Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunday is Street Art Day - Once Again

"Não Pode," or you can't, the guy said to me, looking a little worse for wear with his missing teeth and marginal flip-flops.

"Do what?" I asked, but I knew very well he was telling me not to paint where I was painting, wich was on some plywood surrounding a construction site.

"You can't paint there," he said, but he used the verb pichar, which is used for the Brazilian form of tagging. Most of the rest of the construction enclosure was pretty well covered with tags.

"But I'm not tagging. I'm painting." I explained, which was quite literally true, I was using an actual paintbrush and acrylic to fill in a drawing that I then outlined with markers. "This is much nicer than tagging. If I paint this here, the taggers will leave it alone." This was all true, even if the first part is my opinion. Pichadores respect the work of others, for the most part, and vice-versa. It should also be said that you can pichar with normal paint too, although this is generally done with rollers and not 1/4 inch paintbrushes.

"What is it?"

"A machine"

"What does it do?"

"I don't know."

"Huh- you're the one painting it and you don't even know."

With that dismissal he crossed the street and sat down with the Shovel Guy. These two were apparently 'employed' watching over the construction site, protecting it from Pichadores and other miscreants like myself.

Evani doesn't like it that I go out by myself to paint on Sundays. She thinks it's dangerous, and she's probably right. Even though the spot in question is on one of the primary streets here in Salvador, and during the week it is swarming with people and vendors, on Sunday is is essentially deserted and left to the homeless and other charming fellows like Shovel Guy and his scruffy companion.

Shovel Guy proved Evani's point when he got my attention about a half hour earlier by banging a shovel against the curb just behind me. He wasn't trying to knock any dried cement off of it even though some did come off, and he wasn't planning on doing any digging either. The shovel was clearly meant to intimidate and/or scare me off. Ask anyone who's been hit over the head with a shovel if it's not an effective weapon. And this guy had gotten right up behind me with it and I hadn't even noticed- that's what Evani's concerned about. I get all involved in what I'm doing and I don't really pay attention to the people who might want to threaten me with a shovel, so they are forced to bang it on the ground until I notice.

In response I said "Tudo bem?" or How's it going? in my most disarming, naive gringo manner (not entirely an act) and he crossed the street to sit down in a beat up chair, declaiming loudly "Desgraçado quer riscar as coisas dos outros," which means Bastard wants to draw on other people's things, more or less, which to some people might be fightin' words, but I'm not a fightin' type. I just kept painting, as he sat down and glowered at me, and I tried to paint faster.

As I worked to finish up the piece, I was thinking about what I should do, and what might happen to my nascent piece of street art. I wondered if I would be able to finish it, and if so, what the expected life span of the completed piece would be. These two guys were clearly not impressed with the fine artwork I was creating, but on the other hand, they hadn't stopped me, at least not yet. They sat there staring at me and I wished I had my camera with me so I could take a picture in case they decided to paint over it right away. I was only about a ten minute walk from my house but these guys were clearly aggrieved. I thought how I could possibly defuse the situation- maybe offer to buy them some beers but I didn't know how I should go about it. I painted as quickly as possible, and then started outlining everything with a sharpie.

All of a sudden, Scruffy called out to me - "Ei," he said, and motioned me over. Here it comes, I think, and go over to where they are sitting.

"Give us 100 reis," he says, or at least that's what I think he says: the words Cinco and Cem are theoretically confusable and he has no teeth in the front of his mouth, plus I'm partially deaf. "That guy that was over there checking you out is in charge of the construction and he's not happy- he's going to tell us to paint over all of this, maybe even today, but if you give us 100 reis I'll talk to him." I had noticed a guy, much better dressed than these two, but if he was annoyed by what I was doing he certainly hadn't seemed it. If he was in fact the guy in charge.

I could have told him that painting over it was pointless, that the pichadores would just tag it all over again, and so it was in their best interest to leave something attractive there and be done with it. I thought to mention that the Guy in Charge hadn't looked too upset to me, but I didn't feel like arguing and they wouldn't have cared anyways. I was being shaken down and I knew it, so I did a quick mental calculation of the money in my pocket versus the potential temporary reprieve for my painting, and I said "One hundred reis??"

