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Ruas De Sao Paulo
February 17- March 17
Jonathan Levine Gallery

Written and Photographed
by Eve Hyman


I knew them as cartoon characters before they were real people for me. I didn’t know if they could live up to their stickers. With wild names like “Titi Freak” and “Fefe Talavera” and with their own respective cool caricatures would they be “too cool for school” like many artists one might meet in a Chelsea gallery? Would they be overwhelmed by the language barrier and cuture shock? Would they be at all accessible or would they be like the graffiti artists of my youth – distanced, hostile, and uncomfortable in the limelight? The artists of Ruas De Sao Paulo made a lasting impression of how cool Brazilian street art is – even as imports on a Chelsea gallery wall. But beyond how stunning and original their work is, they each made an impression on me as individuals. These artists are stars and they had something to say about the role of art, about their impressions of New York, about the struggles of daily life for the majority of people in Sao Paulo, and about connecting to people in a city environment. In only a short period of time, I got to know not only their work, but who they are and why they create.

Jonathan Levine took a vacation in Brazil last year and found a city under paint. There isn’t any policing of graffiti art in Sao Paulo and as a result painting has flourished all over the immense city. Jonathan was so impressed with the murals and characters and designs he saw that he sought out some of the city’s best painters and decided to try to bring them to New York City. He partnered with Choque Cultural Gallery in Sao Paulo and with Brazil Foundation and was able to bring the artists to NYC and to present Ruas De Sao Paulo, a Survey of Brazilian Street Art.


Highraff

“Everybody has a particular style. This is the strongest characteristic of Sao Paulo’s art scene. Variety of style is like the variety of cultures in Brazil. Everything is mixed,” Highraff explained. Highraff, Rafael Calazans, makes psychedelic landscapes that reminded me of Gaudi, Dr. Seuss, and Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. Each artist was given a half of a room in the Jonathan Levine Gallery to display their work. Their individual pieces were set against a painted backdrop to create a flow of art. Highraff’s room was punctuated by three-dimensional center-pieces.


Works by Titi Freak


Eve Hyman and Titi Freak

Highraff told me how much he likes Titi Freak’s work – noting that he’s the most stylish of the group. This makes sense because when I asked Titi Freak what influences his work the most he said, “I like the people – their style.” He draws faces and figures, exploring body language and presenting people in the stylized context of their environment. Titi Freak’s art is attractive and hip, borrowing from eastern and western techniques alike. He’s Brazilian and Japanese and so is his work – merging the best of both worlds.



Kboco, Eve Hyman and Onesto in front of Kboco and SpetoArtwork


Kboco the "Monkey Man"

Style came up in a conversation with Kboco as well. “Los Gemeos are our fathers. They taught me never to follow a style but to find my own style – to go inside myself to find it.” Los Gemeos were at the forefront of the street art scene in Sao Paulo – along with Speto and Onesto, and many others who inspired the Ruas artists. Speto’s art spoke for him, as he wasn’t able to make the trip to NYC. Speto’s were some of my favorite pieces – paintings that emulate wood carvings and are inspired by traditional folk art. Kboco is similarly influenced. His work is an intriguing mix of calligraphic imagery with gorgeous color and geometric pairings. A Kboco piece that features a teapot, cup and saucer is my new desktop image. He manages to make something colorful and deep using simple, clean lines and shapes.

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Zezao and Locals

Zezao was the most expressive of the artists – though at first he wanted to speak with me through a translator. He ended up explaining his philosophy as an artist and had little difficulty conveying his message in English. We watched his video that shows how he gets down under the city to paint in the sewers. “I’m an urban guy. I make my art for these people – people who don’t go to galleries, for you man – the man on the street. For me this moment is very special. My work is for this work of my heart- for love, for peace, for people who are homeless. I respect these people and I bring them art. The government forgets these people – it’s the third world and they’re ‘trash.’ The blue art work is for them. I make the sewers my personal gallery.”



