Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sunday is Graffiti Day - The One That Got Away

Today I planned to paint my biggest piece yet. I did quite a bit of planning for this one actually; making several sketches, buying spray and latex paint, mixing up an acceptable shade of light blue and getting all my cans, rollers and assorted gear together. Unfortunately, things didn't end up going according to plan.

As with my last big piece, I was pretty nervous setting out. The location I had picked out, and marked for myself some weeks ago, is right off a major artery in the city and directly in front of the huge supermarket where we get most of our groceries. It was going to get a lot of 'eyeballs' as they say in marketing. Evani told me, as she has in the past, that I was nuts to go out and do something like this by myself, but as it was a very public location and I was doing it during the day I wasn't worried.

When I set out with Evani (who I left at a bus stop on the way), I remarked at how lucky I am to have a car to lug all my stuff around. This was to be a big painting, and I had a five gallon bucket of latex paint, plus two single-gallon buckets, plus two bags of cans, a plastic stool to stand on, water to drink, etc. Much more than I could have lugged to the spot by hand. There was a 'striped-off' area of the asphalt right in front of the intended wall, so I just pulled my car into it and got started. Sunday is a very low traffic day here, so I didn't think I'd be causing any problems by parking there.

I had written Kuza vai voltar, which means 'Kuza will be back,' which I thought was pretty clever- I amuse myself quite easily.

Things started out pretty well- I spent a long time scraping off the shitty white paint that had been slapped on to cover the last round of political campaign nonsense and a lot of the many layers of posters and other political campainging beneath it. The area was free of big burners, although it did have some crappy throw-ups next to where I was painting, a couple of them by graffiteiros capable of much more polished work. I had a feeling the wall hadn't been messed with because of its lousy surface- as I mentioned in my last graffiti related post, the good graffiteiros turn their noses up at a wall that presents problems and may flake off. What was more surprising is that no pichadores have hit this wall yet with one of their fifty yard squiggly lines that makes the wall unavailable, according to local graffiti etiquette, to other artists. After about an hour I gave up scraping as the hopeless task that it was and started sketching, using up a bunch of almost empty cans I have had laying around forever.

As you can see, this one continues with the 'happy people' theme that was the subject of my last painting. I hope to do a bunch of these eventually. I kept moving everything to the left, because there was so much blank wall to work with. One guy I repainted four times. After finally getting the sketch to more or less where I wanted it, I started rolling the latex on. I had decided to fill up the background with arrows, partly because this is a classic element of graffiti, and partly because I have always loved arrows. When I was in seventh grade, I was kind of obsessed with them. I'm over that now. Pretty much.

As you can see, I was also finally getting out of the blast furnace of the tropical sun and very much looking forward to the shade. Having forgotten my hat and suntan lotion at home, I put a none too clean cloth that I keep in my car on my head and held it down with my respirator.

Luckily I had taken this off when The Guy came up to me.

The Guy asked, none too politely, if I had permission to paint there. I initially said yes, trying to feel out what was clearly a bad turn of events. The guy then told me that he was the owner of the wall, and the business contained within. I changed my story and told him I didn't actually have permission, and he changed his story and told me he wasn't the owner, he was actually the son of the owner.

There's a popular bumper sticker here in Brazil, or maybe it's just in Bahia, that reads Não sou dono do mundo, mas eu sou filho do dono, or: "I'm not the owner of the world, but I'm the son of the owner." I think this refers to the fact that the sons of bosses are often worse than the bosses themselves. Stories of the misdeeds of the children of the upper and middle classes are legion and bring new meaning to the term privileged, but The Guy clearly didn't fit into that category, he was way too scruffy looking.

I have had pretty good luck defusing confrontations with people by being extremely polite and reasonable. I called The Guy Senhor and stepped off the curb so I wasn't looking down at him. I said placating things. However, despite my best efforts The Guy wasn't going to be defused. To his credit, he didn't go batshit ballistic on me as I have seen Bahianos do with some frequency in my time here, and maybe my diplomacy helped in that regard. I told him I was going to make the wall look better, that what I was painting was a definite improvement to the present state it was in and would be much nicer than the throw-ups that were already painted there. He said no I wouldn't, and now I was going to pay, and he made the universal finger-rubbing 'pay' gesture. I was going to pay a fine. A five thousand real fine, which is about 2,270 USD according to my laptop. He wanted to know, again, who gave me permission to paint there. I told him nobody, but that folks constantly go out and paint graffiti without permission, which is true. He wanted to know who gave me permission to park my car there, and told me I'd get fined for that too.

This is when I started to get annoyed. I wasn't particularly concerned about a five thousand real fine, but he had no grounds to threaten me about my probably illegal parking job. Maybe The Guy really was the son of the owner of the wall, but sure as shit he's not the son of the owner of the road, and in a country where traffic laws are almost never enforced, especially non-moving violations on a Sunday, he was clearly power tripping and trying to scare me. When he made the finger rubbing gesture it occurred to me that he might have just been some random guy who saw a chance to shake me down for ten or twenty reis by threatening me with severe economic harm. If that was his intention, he was outta luck, as I had two reis in my pocket, and I wasn't prepared to give him a dime of it. I also didn't let him know I was annoyed.