"Five reis. And we'll talk to the guy." All reasonable now, no more glowering. Glowing a little bit even, knowing victory was at hand.

Just handing them the cash seemed too demeaning, and plus I now had my opening. "You guys want some beers?" I said. They liked this idea, liked it a lot actually. Suddenly they were all happy and we were all friends. Scruffy told Shovel Guy to get some cachaça for himself and beers for the rest of us. I gave him six reis and he left. Scruffy told me to go back to my painting, in the most encouraging manner possible.

Shovel Guy left and then he came back, without the beers. Scruffy had already disappeared back within the construction enclosure. I finished painting. I would have liked a beer, but I certainly didn't expect one. I considered just waking off, but that seemed really stupid- I had face to save. So I went over to where Shovel Guy was sitting.

"Couldn't get the beers, eh?" I said."

"No, the other guy is getting them. He'll be back in a minute."

"Well I'm done painting. I'll be back in fifteen minutes." I planned to run home and get my camera- I wanted a photo of my handiwork as soon as possible.

"You going to take a shower?" Shovel Guy is now my best buddy. Super friendly.

"Yeah, I'm going to take a shower. I'll be back in fifteen minutes to get my beer."

Man, these Brazilians are so clean. I have never met a people so taken with showers. They may be scruffy, like Scruffy, or barefoot, like Shovel Guy, but they'll take two or three showers a day if they can.

I came back with my camera and of course Shovel Guy was gone. That's okay- I certainly wasn't surprised. The important thing was that my painting was still there, and here it is:


I have mentioned before on this blog that I consider Salvador to be a graffiti/street art utopia- you can go out during the day and paint a wall for several hours and nobody will bother you- all the Graffiteiros and Pichadores and street artists like myself all respect each other and don't paint over one another's stuff. In the developed world, where this sort of thing is considered a crime, artists who want to paint in a very public, high-traffic area like this one either do tags or throw-ups, since they can be done quickly, or they do the hard work at home making stencils or preparing wheatpastes that can then be put up quickly. What I was doing would be completely impossible without express permission from the owner- hand-painting a piece that would take me an hour or more due to its complexity. My mistake was that I did it on private property. I would never paint on someone's house, although I consider temporary structures like the one I worked on fair game and much improved as a result of my efforts. If I'd done the same thing on an abandoned building, or some retaining wall or underpass owned by the city, nobody would have bugged me and I wouldn't have been out six reis. But the way I look at it is: this is a prime spot on one of the main drags in Salvador. Hundreds of people will see this painting every day, until it gets painted over or the enclosure is taken down. It cost me six reis, and I think it was worth it.

In other street art news, when I went home for my camera I grabbed some stickers that I finished a few weeks ago. I put them up too:



Last week I did my first 'graffiti piece,' or 'spray-paint mural,' depending on how you choose define these things, in a couple months. I have been planning this one since before I went to the United States in July, and finally it is finished:


My collaborations with Lucas are ongoing:


And finally, I have prepared some pieces for the Street Art Without Borders project, which I will be sending to Paris, where they will be distributed across the globe:


More info about this project at urbanhearts.com.

And post-finally, I got an invite to submit work to a street art show in Tehran! How cool is that?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Smile When You Call Me 'Trash Picker'

Yesterday a store in the same building as our video rental place caught fire. It was a repair shop for hairdryers, and apparently there was some kind of short circuit, which is generally not real surprising when you get a lot of hair dryers together in the same place. Luckily, nobody got hurt and due to the nature of most of the construction here in Salvador the fire was pretty much contained to the one store.

I walked by yesterday as they were hauling big bags of charred trash out to the front of the building yesterday. It stank of burnt plastic, a smell I will always associate with living in New York City during the aftermath of 9/11 - all of lower Manhattan reeked of burnt plastic for weeks afterwards.

I was eyeing the trash, and ignoring the smell.

