Rio de Janeiro’s Fine Art Graffiti

by Zoë Ann Lewis

Turn of the century buildings in Lapa, a favorite nightlife area

Occupy movements, rebellions and other signs of divergent turmoil are worldwide. Yet over the past decade, Brazil has experienced significant urban development and economic growth, impacting Brazilian society positively at all levels. In Rio de Janeiro’s freestyle movement, that encompasses graffiti, street art, music and performance art, one can't help but feel good walking around the city. The message that sums up the aspirations of many Rio neighborhoods, “With Pride” (Com Orgulho) is manifest everywhere.

One highly visible change is the ubiquitous street art -- or fine art graffiti. While many city governments and property owners around the world still consider graffiti to be a form of vandalism, the popularity of urban street art has exploded in Brazil. Graffiti has been legalized since March 2009, and Brazil’s lead in this urban art revolution has transformed its streets into true art galleries.

“Brazilian graffiti art is considered among the most significant strands of a global urban art movement, and its diversity defies the increasing homogeneity of world graffiti.” — Design Week.

Rio is best known for spectacular, breathtaking mountain views, impossibly beautiful beaches, and the jaw-dropping natural beauty that surrounds all things Rio. Here, Mother Nature is now infused with the kinetic energy of the street art scene, titillating the senses with exploding color, fantasy and provocation. Local artists have transformed and reshaped the landscape, capturing the Brazilian love of freedom and imagination, and making this a truly beautiful engaging city to walk, at any hour, day or night.

From left to right: Ipanema and Leblon Beaches, Rua Jardim Botanico, Corcovado

The Artists

The evolving cult celebrity status of international graffiti artists -- like Banksy, nominated for an Academy Award for his 2010 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop covering the street art scene -- fuel the popularity of this flourishing art milieu. Graffiti artists from all around the world now come to Brazil and Rio to check out what’s been happening. Top international graffiti artists appear in well-publicized, organized venues.

Fabio Ribeiro, better known as Binho, is one of the pioneers of graffiti in Brazil and South America. Well-traveled and highly respected, Binho also curates the biennial Graffiti Fine Art exhibition at the Brazilian National Art Gallery (MUBE). Binho curated the first biennial Fine Art Graffiti at the MUBE museum in 2010. Over 60 artists were involved, including Brazilian artists Os Gêmeos, Zezão, Nov and Nick Alive, as well as international artists such as CERN, Faith and Mr. Dheo. In the opening month over 50,000 people visited, that was two years ago and the popularity has soared. Os Gêmeos (The Twins) are graffiti artists and identical twin brothers from São Paulo, whose real names are Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo. They started painting graffiti in 1987 and gradually became a main influence in the local scene. The brothers helped to define Brazil’s own style and, in the opinion of many artists, helped establish São Paolo as one of the most creative cities in the world.

Graffiti Artists Commissioned to Create Street Art

Any public surfaces such as buildings, security walls, garage doors of any material, even crumbling abandoned walls, become canvas for the individuals or crews of artists from Rio neighborhoods that paint, stencil, even collage, and then leave a signature letting others know it's their work. The most sought after artists are commissioned to create murals and other works. One of the city’s veteran graffiti artists/rapper/producer/poet/multi-media pioneer/Carioca de Gema, Airá-Ilu-Aiê Ferraz D’Almeida (aka Airá Ocrespo, aka Mc Grafiteiro) is such a commissioned artist. Grafiteiro’s vibrant portrait-in-motion style graffiti is prevalent in Rio, and his commissioned murals are prominently displayed throughout the city.

Graffiti styles and imagination around Rio

"Graffiti culture is well accepted here and there’s a lot of support from the government and social projects," says Rio Santa Teresa based artist, Bárbara Sotério. "The graffiti scene in Brazil is large; there are a lot of people who paint so well, they stand out, their body of work is collective here." Graphic design artist Ivan Greczanik agrees, "There’s also a good relationship between the graffiti scene and our neighborhoods. It almost makes up the community here," he says. "It's not just in Rio. São Paulo stands out as one of the most important cities in the graffiti world."

Santa Teresa

Santa Teresa Hill

On top of the Santa Teresa hill, located at the center of Rio, just above Lapa -- one of Rio's hottest night districts -- is the neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Artists are especially fond of this area, which is famous for its winding, narrow streets and iconic yellow tram —- the bonde -- currently shut down, but expected to be back on the rails in time for the 2014 World Cup.

Many home owners in Santa Teresa have converted turn of the century villas into hotels. One such place is Casalegre on Rua Monte Alegre. Rooms are named after artists and the hotel/villa is also a place for yoga, dance classes and regular art exhibits. The chicest hotel in the area is a property of the Relais & Châteaux hotel group - Hotel Santa Teresa, on Rua Almirante Alexandrino.

On the solitary road to Corcovado from Santa Teresa, murals command prime viewing as millions of visitors pass by.

The streets are dotted with restaurants, art galleries, bars and other points of interest. Worth checking out is the street named P Carlos Magno. Along this street -- safe at all hours, even if you’re alone after too many caipirinhas -- you'll find live music in the evenings. On P. Carlos Magno, there’s a truly relaxed ambience, with breakout samba by inspired musicians and soccer matches on the televisions.

