On an uncharacteristically sunny day in late March I sat down with Eduardo Saretta to talk about graffiti in São Paulo. Before our interview I wasn’t aware quite how lucky I was to have this opportunity, not just because Saretta is an influential character (although this is very true), but also because after half an hour of conversation, a fascinating artistic and socio-political culture was revealed to me. Saretta, a historian and curator, co-founded the trailblazing gallery Choque Cultural in 2004, a unique venture in São Paulo which became well-known for its promotion of street artists. Some years ago Saretta set up the design agency Coletivo Rua, and is a long-standing member of one of Brazil’s first DIY art collectives, SHN. Sophie Wall
BristoLatino: You studied to become a historian, how is it that you got into curating at Choque Cultural?
Saretta: I studied history at a university in Mina Gerais (a state in Brazil), but from the beginning I was trying to get something out of it which I could use as a base for another kind of work.
I became a history teacher, but I was jobless for more or less a year. It was a period of crisis in my life, so in my spare time I got together with some friends. The father of one of these friends had a silkscreen industry, so we began to collect some of the leftover materials and we printed some stickers. Then we decided to put those stickers in the streets, and somehow I became what I am now.
It is a long story but I went to São Paulo, I did some street art, and it was the beginning … One of the things that made everything like it is today was the internet, and the access to digital cameras. Why? Because everybody that does art on the street takes photos of it. Because it is temporary, the photo is the main record. Then we began to have blogs on the internet, and mainly photologs … do you remember that?…
Photologs? No… (laughs)
You are too young (laughs). Okay… It is kind of a blog, where you can put one photo a day, like Instagram, except it was very limited. And through photologs, a whole global street art community began to grow. It was very pertinent for me to see every day what Banksy was doing here, or what other artists were doing in their countries. And you had the opportunity to give comments and to share things, so the culture developed.
And at what time was that?
1997, 98, 99… So it’s a long time ago now. But we kept dong that, and when I was jobless and beginning to create this network, I met a couple that was the beginning the Choque Cultural project. And among the artists I was the one that had a little bit more training, shall we say, (laughs), knowing how to talk, how to write, and they invited me to work together with them.
I now have a company called Coletivo Rua, which produces art and finds artists for brands and ad agencies, for any kind of clients we have. But it is more about projects than the selling of art objects. It really came from the gallery, because when we were there selling artwork, people from Nike or Red Bull, any kind of company that uses street-art as a language to communicate, came to us and would ask, for example: ‘I want to buy one image to put on a t-shirt’. I couldn’t sell an image that was in the gallery, as it has a different purpose and meaning, so I created this business to supply that demand.
Do you think there is something distinct about the street art you find in São Paulo, compared to other Brazilian, Latin American or worldwide cities?
There is one really seminal thing which is distinct from every other city in the world, which is pichação. It has many special characteristics. They say it developed out of the letters of heavy metal LP covers. Everybody knows graffiti from New York, it’s the beginning of everything. If you see the New York tagging its kind of… you put the pen on the paper and keep writing, but São Paulo’s tagging is different; the architecture informed it a lot, as taggers began to fill the spaces between the windows so they had to do separate letters. And most of the time, in the early 80s and 90’s when (pichação) really began to get popular, there weren’t spray cans for graffiti in Brazil. Only those used for car repairs… they didn’t have nice colours and they were expensive. So people used to tag with small rollers, which made it difficult to do like (mimes spraying), super-fast, you know? So the letters have the characteristics of writing with rollers. You cannot do all the movement you can do with a spray can, so it is more limited, but this somehow gave a proper style to São Paulo letters.
Has there been development in pichação?
I would say that there are still guys doing it the traditional way, but there are guys that have developed it a lot. Many of the guys that do pichação are under 18 years old, after that they can go to jail so they stop doing it. Some of them become graffiti artists, so in graffiti maybe you have some of the characteristics (of pichação )… but it is difficult to say today, because if you have got a phone you have a world in your hand. Everybody is influencing everybody. I went to Prague, for example, and there is a guy doing kind of São Paulo pichação. The world gets smaller and smaller.
I was reading about an incident that happened in 2008, when pichadores (people who do pichação) came into Choque Cultural and tagged over lots of artwork, because they weren’t down with what you guys were doing. Does that tension continue to exist between young taggers and artists in São Paulo?
Actually I was here in the UK when those guys did that. They thought we were kind of destroying their culture, by selling some artworks that were to do with pichação, but everything we were doing was with the consent of the artists, we were dealing for the artists. So I don’t have a problem with it, but it was still hard for us. We were showing at the time two British guys, and one of those was Gerald Lang. And they tagged all over Gerald’s work, when it had nothing to do with their little ‘war’. More than that, Gerald’s work was super critical of war, about the Abu Ghraib prison and how the Americans were treating the Iraqi prisoners. And at the time we were probably the only door open in the city spreading the word of pichação, wanting to talk about it, talking to the press about it, somehow defending what they were doing.
