Sunday, October 25, 2015

Ugly Head Reared

Recently we hosted a German couple at our house and they left us the following review:
“Mark is fluent in English which is very helpful and rare in Brazil. The room itself was exactly as in the pictures, clean and with a comfortable bed. We didn't really like the bathroom, because it smelled gross and we made the first and only time aquaintance with cockroaches in a house. Unfortunately the room is on the ground floor on the side of the road, which is very dirty and smelly. All day and and half the night there were people in front of the room, talking, laughing, screaming... When leaving and returning you had to fasten and undo 3 (!) locks and it was not recommended to leave the house and turn right (!!). We felt very unsafe and uncomfortable as whites in Mark's neighborhood. In comparison to many other (website deleted) opportunities in Brazil so far, we would NOT recommend this place (exception: black males who can live with the circumstances). We are very sorry to say that.”
Needless to say I was shocked and infuriated by this.  Street dirty and noisy?  Yep, aware of that.  Cockroach in the house?  Say it isn't so!  Gross smell in the bathroom?  That's a new one.  Neighborhood only suitable for black males?  Go f*ck yourself people.

I had hoped to write a long, carefully considered post on this topic; I spent a huge amount of time thinking about it and lost most of a night's sleep as well.  But as is so often the case the days go sliding by and if I don't write something right now (Sunday night) chances are I won't write anything at all.  It's getting late and I should be asleep so I'm going to have to keep it short.  Let me say only that I received a lot of support from friends and family when I mentioned what happened on Facebook, not least of all my elderly mother who has visited us four times and has not felt threatened here, despite being neither black nor male.  Also the website in question, which I have decided not to name, did the right thing when I complained and removed the review, stating that it violated their content policy.

My critique I will leave in the form of the response I was planning to leave to the review, in the event it was not removed from the site.  Here it is:
This review is inappropriate and borderline racist.  I wrote this couple a follow up email, asking if something had happened to them, if they had been discriminated against as white people in my neighborhood.  They didn't answer, which could mean that they didn't receive my email, or that they chose not to reply, but I think the truth is that, in fact, nothing happened to them that could be described as racial discrimination.  I have lived in this neighborhood for over ten years and I have never felt discriminated against on the basis of my race, and as far as I know none of the other hundreds of guests that have stayed with us ever have either.  In all probability, they felt uncomfortable as obvious foreigners in the midst of a sea of dark faces, in a neighborhood that is often chaotic and definitely loud.  Discomfort is not the same as discrimination and they should not be confused: protections exist against discrimination, effective or no, and indeed white people are sometimes subject to discrimination although not nearly to the degree of other races.  If you are going to claim discrimination, be prepared to back it up, at least with your version of a specific incident.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The White Imperialist Strikes Back

Today, as you can see, I went back and finished my painting.  I waited for a day that I had to myself without other obligations so I could finish the damn thing, take my photo, and split.  This is in case my nemesis Johnny Bongos, the misguided revolutionary, decides to write more obscenities on it this evening.  I have a feeling he won't, but you never know.

I deliberated long and hard (way too long and hard) about what to do with my damaged painting, initially wanting to put a big bomb over the whole thing and forget about it - I may still do that if The Nemesis chooses to manifest.  Finally I decided to fix and finish the piece, mostly because it was so close to being finished and I'd been so pleased with how it was going.  If I'd had my druthers I would have spent more time on it, but it's already taken up too much of my time, so I just did what I could and on to the next project.

should'a taken a 'before' image as well

There's a debate in the graffiti community about the effect that the internet has had on the scene internationally, kind of like how there is a debate about how the internet has had an effect on... pretty much every element of our lives.  Probably the most scorned facet of this discussion is how the internet has allowed people to paint something in their backyard, throw it online, and start bragging about their mad skills.  I've heard people say (quite recently in fact) "I'm just doing it for the photo," and you know what?  That's exactly what I did right here.  Not to mention the fact that this is practically in my backyard, although not quite backyardy enough to be safe from the likes of the malevolent pixador Johnny Bongos!!

Speaking of Mr. Bongos, he never did come by the store to explain to me what the hell his problem is, although he did walk right by it on Saturday and didn't so much as glance in my direction standing on the sidewalk.  I debated calling out to him but I have been counseled repeatedly by my wife to just let it go and forget about the dude.  I did hear second hand that he was claiming that somehow I represent American imperialism to him (and the rest of the Salvador street painting scene perhaps), so I was hoping he would come by the store so I could disabuse him of this foolish notion.  I also heard that this Maconha guy (see previous post) is his cousin, which presents a much more likely scenario for his aggressive act.  He did take down the "White imperialism" post from his Facebook page, or at least made it private.

