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Julio and Bigode article at MusiBrazil.it (English translation)

Julio and Bigode article at MusiBrazil.it (English translation)   submitted on Sat, 11/17/2007 - 15:18 in ICBIE Street Artists - Julio & Bigode Group by Rzzz

(This article was written in Italian, and is posted at http://www.musibrasil.it/articolo.php?id=2007)

Julio and Bigode, Writers with Passion

During their tour of Italy, the two writers explain to Musibrasil how murals in Brazil combine social vocation and urban renewal. And they are amazed by the repression that exists in the “Belpaese.”

by Gabriella Melli

You pass by them while walking down the street, you see them race by on the metro, they strike you with their forms and colors, and most of the time you miss the meaning, the concept behind those stylized letters that loom large across buildings. People seem to take wall writings for granted. Some still think of them—and in some cases, rightly—as acts of vandalism that clutter the aesthetic of our cities. But in recent decades, they have built a rather distinctive essence, becoming a form of art that, evolving and attaining surprising technical prowess, has accompanied the history of the metropolises of the whole world.

In Brazil, too, the diffusion of graffiti began with the invasion of rap, which has had a huge success in the proletarian strata of its society, thanks to a certain correspondence with various musical styles that utilize rhymed verses, in the same way that writing grafts itself onto local traditions of wall painting. This caused Brazilian graffiti writers to embrace peculiar characteristics, the first of which is that they are painted with rudimentary spray guns, rather than the prohibitively expensive spray paint cans.

Julio and Bigode are part of the seven-man writing crew “Nova 10ordem” of Salvador, and the oldest one is a little more than thirty years old. “At the beginning, it was called “Nova Ordem” (”New Order”)” — they tell us —, “then we met some Italian friends who explained that the translation in Italian had a rather fascist connotation, and, since we didn’t want to have anything to do with that, we added the 10, which in Portuguese makes a play on words with the term “nova”.” Three years ago the pair began to collaborate with the ICBIE of Salvador, about which Musibrasil has already written in February. They got to know the president Pietro Gallina and they began to frequent the Institute as volunteers and students of the Italian courses. Now they teach lessons in design and graffiti for the kids of the community.

This year, for the first time, the exchanges fostered by the ICBIE between Italy and Brazil have permitted them to come to Italy, thanks to the support of the city of Salvador and the hospitality of Italian tourists and visitors of the Institute, who have hosted them here and, according to Julio and Bigode, have even argued over who got to have them. In a bit more than a month, they have had the opportunity to put their art on show in Verbania and Bassano del Grappa, to participate in a Brazil festival for local volunteer organizations in Reggio Emilia, and then in Bologna, Milan, Florence and in Rome, where they participated in a meeting in the 11th Municipality, leaving behind the gift of one of their works, to consolidate the interchange between Rome and Salvador.

Bigode, who earned his nickname in the world of capoeira, remembers the times when he roamed around Salvador carrying over his shoulder a heavy compressor, that, in a critical moment, impeded his escape from the authorities. He and Julio got started about ten years ago in the Bahian capital, when the grafiteiro was still regarded as a vagrant. “Until three years ago,” Bigode remarks, “he was a ‘destroyer,’ persecuted; today he is a street artist, a ‘builder’.” And speaking of their experience, it becomes evident that, coming from limited circumstances, it is possible, through art, to build a thousand opportunities that help to grow, to understand, to gain knowledge, and even to travel around the world.

The feeling is that the institutions in Bahia have invested a lot in the work of these kids, promoting them and covering the costs for materials. “We have painted the whole city,” says Julio, “and since graffiti is permitted it has changed the lives of a lot of people,” referring to the dangers of criminality that threaten many of the kids they work with. When we ask them what effects this art has had on the community, Bigode smiles and wobbles his head: “Rapaiz, it’s huge,” he replies, while Julio describes what is called “multirão,” the phenomenon born in Recife and then spread to the peripheries of Rio and Salvador, “black and gray,” in his words. “There is always a grafiteiro in these communities, someone who attracts all the others in Salvador, and thirty, forty people, even a hundred grafiteiros who paint everything. Nobody makes any money, it’s only for the fun of making graffiti. The people in the neighborhood see all these people painting all day. And the public ministry that organizes all of this also sends a reggae, ragamuffin band to play. If you say you’re a grafiteiro it opens doors for you. When you are painting, they bring you water, beer, a bit of everything. You paint and they start dancing around you, they bring a stereo and they do the forrò, they interact. Little kids start painting. For the community, it’s a different day.”

Writing has always attempted to appeal to public opinion, to call attention to social problems, but in Brazil it has transformed its social vocation into an act of urban renewal. “And when we paint in the communities, the theme of the graffiti isn’t protest, it’s flowers, beautiful things, so people don’t always have to remember that they’re poor. You leave home, see a gray wall, it’s ugly, and you hardly notice it. But if you put a graffiti there, people start to think that it’d be nice if it were white or blue. People like it, and they start to say, “Paint my mother!” or “Our family likes the beach, paint a beach over there,” and a change happens, breaking the stereotype of the vagrant grafiteiro, and even though they don’t know us, they invite us into their houses, because we’re there, painting, making their neighborhood more attractive.”