What I did was offer to paint over what I had started. I told him I had plenty of white paint and I'd leave the wall just how I'd found it. We went back and forth a couple times until he was apparently satisfied and he told me he wanted to see my painting gone by tomorrow. As a parting shot he told me that they didn't accept this kind of vagabundagem around there. Vagabundagem describes the kind of thing a vagabundo would do, and calling someone a vagabundo (lowlife or vagrant, etc) is a pretty serious insult here in Brazil. I told him I was not a vagabundo and that I earn ten times more than he does. Actually, I only said half of that. It's also possible that I only earn five times what he does. I did call him an asshole under my breath as he finally walked away. But before that happened, he asked me again if Senhor Whoever, who was the actual owner of the place, had given me permission to paint there.

This last comment reinforced three doubts that had arisen during this confrontation: One, that he wasn't really the son of the owner, two, that maybe he'd been drinking and that's why he kept repeating himself, and three that he'd really only been after some money, perhaps to continue with his drinking. Or maybe he was wavering. I had another encounter with an owner where he ordered me to take something down and then changed his mind and said I could leave it up. But I wasn't going to take any chances- better to can the project and call it a day. If nothing else I'd get a good blog post out of it.

Now about that vagabundagem comment: this was silly for several reasons. First of all, clearly they did tolerate vagabundagem around there because part of the wall already had those throw-ups on it and nobody'd bothered to paint over them. Second, by not letting me paint there, he was guaranteeing more vagabundagem, because for sure some pichador is going to put some hideous squiggle down that wall before long. But as we respect the walls they have claimed, they likewise respect ours. Third, clearly this wall has been used many many times for political campaigning, and every Brazilian knows that politicians are the biggest vagabundos of all.

I had plenty of time to think about all this as I painted over what I'd started. Luckily, The Guy showed up before I had started using the good, expensive paint I'd bought- mostly I'd just used up those old cans that I've been trying to get rid of forever anyways. I thought about various things I could do to make the wall look nicer, but not upset the owner, like painting simple blue stripes or painting the name of the business in big letters where I'd been about to paint my piece. I discarded that idea since The Guy was such a jerk to me, but the next time a similar situation arises I might try it. I also considered, not for the first time, returning to the scene of the 'crime' in the guise of the pichador vagabundo that I'm not and painting a large erect phallus with a pair of hairy testicles on the wall. This was pleasing to think about, in a vengeful sort of way, but it goes against everything I believe about graffiti and what graffiti should be as part of a community, and also how to keep it popular with the general population. I wouldn't want my kid to have to walk by a six-foot painting of a penis every day.

So here's hoping two things: first, that I don't get any fines in the next couple days, and second, that the next painting makes it to completion. One more thing: my wife, from whom I expected a big I told you so when I told her what happened, was very sympathetic and said she was sorry the painting didn't happen.


lovelydharma said...

I love learning about the life and culture of a graffiteiro. I don't know, but I don't think there is a lot being written about it in Brazil -- it's really fascinating - esp. for those of u who don't have an inside view. Keep it up! You may have a book here...

What are some of the hallmarks of good graffiti in Brazil (Salvador)?
Could you take us on a tour? :-)

Sorry this one got away. I doubt you'd get a fine. The guy sounds like a total jerkoff - probably just messing with you.

markuza said...

That's a great idea, I should write more about the scene in general and some of the 'astros' in Brazilian graffiti and Salvador specifically. The scene here is still quite new so it's still evolving its own style. I can't help but think of myself as a graffiteiro-estrangeiro, because I don't think I fit the mold real well, if there is one...

My wife also thinks the guy was just messing with me, and also doubts I get a fine. He didn't write down my license plate number as far as I could tell.

Jesse said...

Interesting story- great post. I'm also sorry for the hassle with the jerk and that the painting could not/did not happen. I also agree potential magazine articles/book sections are happening here! I also dig the photo of you with the mask- classic!
peace, Jesse

markuza said...

Thanks Jesse- so where are all the PUBLISHERS?? I guess I could go looking for some rather than keep waiting to be 'discovered'- although I keep thinking that with my boundless talents somebody's going to catch on before long... ah yes, the photo- well at least one good thing came out of the afternoon. Good thing you can't see all the stains on that rag on my head :)

AkuTyger said...

I still would have gone back and painted the penis. What a tool.

markuza said...

I drove by there the other day and the wall is CRYING OUT to me to paint something- but several more level-headed people than myself have cautioned me against it- dude would probably come back with fists flying. There's lots of walls out there. But I haven't ruled it out entirely...