Several people, after viewing the "Fuck USA" photos have attributed his act to "Emoção," or emotion.  I'm not entirely sure I get this, but I do know that here in Brazil emoção is serious shit.  When there's emoção going on, best get out of the way.  My hope is that, if it was emoção, it won't strike again and dude will leave me alone and we can both get on with our lives.  Not that I believe for a second that he was nearly as bothered by this whole thing as I was.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


I recently received a book in the mail called Get Up, Stay Up by Danny Crofts.  It's a how-to guide of methods for creating graffiti in the current urban environment, at least as it pertains to Europe, as I believe it was written by a European.  There are chapters on clothing, equipment, evading surveillance, even what to do if you're being prosecuted.  There is a disclaimer at the beginning, but the book is clearly a strong advocate of the go-out-and-break-some-laws way of making graffiti.  It makes the claim that graffiti has gotten away from its vandal roots, and every writer should have the skills put forth in the book to keep it real.  It dismisses the kind of elaborate productions that cannot be produced illegally as 'the glossy exterior of graffiti.'

It also has a chapter on 'beef,' an annoying but descriptive and long standing term describing the conflicts that inevitably arise between artists who are disputing spaces in what remains essentially anarchy in the streets; graffiti is still illegal, even here in Salvador.  As you can see from the photo above, taken this week, I've got some beef on my hands.  Here they generally call it treta.  Google Translate offers the amusing translation 'bullshit,' I agree with that, wholeheartedly.  The second suggestion is 'beef.'

I'll talk more about my treta in a minute, but first I want to continue with my discourse on graffiti literature.  I didn't really care for Danny's book, as I don't agree with that philosophy of making graffiti.  Putting all the breaking of laws part of it aside, that kind of art usually has to be made very quickly, which limits substantially what is possible to create.  I like possibilities.  The quasi-legality of graffiti here in Brazil and other parts of South America has given rise to a vast range of styles, much of which is dismissed in most of the world as 'not graffiti,' or, god forbid, 'street art.'

Another problem that I have with subscribing to that way of making graffiti, and I'm digressing only a tiny bit, (I'll get back on track in the next paragraph I promise!) is that it exemplifies the kind of conformity you ironically see within subcultures - the way that people profess to be out of the mainstream, but you can only be part of the group if you stick to its often strict rules.  I first noticed this when I was in college, where the counterculture was dominated by Deadheads and a few post-punk types - as a professor of mine pointed out, "Everyone (at UNH) looks the same, and even the people who look different look the same."  People who are truly different, truly unique, aren't going to fit into these groups any more than they would the mainstream.  You may have the best graffiti writer in a city getting mad respect because he exemplifies the current model of what graffiti 'is,' but it's the batshit crazy writer who is doing something completely different who is going to (maybe) come up with something truly interesting and potentially much more influential.  This is true for many things, not just graffiti.

I would not presume (okay, I promised only one paragraph, but I'm on a roll, and this is germane) to put myself in the category of the previously described batshit writer, but I've never really fit in comfortably to the subcultures I've subscribed to, and I have always veered far from the mainstream.  Here in Brazil my differences from the local population are too numerous to enumerate, and likewise for the other graffiteiros here in the city.  Not least of which being that I'm about twice as old as most of them.  But although I will never be a ground breaker, a revolutionary figure who changes the way graffiti is made for all time, I do make a conscious effort to do something different from what everyone else is doing, and nobody else here in Salvador paints like me.  Additionally, this long standing awareness of being different from those around me is what I think has made it possible for me to live as long as I have here in Brazil.

So - back to the literature - reading Danny's book made me wonder about those roots of graffiti he is paying tribute to.  My dad lived in New York City during the seventies, and he told me how much he loved all the artwork on the trains during that period, although he though his opinion was probably in the minority.  This was the much vaunted Golden Age of Graffiti, what gave rise to the global movement that is modern graffiti.  I couldn't help wondering: how many of the paramilitary tactics described in Get Up, Stay Up were actually being employed by these writers in NYC during the seventies?  I had a theory that the environment might have been a bit more like modern day Brazil.  Notice I say a bit more, I don't think NY was ever a place that writers had the freedom to do what we do here, as we can paint, generally, completely out in the open in the middle of the day.

