Issue #1: Graffiti and Brazil’s Poor Youth

By Glauce Ferrari — September 10, 2012

Projects such as “Intervenção do Graffiti” take street art to underprivileged communities

“Intervencao Graffiti” Photo courtesy of Denis Leroy

Some people call it street art; others call it visual pollution. The fact is that many artists were discovered in the streets, and many others are still working as graffiti artists. In Brazil, graffiti is getting more space, and is helping underprivileged children and youth to find their voice. Brazilian designer Denis Leroy is one of the people responsible for a social project where kids and teenagers from Belo Horizonte, the capital of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, can show their ideas with spray paint.

Although “pichação,” also known as “wall writings,” became popular in the 1940s and 1950s as a means of political statement, it basically disappeared in the 1970s. When the writings appeared again in the 1980s, they were used more by gangs to tag their territory than as a political statement. However, it was – and still is – a social statement. There is a difference, however, between “pichação” and “grafite” (“street art” or “graffiti”), and since the 1990s, the second form of expression is getting more space and incentives. (See “Reality and the Law in Brazil” for more details).

It was in the beginning of the 1990s that Denis Leroy, then a 15 year-old boy, started coloring the streets of Belo Horizonte with protest words, or “punk words” as he says. “Since very early, the underground universe influenced and inspired me, through album covers, skate shapes, cartoon characters, hip hop, fanzines, comics, [and] the sound of protest,” explains Leroy. The designer is inspired a lot by the Afro-Brazilian culture and also urban culture. Leroy says that many Brazilian and international artists inspire him, including Laerte, Speto, Grupo Rex, Doze Green, Tats Cru, Jim Phillips, and Robert Crumb.

Graffiti work by Denis Leroy

Leroy tries to use what he learned from his years of graffiti about lines, colors, fonts and textures in his daily work as a designer, and believes that “graffiti defines well the period of contemporary art in the particular time we live.” He sees it as an important and authentic movement of our art history –something that today can be learned in art schools, alongside other movements. “Graffiti had transcended the barrier of marginal to contribute to the formation of several languages, and this was done without losing their essence,” explains Leroy.

In the beginning of this year, Leroy became part of a special project called “Intervenção do Graffiti“, idealized by Fred Negro F, which is taking street art to children and teenagers from poor areas in Belo Horizonte and other cities in the state of Minas Gerais. Says Leroy about these kids, “Their participation is sensational because they engage in the project with integrity and have a very strong connection with street culture, hip hop, and funk.”

Most of the young people in Brazil know what graffiti is, so it is easy for them to identify with the street art. When they attend one of the “Intervenção do Graffiti” workshops held by Negro F and other artists, they get to know their history and culture, as well as various types of graffiti, its artists, and the social value of this art form. “Directly providing a space to these kids to exchange experiences, and showing them the extension of graffiti is amazing,” says Leroy. “It is giving them an opportunity, and knowing that now they can have a tool for artistic expression.”

Within less than one year, the group has been able to spread the art of graffiti among the local youth. “Intervenção do Graffiti” is also discovering new talents among the kids – not only in art, but in other areas, such as music. “The young people at the workshops have the opportunity to express themselves in an event where an entire culture is present. Many graffiti artists working today in Belo Horizonte have gone through training workshops like this in underprivileged communities and other projects,” says Leroy, with the pride of someone who can give a unique opportunity to kids. Learning graffiti can provide a rich art experience to the kids attending the workshops. They work with composition, colors, fonts, characters, huge formats, and different surfaces. “One way or another, graffiti has a very strong base of free creation, which makes a big difference when someone is working on other processes of creating. Also, they have a great engagement in other areas such as music, dance and social issues.”

Leroy believes that projects like this, coupled with greater acceptance from the Brazilian population, could improve the image of graffiti. However, he notes, “There is still much inconsistency from the part of governments and public authorities, with supported projects and graffiti erased in many cities of Brazil, for example.”


Reality and the Law in Brazil

There is a distinction between “pichação” (tagging) and “grafite” (graffiti or street art) in Brazil. In the last two decades, there has been a huge campaign to promote graffiti and avoid tagging in the country – including the project “Não pixe, grafite” (Don’t Tag, Graffiti), from 1999, where 35 graffiti artists showcased their art at Rio de Janeiro. In March of 2009, this informal distinction was reinforced by the approval of the law 706/07 by the Brazilian government, 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 or the city if it is a public space.


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