Security wall on the road to Corcovado, with shooting paint bullets of love and fine art aesthetics. By How and Nosm - visit their website at

Santa Teresa ceased being an upper class neighborhood long ago, and many of the buildings are in serious need of repair, but that is perhaps why the area has been revived as an artistic hotspot. It is home to several artists, studios and galleries. Street art is ubiquitous here. Graffiti exists in all corners, right up to the favela on the way to Corcovado and the most famous landmark of Rio -- the statue of Christ the Redeemer must be reached along the center road that passes through Santa Teresa. The graffiti along this stretch is bold in scale and aesthetics, rivaling museum space. Millions pass it each year.

The Legalization of Graffiti

Lapa’s downtown shopping district and examples of tagging or pixe

Graffiti became legalized in March 2009, when the Brazilian government passed law 706/07, which decriminalizes street art. In an amendment to a federal law that punishes the defacing of urban buildings or monuments, street art was made legal if done with the consent of the owners. After the law’s passage, property owners commissioned artists to produce graffiti for them, enhancing, in most cases, the aesthetics of the property. Grey cement walls became art galleries.

Turn of the century homes in Santa Teresa with pixe, tagging seen as vandalism not graffiti.

However, there is another distinction to be made. Tagging, known as pichação, andgrafite, is a street art style distinctive to Brazil and a form of social warfare. These styles are considered by real artists as vandalism. “The tagger, wants to put his or her name on the wall, to be famous. The street artist is interested in aesthetics and community," says Carolina Pacini, a Rio-based artist.

The term pichação is derived from the Portuguese word piche or “tar” which the early taggers would steal from construction sites and use as their creative medium. “Não pixe, grafite” (Don’t Tag, Graffiti) was a project that brought together 35 graffiti artists to showcase diversity in local styles back in 1999, and the movement has grown since. Many websites, blogs and other virtual media use the Não pixe, grafite slogan.

In a Huffington Post article, February 2012, “The Legalization of Street Art in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil”, Michelle Young, founder of Untagged, explored the relationship between the standard model of graffiti artists working illicitly on spaces, and those commissioned to do the art work as graffiti. She describes four “situations of ownership” between artists and building owners in Rio:

I. Owners commission works directly for various reasons:

  1. Owners feel that a commissioned street art work can prevent tagging ( black name scrawls) of their building.
  2. The owner cannot afford to beautify his façade and will choose to decorate it with street art instead.
  3. Aesthetic choice: the owner prefers street art on his building.

II. Street artists ask permission from the owner.

III. Street art is created with no permission at places with owners.

IV. Street art is created at locations with no ownership.

While it’s reported that the majority of street art occurs in categories III and IV, the existence of the first and second categories is a striking shift in production of street art, as reported in Young's article. The point is, in Rio, relationships between artists and owners are being developed within the communities. Furthermore, the graffiti artist, as a street artist, is taking back the streets, and not merely in rebellion against authority, but often with the consent of the community, as in the use of art club crews, like Santa Cruz in Santa Teresa.

In Brazil, the artist sometimes works in conjunction with the owners of buildings to collectively alter the space and the motives vary. A Rio Times article in April 2012, reported on well known graffiti artist, Mc Grafiteiro, who made his commitment to community improvement with panels he painted in the Complexo do Alemão favela. In these, as in many other pieces, the artist depicts children engaged in different activities (reading, sitting in class, etc.), reflecting the goals of communities in transition. “I am trying to raise awareness with my work,” Grafiteiro stated for the article. “Graffiti and music are two different media that reach people on the street. I use both to communicate with people, and we are educating them."

His song Com Orgulho (with pride), is popular in Rio. "It is an important message for the people. It is the start of bettering ourselves, our communities,” says Grafeteiro. “I see a lot of alegria (joy) in Rio, but not enough love. Love starts with pride, pride in ourselves, this is what changes communities.”

Favela on the hill, the power of graffiti transforming landscapes and minds

Graffiti artist Bárbara Sotério reasserts the themes of pride and self-determination expressed so exuberantly now on Rio’s streets, saying: "The fight of this girl from the favela is against the things of a hard life. What can she do by herself to make things happen, make things better, except to fight and make a better life?"

In Portuguese, the girl’s shirt says: " A Beautiful woman is the one that fights". ©Zoë Ann Lewis, May 2012

Zoë Ann Lewis, MD, FACP is an internal medicine hospitalist, palliative medicine specialist, radio show producer, host and author.  Her critically acclaimed books on Alzheimer disease are listed resources with the National Alzheimer’s Association for Alzheimer's caregivers. Her website and radio show: Hope Through Knowledge for Caregivers Talk Radio on BlogtalkRadio are dedicated to promoting physician and community education for caregivers.

Zoë has traveled in 44 countries and lived in Rome, Italy for over ten years before becoming a medical doctor. She also shared her trip to Israel in a previous issue of Travel Curious Often.


Bárbara Sotério



Com Orgulho


Mc Grafiteiro

Não pixe, grafite

Os Gêmeos


Rio De Janeiro

Rua Almirante Alexandrino

Rua Jardim Botanico