A quick search led me to a book that I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone with a passing interest in graf - Training Days - The Subway Artists Then and Now by Henry Chalfant and Sacha Jenkins.  Henry is a legend in NY graf as he was out there documenting it as it was going on, co-authored another famous book and made a famous documentary but if I don't skip some of these details I'm never going to finish this post.  I was going to write about my treta and look where I am!  This book both dispelled and confirmed some of my theories about this period.  It consists entirely of interviews with the artists about their experiences and also their reflections on where the scene is today.  Clearly these guys were running from the cops, and getting arrested, and getting into fights with other writers.  One of them even described carrying a gun for protection. They were also stealing all of their paint, which as a store owner I find a bit uncomfortable, and even Danny doesn't come out in favor of this in his book.  But on the other hand, the penalties for getting caught painting trains were much more lenient, and several of the interviews describe spending long periods, even the whole weekend, in the train yards.  One guy said he only painted during the day in the yards.  There is no mention of electronic surveillance.  This kind of thing would be completely impossible today.  It sounds like NYC was too broke at the time to invest in the types of anti-graffiti measures that are common nowadays, although still out of reach for police forces here in Salvador at least - the though of a cop dusting a can of paint for fingerprints here is laughable.  But maybe someday - things are changing and there have been signs of a crackdown.

Okay, end chapter one.  I've wanted to write that bit for some time, and I suppose it should probably be its own post, but I never take the time to write anymore so I'm shoehorning that bit onto my treta.  As a bit of a transition, and this should really be its own post as well, and hopefully I can keep this short, let me get back to the element of time as it relates to graffiti.  This is something that interests me greatly.  Danny lives in a world where all 'real' graffiti is done extremely quickly - true, they can paint entire trains in ten minutes or whatever but that's because there's a whole technology of high pressure (ie fast) paint and they go out in carefully planned raids with twenty guys, each with their assigned role for the piece.  One of the beauties of spray paint is its capacity to paint large areas very quickly.  But as I worked on my first Big Wall (which just recently got covered over when the building was renovated), a piece that took me months to finally complete (mostly because I'm lazy) I became interested in this idea of making graffiti over time, and making that interesting to the viewer who can watch the piece evolve.  That's the kind of thing we can do here that wouldn't be possible in most of the world. I've wanted to do more of this but wouldn't you know it?  I haven't had the time.  In fact, most of the stuff I paint these days is more akin to what Danny talks about in his book, simple, quick, repetitive.  I paint my pollywog rexes and my stupid carnivorous plants because they are quick; not because I'm afraid of being arrested, but because I just don't have time to make anything more elaborate.

Which brings me to my most recent piece, the mangled, almost finished thing at the top of this post.  I take my son to school at seven in the morning, which is completely contrary to my natural circadian rhythms, but I realized a while ago that it gives me an opportunity: the hour or so between dropping him off and getting ready to open the store is a perfect time to do lots of things - including graffiti.  I decided to rework a wall that I had marked right after the election with the intention of doing something more elaborate.  I had a sketch I did a couple years before that I wanted to put up, so I decided to go for it.  I went down to see the condition of the wall (it's quite close to my house), and this is what it looked like:

My letters, the KZA, are in pretty good shape, but some pixadores have added a rolled piece (done with a foam roller) around it.  I should mention that this wall is about 4 meters tall, so there's plenty of vertical space, but this guy Lazi has opted to crowd in right over the top of my letters. This other guy Maconha (which means marijuana) opted to roll the crosspiece of his A right up to the edge of my own letter A - it's hard to see here, because it kind of trails off, not enough paint on the roller.

OK - so the rules of the street are like this: you don't cover someone else up, not at all.  This is quite strict here in Salvador, more so than in a lot of other places.  We don't cover pixadores, and they don't cover us.  This 'agreement' means that there is very little of the kind of writing over and crossing out that goes on in a lot of places.  Salvador has tons of walls!  For those of you new to my blog and new to Brazilian graffiti, 'Pixo' is an aggressive form of tagging that is done as illegally as possible - much more in line with what Danny writes about in his book than the kind of stuff I do.  What these guys did was technically 'allowed', although obnoxious.  The wall is four meters tall guys!  Give me some space fercryinoutloud.  Lazi is not a guy you want treta with, but I thought that what this guy Maconha did (not even realizing it was a person, I thought they were just singing the praises of the magical herb) was over the top.  I felt he was writing in space that I had marked for myself, and I didn't feel that I should have to shove my piece over to the left because of a single stroke of a 5 centimeter roller without enough paint on it.

This apparently was a mistake, but I decided to stake my claim to that section of the wall.  This is how I blocked it out:

I admit it - I covered up maybe a foot?  two feet?  of dude's roller.  Oh the lack of respect!  Note that I've tried to avoid painting over Lazi's stuff even though it looks like shit that way.

Now I've got literally about 40 minutes a day to work on this thing before I go to work, so the whole process is taking a long time, but I'm in Brazil so it doesn't really matter.  I spent two days just scraping the wall, another two days to get it to where it was in the photo above, and then I started laying in the colors.  Early in the process I ran into one of my neighbors and a customer of mine at the store, a pixador who writes Bongos - he's always been friendly towards me and he mentioned that he saw me going down the hill with some paint and asked if I was painting something, I made a joke that I was retired or something to that effect.

