Salvador de Bahia, with a population nearing 5 million (the largest urban area in the northeast of Brazil), is in many ways a city in crisis. Nestled into a lush coastline, in amongst a long stretch of tropical beaches, Salvador teeters over a picturesque bay (Bahia dos Santos) on the Atlantic coast. The brightly painted houses of the city’s historic center make it an obvious UNESCO world heritage site, but behind many of the beautiful facades lie surprisingly derelict interiors, often squatted and many for sale.
It is an urban landscape full of multifarious contradictions. The “new postcard of the city” includes a picturesque view of the majestic lake that lies between the colonial center and the swimmable beaches. It is an image of the city’s immense new soccer stadium pictured from across the lake, adorned with ornate statues, yet if one stood at the stadium-side of the lake the view would be of the bare bricks and uncertain construction that marks squatter settlements (favelas, or communities) in the region. In this city social fragmentation occurs in an extremely condensed way, and as a consequence so do vastly divergent modes of cultural production.
Once the capital of the Portuguese empire, and a port town, the city is saturated with international tourism as tremendous cruise ships dock here on a daily basis. However, the city has sprawled far beyond its cobble-stoned beginnings and is facing a growing crime rate that has surpassed that of São Paulo, which is three times its size. The historical center hangs over a steep cliff leading down to reclaimed land at sea level that is home to a failing commercial district, oddly home to several of the city’s main tourist attractions such as the artisanal market. Due to insecurity, tourists are firmly discouraged from traversing the roads to the lower city by foot and so at present, long lines regularly crowd the one working elevator that runs between the upper and lower levels of the city.
A more ubiquitous consequence of insecurity in the city are the tourist police who line the narrow streets of the historic center in a way that feels more like private security at the entrances of a shopping mall or an amusement park than the policing of urban space. In this context graffiti represents a paradoxical provocation. Salvador is otherwise drenched in the aesthetics of an industry of tourism focused on packaging and exposing the city’s colonial architecture, the region’s literary history (the city was once home to Jorge Amado, one of Brazil’s more internationally known authors), and most noticeably (the city is building its name on being the center of this) traditional African culture.
But then this Disney-fication of the city is consistently interrupted by immense vines sprouting from buildings long since abandoned to decay, buildings abandoned without any official owners to complain of squatting or vandalism. This is a city full of greying, unclaimed cement walls—free of “post no bills” stencils; Salvador is overflowing with street art of many different forms. Street art here introduces a dimension of social space that breaks with the colonial atmosphere of the town, wonky and out of place alongside Bahian women dressed in traditional garb to pose with tourists (for a small fee).
As Jean Baudrillard said of the wave of graffiti that pounded the New York of the 1970’s, graffiti erupts into the sphere of the full signs of the city, dissolving it on contact. It introduces an alternate language and framework for reading the space. In Salvador graffiti serves as a blunt challenge to the commodification of the city, scratching at its idyllic, surreal packaging and making visible an alternate dimension of social space.
Many in the city remain indignant that while much of the country’s capital is funneled into protecting a growing tourist industry and paving the way for the World Cup, basic infrastructure such as transportation services and affordable education remain lacking. In Salvador, the city began work on the metro-system in 1997 yet in 2013 it remains a skeletal mess, stalled in its tracks and far from finished.
Some graffiti is connected to the riots that shook Brazil earlier this year—Copa para quem? (World Cup for Who?) is scrawled all over the city. Sometimes clearly political, graffiti here speaks of a Salvador that insists on remaining un-curated. The grittier tagging, such as the playful Cadê o metro? (Where’s the metro at?), erupts like hiccups, serving as refreshing interventions to remind us that this is a contemporary metropolis that people live in (and struggle over), rather than just being a tourist attraction. Jaques Rancière might call these the accidents that interrupt the play of the logics of archaic power that frame this former colonial paradise. Graffiti here serves as a means for voices who are otherwise not welcomed to participate in political dialogue, to stake out space in the city.
Further, graffiti is not only a way for local pixaçoes (taggers) and street artists to exert their right to the city, but is also a way to claim space within the realm of contemporary urban art at an international level. A global awareness of Brazilian artists has increased exponentially in recent years, from artists like Ernesto Neto and Vik Muniz (Wasteland) to street artists like Os Gêmeos from São Paulo. In November of this year, the city of Frankfurt hosted a Brazilian Street Art exhibition by opening its walls to eleven Brazilian graffiti artists and in December Miami hosted their first Brazil-centric art fair.
However, there is rarely much attention paid to the Brazilian art world outside of São Paulo or Rio de Janerio.
Graffiti represents a curious crossing of the local and global in the case of Salvador. Brightly painted figures crowd city walls in a way that serves as a reminder to the international traveler that this is indeed a contemporary urban space and not just a run down colonial capital. Street art here is often aesthetically pleasing, but a closer look proves that the troubles of the northeast reverberate consistently throughout the works of different local artists with many pieces displaying carefully considered local themes of African diaspora, poor public infrastructure or the situations of local young people living in hopelessly poor conditions. Considering the deeply unequal and fractured nature of social life in Salvador, the participation of these different visual stories adds otherwise unspoken commentary to public life in the city.
(All images: Courtesy the author.)