Personally, I like the typeface, I like what they do; it is part of our culture. There is no other way for these guys from the peripheries to express themselves. And at the end of the day they are just writing their names, its not like they are killing or stealing, its just paint. You can just paint over it in white. But when the government in São Paolo talks to the newspapers about the most problematical issues in the city, they always mention pichação as one of them… there is no water for people and corruption… but you know, it’s like that.
But I would guess that doing large-scale street art is sanctioned by the State?
Yeah it’s different, professionally done… but still me, I am 39 years old now, and I still put illegal stickers on the street. Its part of the game. I wouldn’t stick them in places where they would offend people, over a traffic sign for example. But I would put one on the back of one, as it is kind of a grey area of the city, nobody uses it, nobody notices it. So it is a space for me, as I think art has to instigate people by going in spaces that aren’t common-place. That is my mission.
An SHN ‘occupation’ in Rio de Janeiro
Is it ever difficult to make street art work in a gallery setting?
This is the question everybody asks me (laughs). I understand why, but if you research a little you will find that Basquiat was already doing it, Keith Harring in the 80’s in New York. In any case, it is not simply taken from the street and put inside. People who give work to the city, who paint walls for free… its expensive in Brazil. A spray can is 20 reais, so one can is a good lunch. For you to paint a wall you need 80, 100 cans. Guys work the whole week, save money and go to paint on Sunday, so they kind of give work to the city. So I think it is super fair for them to find a way to survive through their art. They need galleries and people that deal with money to maintain what they do.
I also meant do you feel that any aesthetic appeal or visual impact is lost in the process? As when art is outside it is set against an immense backdrop, which differs substantially from an enclosed space.
It is, it is. What everybody that is working on the street likes, is to see their work in places that most people can see, for free. Giving access to people. Using the environment as an advantage, using it to frame their work. This is why people paint on the street. But if you are going to paint a piece to put inside, you think a lot about it. It is not as organic as what goes on on the street sometimes.
But in general we in Brazil are not so organized, as you can imagine; when you see a British and Brazilian graffiti artist painting, the British will come with a sketch and he knows exactly what he is going to do. The Brazilian never knows, he begins and then he changes his mind… and that is also something that enriches his work. It is a characteristic of ours, in art, music…. Improvisation means that it is often less predictable.
I noticed that there are lots of fantastical, illustrative characters in São Paulo’s street art…
The thing is, ever since the historical graffiti of New York, artists started by writing their names, and developing how to write their names. After this, they began to use bold lettering and to put characters between the letters. They started by drawing, I don’t know… Mickey Mouse, really well known characters, and then they started to create their own characters. São Paulo is no different. In most countries, people began to do graffiti after the explosion of Hip hop in the 90s; also in Brazil we had guys in the 70s doing stencils, conceptual and protest graffiti, concrete poetry in the 60s… but the strong movement came from Hip hop. All over the world people started to understand (street art) better after watching US 80’s movies like Beat Street or Graffiti War, that related stories about B-boys, DJs, graffiti and MCs: the four pillars of Hip hop. So even when you see today Os Gemeos doing really Brazilian things, they began doing letters, then New York characters, then they developed their language.
What is the relationship like between the contemporary art and street art scene in São Paulo?
The contemporary art market, such as you find at Frieze or Sp-Arte (the São Paulo art Biennale), well Frieze is bigger, but Sp-Arte does millions too. So this mainstream world is far away from what we were doing. We were printing and selling for a 100 reais, so it’s totally different. At the art fairs generally only rich people can afford the art. I wouldn’t say they don’t like us, but they don’t like the aesthetic. Graffiti, and I will be very general with what I say now, but most graffiti is ugly. After 15 years of observing, studying and researching, there is much more that I dislike than I like. There are few pieces that I like, really, personally, that I would put in my house. Most of it is kind of ugly art. So I understand why the people who have the power, those that buy art, are more ‘elite’. They don’t like ugly things (laughs).
You mentioned before that you felt it was the end of a ‘wave’, is that the gallery specifically or a more general decline?
I think the gallery was a very experimental project that was a sort of school for everybody. From my point of view, I quit with the partners because I didn’t agree with what they were doing from a business perspective, but also because many of the artists that began with us got big and got out and are doing other kinds of works with other galleries. Which is fair because we always thought of ourselves as a springboard for artists, so it felt like the right moment (to leave). People grow up and make different choices.