This is what I accomplished up until the day it got ruined:

I won't say it was almost done, but it was damn close.  I had some details to finish and then some corrections and then put the outlines on (the outlined part was just a test to see how it was working), and then more corrections.

As I was working on it on this morning, Wednesday I guess, some guy called out to me: "Hey, why did you paint over me?"  Turns out it was this guy Maconha, and he wasn't happy about what I'd done to his masterpiece.  He was rude to me right off, and I'm not the deer-in-the-headlights kid from New England I used to be, so I responded in kind.  I said he had entered into the area I had painted, he denied it, I told him I had photos, and he walked off.

I realized immediately that my painting was in jeopardy.  A lot of these guys look for excuses like this to create beef, some of them enjoy it.  Some people have speculated that these guys crowded my work deliberately as a form of disrespect and then jumped at the opportunity when I crossed the line, no pun intended.  I mentioned to a couple people that I thought my piece would get trashed, and sure enough it did.  Let's have another look at it:

Two weeks of work destroyed in thirty seconds.  "Fuck U.S.A" (sic) is quite legible, the scribble next to it reads... "Bongos."  As in my neighbor, who always has been friendly to me, who is (was) my 'friend' on Facebook.  Note the splatters of silver paint below the signature.

Now I may not be the deer-in-the-headlights kid anymore, but I'm not the quickest draw south of the equator either, so my immediate thought was that this guy Maconha had destroyed my work and written Bongos so I'd blame him instead.  I was so convinced of this that I posted in our WhatsApp graffiti groups that I wanted to talk to Bongos to make sure it wasn't him (he's always been cool with me!) before I started accusing this other guy.  And it's a good thing that I didn't accuse the other guy, because I looked at some of Bongos' stuff online and I realized it was exactly the same.  I had messaged him on The Facebook to get in touch with me (I doubt it was you, but if it was I need to know) and he hadn't replied, but when I asked if it really was him he admitted it.  I asked him what the hell and he said speaking in person would be better.  Agreed.  That's the last I've heard from him.

I was enraged.  I'm still really pissed, and I feel like an idiot for defending the guy, but I'm starting to calm down.  This is extremely important: I need to calm down.  Doing something stupid will only make the situation worse.  If I was twenty years younger and six inches taller and had more of an attitude I might start a war with the dude, but I absolutely cannot do that - I have way too much to lose.  As I mentioned I have very little time, I don't want to spend what time I have writing over his tags and having him write over mine.  Not to mention that I spend about fifty hours a week in a tiny store by myself which is well known to all the graffiteiros and pixadores.  I don't want to be looking over my shoulder.  I will not walk around with a weapon.  I am exquisitely unprepared, both in terms of my disposition and in my role as business owner and father, to take on a stupid fight with a pixador.

And he knows that, which is probably why he did it.

Which brings us to the next question: why the hell did he do it??

My best bet is that he is a friend of Maconha's, and 'bought the fight' from him.  Let me mention the fact that this guy Bongos is studying for his master's in philosophy, if I'm not mistaken.  Or at least he was.  Showed up at the store with a book by Sartre one time, which really surprised me, especially considering how little most Brazilians like to read in general.  So he's not just some bonehead moron.  But then I discovered something on his profile:

Before I go any further let me make a tiny disclaimer.  Although I was his Facebook friend and I am not anymore, this post of his is available for public consumption - anyone can look at it.  So I'm not exposing his private photos.  And Bongos is not his real name either, obviously.

What the picture says is 'White Imperialism, not here!' and it shows presumably his hand and presumably the same can of silver paint he used to trash my piece - it obviously leaked and there are splatters of silver paint all over the piece.  He probably bought the fucking can in my store.

Now I hate to jump to conclusions, hence the 'presumablys' in the previous paragraph, but 'Fuck USA' + silver paint + Bongos on my piece = am I the imperialist he is referring to?  I honestly don't know, but this makes me very uneasy.

I showed these photos to some other pixadores who know him.  I'm showing the photos to everyone, it's the closest thing I can get to justice, getting everyone to talk about it.  I may not paint as much as these guys but as the owner of the graffiti shop I know pretty much everyone in the scene.  The pixadores laughed long and hard.  I said if he wants to rail against imperialism, why isn't he painting up all the McDonald's and the Subways in the city?  As one of these guys pointed out: for that matter, why is he using Facebook?

So now I need to wait and see what he has to say for himself.  Not sure how long that's going to take, and I don't think pestering him is a good idea, although it is an option.  The best thing I could do is just 'swallow the frog' as they say here, and move on.

One last thing: another possible motivation for what he did?  Envy.  Dude paints way more than I do, but I could paint once a year and I'd still have way more skills than he ever will.