studying technical considerations such as the condition of the structure and the angle of sunlight when planning a project, you need to take into account the city’s historical, social, and cultural aspects. People do care about architecture and about preserving the historical and cultural heritage of cities, which is something I have learned over the years by studying scenes of ancient cities in the old books I collect.
Do you think the general public, the harried pedestrians in cities, appreciate and understand your message, which often touches on concern for the environment?
If we understand an urban mural more as a work of the passers-by than of an artist, the work must speak to the beliefs, religions, and thoughts of the people who live with the work. There is a big difference between an exhibit in the streets of a city and one on the walls of a gallery. Urban art helps people slow down, to stop and think. Cities, are more than stress and pollution. There are gardens, birds, people, and feelings. I think we are learning to see the world in a different way.
Club de los 27 / The 27th Club, Nueva York.
Some artists who have agreed to produce works for products or services have been criticized for the commercial nature of those projects. How do you handle that?
When a brand proposes a project to me, I consider accepting it as long as it is in alignment with my ideas and principles and as long as the message is in tune with my creation. Just like a play, a film, or a musical, an outsize mural needs sponsors. You need sponsors to paint on a 328-foot tall building. We can’t be hypocrites.
To celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his career, Kobra converted a bus into a “Galería Circular” (Itinerant Gallery). The traveling exhibit of photos of his works at various places in São Paulo was largely aimed at people living on the outskirts of the city. What about when you need to downsize your art to fit into a museum or gallery?
I wasn’t looking to end up in galleries. It’s just something that happened as part of my career path. I was always on the lookout and I took advantage of opportunities. I was born poor with little access to culture. I didn’t visit a museum until I was thirty. I had to learn to live with the contrasts. I enjoyed five-star hotels while sleeping on the street to do the work. Sometimes I didn’t have enough money for food when traveling in other countries. At other times, it was difficult to buy paint. But since art is my life, I will continue to paint and to climb scaffolds for oversize murals as long as my legs hold up.
Cristo Redentor / Christ, the Redeemer, Tokio
Eduardo Kobra, ©Mari Souza