It’s this vision of writing that the two artists have presented in Italy, where they were often shocked by the way their art is victimized and repressed. They truly appreciated the artistic quality of the best works, and were surprised by the quantity of scribbles and tags, those letters with an acronym-signature. These they saw the result of kids who have to paint quickly, which is a given with an art form that is still prohibited. “I was impressed, because it’s an activity that’s repressed by the government and the police, but it’s everywhere! This is fantastic, it’s a form of resistance,” says Julio, and Bigode adds, “I think that graffiti culture is about just that, you can’t do it, so you do it all the same. There’s a moment when the society has to take a side: either like in the United States where they put whole police squads out to stop the graffiti, and that seems to be the route they’re taking here in Italy, too, or like in Chile, where graffiti art is supported, treated like culture, as it is in some places here, that are real open, and give some space. With total repression there will always be a kid who wants to express himself and bit by bit he’ll become a criminal, because maybe he’s involved in some shady deals, but if he had some support, he’d change in his head. There are two roads: repression, that creates criminal behavior, or encouragement, that can transform a criminal into an artist.”

Julio and Bigode seem to be mature evolutions of that slightly romantic figure of the writer who is always ready for another brilliant task, because the more prohibitive the challenge, for the height, for the property rights, for the problems with the law that might ensue, all the more his genius and his protest can shine out. The two Bahian artists, instead, haven’t shirked from the social degradation that afflicts their communities, but they try to express their protest by choosing carefully the right moments and the right places, reserving these themes for the more upper-class areas, or even the center of the Pelourinho, so that their art can be most incisive in transmitting their messages. They have completely distanced themselves from the most hardcore wing of the movement that sometimes degenerates into vandalism, but also from the purists who would like to keep their work free of any form of commercialization.

“If I were to say: I do my graffiti, I don’t earn money, I’d by a hypocrite. I know how to paint graffiti, if I don’t sell my work, how do I live? Not only on the walls, but on t-shirts, pants, how do I buy the materials. If I want to protest, I protest, if I want to do something beautiful, I do something beautiful, and if I don’t want to do anything, I don’t do anything. It’s all art,” says Bigode. And Julio responds, “I’ve always commercialized my works, I’ve sold paintings, I’ve painted schools. This doesn’t mean that you bend to what the client wants. When you do it, you have to see up to what point you’re betraying yourself. If they want a pink wall, you want to make it red, but you paint it pink, there you’re betraying yourself. I think I betrayed myself a lot in order to earn money. There are other times when I thought “if I don’t do this, I won’t get the money for the rent, for dinner,” but even then, I didn’t do it. Some things are mine. Can I communicate things in my graffiti that I don’t think? I don’t think so. Up to today I can say that in all my works, commercial or not, I have communicated what I wanted to say, without anybody being able to say that I’m a hypocrite.”

The history of graffiti is as old as the prehistoric caves, where our predecessors began reproducing images of things that they saw, giving birth to the first forms of that which we call “art” and “civilization.” But when we speak of graffiti, we make an immediate connection with hip-hop culture, which holds writing (the most appropriate term) as one of its cardinal elements. Hip-hop, born at the end of the ’60s in the ghettos of American cities, amidst the struggles of the African-American movements and the free-style break-dances to the B-sides of records, is an original phenomenon, innate to post-industrial and multi-ethnic cities. It is formed through a mix of different expressive parameters: in music, above all, in rap and scratching (the art of the dj); in physical movement, the breakdance; in figurative art, writing.

More than thirty years have passed since kids in the streets of New York began painting their names on the gray walls of the city and then, some say because of the influence of Portorican immigrants, the idea of shouting out the anger in your soul with a single word, stylized on the wall. Thirty years since Afrika Bambaata and Dj Kool Herc competed for their audiences, screaming their protests in remixes blasting out of their loudspeakers. Today their successors earn piles of money and caprice around bedecked in gold. Rap is the most popular musical style in the world and the wide pants with big pockets are worn by everyone, women in high heels and millionaire bosses in sporty outfits. The four elements of hip-hop culture have penetrated into and have influenced the society of the entire planet, each in turn mutating and evolving in different forms, depending upon the contexts in which it appeared, often emancipating itself from hip-hop itself. That is certainly what happened to writing, which has remained misunderstood and opposed for so many years.

Everywhere in the world graffiti is an art form that, while its works are temporary by definition, gives life to an identity search, a task that is ever more difficult for the youngest strata of the population. Boys and girls armed with spray cans and the anti-conformism that always defines the condition of youth jump into action, re-defining their urban space and through it, to a discovery of their own power, of their ability to modify their surroundings. Among the many weapons that they could have chosen, they chose the most effective and the most ancient: mural art, in its post-modern adaptation, as many academic studies have acknowledged.

And Julio and Bigode, who we ask whether or not they fear that with the diffusion of new technologies such as digital graphics, graffiti might not disappear, they answer, “Maybe technology will invent a vehicle with six, seven spray nozzles and you will be able to sit there and paint, we could be old and in wheelchairs, with a remote control to do the painting, or we will take up “digital painting”… As long as it’s me that chooses. I had everybody against me, my family told me “You’ll never have a steady job!” But I chose to teach, to paint. To live by art.

Translation by Roy Zimmerman. Thanks to MusiBrazil for allowing me to make this translation and for the permission to post it.


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