Onesto

Onesto Room

Onesto (Alex Hornest) talked of art and humanity as well. His work is really striking and he’s the most prolific of the group. His name is a play on the last name most American graffiti writers share - “one.” He took that surname and flipped it, adding “sto,” common for “saint” in Portuguese. Onesto is the living saint of graffiti artists. And he has gone beyond multiple styles of graffiti, well into illustration with his characters. At first glance, you see his funny characters – round, peg-limbed creatures in mid-emotion. They are endearing and comical on the surface. They’re often piled one-on-top-of-another like a human ladder. I thought of the Three Stooges or some other sort of slapstick. I also thought of Pinocchio. Alex told me how his art reflects a spirit of the people in Sao Paulo. “The guys jump on each other’s backs to help because in Sao Paulo there are so many people – it’s crowded and they help each other.” As I looked at the different characters and situations I started to realize the message and it was powerful. Onesto’s cartoons depict love, family, and brotherhood in the face of corruption of power, poverty, powerlessness, overpopulation, violence, and pain. When I told him how much I liked his work, and that I believed it would make a great children’s book, he gave me a book of original drawings. He was an amazing artist to get to meet in person – his work and his belief system are inseparable and stirring. Like the original Pinocchio, his characters are cute and funny but below the surface they take on intense, human struggles.



Boleto and his Pixacao Book
Zezao Painting in Background


Boleto

Boleto borrows much of his style and technique from tattoo art. Bleeding hearts are paired with cobwebs and dragon-like creatures. His room reminded me of a sailor’s pulsing bicep on the millennium remake of Popeye - an Adult Swim retro cartoon. His pieces are popular and sold before many of the rest. Boleto showed me a book he put together on a particular style of street art called Pixacao. Pixacao is gang graffiti. Like I told Boleto, my reaction looking at that kind of graffiti is, “someone’s going to die.” He said it is dangerous in Sao Paulo too, but that it has evolved beyond gang writing to its own sort of mural art. The individual letters when arranged across an entire building, become a sort of folk design. When he showed me what he meant I was surprised to see it did look folkloric. Boleto compiled a book that details Pixacao as an art form and references criminals, giving a voice to their community.



Fefe



Eve Hyman and Fefe

Fefe is the one female of the group – pretty, smart and with her own unique artistic style. Her style is collage and reminded me of the Dada exhibit that recently showed at MOMA. Fefe cuts up lettering off of concert posters that are plastered all over the city. She rearranges the letters into cave-painting-like animal forms. The Ruas group did an art installation at a local high school during their stay. She told me how much the kids liked helping her make one of her animals and painting with her. She said the girls were especially excited and followed her around and really got into it.

A gallery guest expressed his feeling after exploring the exhibit. He said, “I’m worried that once the pieces leave their spaces with their backgrounds that they’ll lose something. They’re connected to their backdrops.” He was right in that the art is influenced by and connected to its environment directly – the street art belongs on its street. He echoed my own sentiment when he said, “I want to see it in Sao Paulo.”

For Jonathan Levine, this wasn’t only an exhibit – it was a chance to make good on his debt of cultural exchange. He was generous enough to share his Sao Paulo experience with his city and bring the artists to his home. There was the mural at a high school in the South Bronx. There was a fundraiser with pieces donated by American artists like Jeff Soto and Doze. There was a launch party at Hiro Ballroom with a caiparhina and acai bar, with a Brazilian DJ and with a live art installation featuring Onesto, Zezao, and Titi Freak. On stage at Hiro, Titi Freak spun the yoyo for the crowd and turned his painting into a valentine for the crowd.

“For the rest of us, this is a first. Titi Freak already came to the U.S. for a yoyo competition,” Highraff told me matter of fact, as if yoyo battles were an everyday activity - a national sport. “We have the opportunity to do something with our art on a commercial level. It’s a good thing, not only to make money but to make progress. (Art is) like a virus. You have to bomb the system from the inside. You enter and infiltrate.”



Eve Hyman, Jonathan Levine and Emilio from Sao Paulo

The artists of Ruas De Sao Paulo show infiltrated New York City. If you’d like see for yourself, check out the free show in Chelsea – details at jonathanlevinegallery.com.

 

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