Art & Chaos in Brazil

interview with graffiti artist ze carratu

I spent five weeks in and around Sao Paulo, Brazil during the southern hemispheric summer 1988-89. Fortunately I was with my long-time companion Caitlin Manning, whose talent at learning new languages, together with our good luck in finding fascinating interview subjects, made it possible to Produce a one-hour video documentary called Brazilian Dreams: Visiting Points of Resistance. One of the most intriguing encounters we had was with Ze Carratu, a very active graffiti artist in Sao Paulo's explosive street art scene. What follows are excerpts from the interview Caitlin conducted in a concrete shell of an abandoned building on the University of Sao Paulo campus, which was originally to be a cultural center. The basement is submerged in four feet of water, and the building has become an eerie gallery of graffiti art. The editing and translation are mine.

--Chris Carlsson

ZE CARRATU: The Rio de Janeiro--Sao Paulo axis represents the two most effervescent cities in Brazil, where people really have a vision of modernity and information about First World cultural developments. I make a living from plastic art. Some works I've made are commercialized. I paint murals. I am recognized, I've done lots of paintings. I live pretty hard, but I come from a family of immigrants, Italians, and they have a certain power. They developed a business in Brazil and managed things. I, for example, am a person with the opportunity to travel, to leave the country. I can go and return. Thus, I'm the only one who does culture in a family of three hundred!

I am from a family of Italian anarchists. I'm sort of an anarchist, I don't know, I just think there's going to be a tremendous chaos, total chaos, and afterward we are going to have to build a new society, sort of like what happens in a country after a big war...

PW: And the role of the artist in this?

ZC: The artist has to help establish chaos. I think that s/he has to be critical and work on the chaos, appropriate the chaos--and that's what I do. I work on the garbage, the rubble of the city, this is a way elevating chaos.

I eat the culture that was given to me. I was born with the ability to have culture, to learn things and understand society. So I swallow these things that I learn. This is "anthropophagy," I eat my literature. We had anthropophagists here in Brazil, the Indians that ate people. The Portuguese were good to eat! Today I eat the culture in a certain way. It's chaos, we mix everything together. I can't forget that I do art in Brazil. The images that I make have everything to do with this culture and this society. They are almost all fragments.

Since I work in the city, here inside, I am using the city as a support, a context. I think it's pretty natural, probably the same in any part of the world, that people try to understand each other in the street. From the moment I am in the street , I am mixing with society. When I am in my workshop, I am far from society, things are totally abstract. But on the streets I must make myself clear sociologically, anthropologically because I am in the middle of everyday life.

Graffiti has very interesting characteristics. People have an artistic way when they are working with graffiti. Joao, Kenny Schaffley, Keith Haring and these people have artistic training, so their graffiti is a true work of art. Here in Brazil we have much to learn from our own Third World situation. We are at a distance, not just because of the ocean, but because of the type of news that we've had available during this time.

I began working in the street in 1978. I didn't begin with graffiti, but with performance works, theater, and environmental installations. In 1982, a guy from New York started doing graffiti here. May 1968 in Paris was a powerful message, and as I was already working in the streets, I saw that the street was a very important space. The poverty of the people, the necessity of bringing information to them, motivated us t o begin doing graffiti. Our graffiti began inside the city, on walls, on the sides of buildings.

Sao Paulo is a city with a big speculation problem. Real estate speculation in this city devalues one space and raises the value of another, which they understand how to manipulate very well. For instance the government put the river into an underground sewer, built a big avenue on it, with huge walls on either side, and people in the surrounding neighborhoods moved away. It became a slum. Then the speculators came in and bought up the place at a very low price, and it soon increased in value. So we began to work on top of these speculators. They speculate a place, tear it down. Chaos is established and there we go to work, always.

This space [an abandoned cultural center building on the University of Sao Paulo campus] is typical, because it was constructed in 1976 more or less. In a place so short of technical resources and cultural information that people need, a space like this with thousands of square meters was never used for anything. So we decided to occupy it. Now we are trying to rescue it as a cultural space and bring its existence to people's attention. We are going to hold an event with people from cinema and other art forms and hold a great cultural marathon to rescue this place. It's an alert that there's something to do, to come and see that it's possible for something to happen here. Because nobody ev en knows that it exists, neither the local community nor the students on campus. No one ever comes here, it's never used, in fact, never finished! So we've painted here, we're still painting, working all the time.

When we first came here 11 years ago we found names and dates inscribed on the walls, like "Severino, 1976." Severino was probably an immigrant from Brazil's northeast, where it is a common name, and he was probably working here as manual labor. Many people were working here for a time, but for nothing, and this is quite common here in B razil.

Now some people are living here, poor people, also some punks, and we've hung out with them. Here is a mirror of water, which underlines the sadness one feels when you realize that a space of this size is here for nothing, it's such an absurdity, a waste, so much money, the speculation! They built a building under water! Of course it could be fixe d, but this was a work of pure speculation, squandering money with no thought whatsoever. They said this would be a cultural center, but such a thing interests no one in Brazil because people here don't care about culture. In the time of this construction, the mid-1970s, the political situation was very complicated. There was an ideological hunt g oing on, really a persecution of thought. So those people who were really articulating something, they had no power to do anything at that time.

There are many works, many places that we develop in the city. The only places that really bear our work well are these immense places that have never been used for anything. Our presence immediately improves them.

I think there is going to be a great chaos and that will be really good for making art.

PW: But for life?

ZC: I think not for life, but for the artist it is very inspiring. It's already a chaotic city in a certain way. On one side you have beauty, on the other barbarism, extreme poverty. You can go to the southern area of Sao Paulo and it is beautiful, marvelous, like a Beverly Hills. If you go to the eastern zone or the north you will see incredible poverty, serious suffering.

Brazil is a country of speculation, of grand industries built on speculation. We have 20 brands of powdered soap, 30, 40 brands of detergent, 200 of canned sausage, everything. Only people can see it but they cannot buy it. You go to the eastern zone where they have four supermarkets in a very poor neighborhood, with immense displays of merchandise, with the same advertising as here. You have a culture shock, a social shock because the people can see but cannot have. So what do they do? They steal. It is perfectly natural that this occurs, considering the shocking divergence between what is seen and what can be had.

We see that in our city all the art galleries and cultural spaces are here for a very specific part of the public. People that patronize such spaces are very select, and very selected. The galleries are constructed in a certain way, there is always a guard at the door, there's no access for handicapped, and so on. The Brazilian people are deprived of information and culture. Not everyone has a chance to study and learn things. Those that do, uphold a system very alienated at the level of cultural information.

Some years ago I had an exhibit in a museum, but many of our invited guests couldn't even find the place. This reality has everything to do with the media. We know that the media is a strong force, whether a newspaper or a TV station. The power to act in the street, to occupy the walls, abandoned buildings and locations with weird architecture, is also a force. We extend the street, really.

It's a very weird situation and I think that with today's media, people are learning to see images, to read images, so when we work in the street, our work provides a different perspective. We don't sell anything, and don't even offer a product.

PW: It's an anti-commercial?

ZC: Yes, it's totally anti-commercial.