I'm the kind of guy who keeps a list of things I need, or might need, in my head at all times and if I see free stuff that is potentially useful I compare it against the mental list, searching for a fit. I also keep a supply of (some would say dubious) materials at home in case I have a job I need to do, and if I need something, I compare the need against the materials at hand.

I had a match. It wasn't in the big, stinky bags full of charred whatnot, thank goodness. It was a set of steel utility shelves. I already have a couple of these, but I have many things that do not have shelves so I have been looking for new shelves to put the things on. Steel is without a doubt the material of choice for this kind of thing here, as wood attracts termites, plastic sags under any amount of weight, and particle board just kind of dissolves in the humidity.

There were actually several sets of shelves, but most of them were completely blackened and twisted and useless- the one I spotted had what looked like some nasty plastic/smoke/carbon glaze on the half or so, along with some melted dryer parts stuck to it, but the bottom was pretty much fine.

I wanted it.

I went inside and checked out the black orifice that used to be the store. Several people were taking dozens, maybe hundreds, of charred hairdryers and putting them into big cardboard boxes. The storefront directly in front of the ex-store had had it's plastic sign completely melted and dripping from the heat. I asked them where the owner was, and would they be interested in selling the shelving out front. When I tracked the guy down, looking very occupied and solemn, he didn't think twice- he said sure, took what I offered without argument, and went back to the probably thousands of other things that he had to deal with at that moment. One of the ladies who had been filling boxes with hairdryers helped me sweep the debris off the shelves. I told her: "My wife is going to kill me."

My wife really doesn't approve of the bringing-trash-home ethic I have cultivated over the years. It should be said I don't do it very often- there are lots of other people here with a much more vested interest in anything that is free and possibly of value, so the pickings are slim. And homeless people will sometimes try to sell trash that is 'theirs,' which usually doesn't interest me. Not like the good old days in New York. There, you can brag with like-minded trash pickers about the great stuff you found for free sitting on the sidewalk. The wife doesn't see it that way. Generally it's just trash to her, and since she's a clean person, she doesn't want trash around. Fair enough.

But you gotta have vision in this world!! I mean, if you look at the pictures of my house before I bought it, you'd have thought it was a piece of trash as well. And it kind of was. But I saw through that, just like I saw through the blackened smoke scum on the shelving to the wonderful, orderly, tool-storing shelves they will become!

Then, as I lugged the rather heavy shelves back to the house, I started to think about what Evani might object to. Being rather superstitious, I thought she might think it was a bad idea to bring something that had been in a fire into our own house. And I, not being entirely un-superstitious, started to agree with her. Suddenly I wasn't so sure about my marvelous find.

To her credit, Evani was more alarmed by the black gunk on my hands and clothing than by the actual shelves themselves. Maybe she's getting used to my scrounger ways. As it turns out, she saw some designer on TV take a set of these shelves, paint them red, and stick them in a bathroom, and said they looked great.

I like this idea. I'm going to buy some red paint for them.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Looks Like Fun

Saturday we tried to go to the itinerant amusement park that passes through here about once a year. Wouldn't you know it- after a beautiful day, it decides to start raining as we are all en route in the car. My stepson was not pleased. The backup plan was the mall, where Ruan had informed me they had this 'Happy Ball' thing going on...


Man, they didn't have stuff like this when I was a kid.


Too bad it was fiendishly expensive for all of five minutes or I might have tried it myself. Good thing I had my camera with me so we can relive those glorious five minutes many times over.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Collaborations

Sunday is generally the day I get out to make street art, if I can pull it off. It's also a family day, and often these two agendas come into conflict. Well, maybe not anymore.

I took Lucas to the park with me one day and brought a bag of oil sticks and chalk, determined to get a drawing in even with the child in tow. I gave him the chalk, and drew with the oil sticks, and he was more or less satisfied:


I drew a line and said you draw on one side, and I'll draw on the other. Of course, his half washed away in the next rainstorm...

I tried this again a couple weeks later and he wasn't satisfied with the impermanent medium- clearly, he wanted to use the same materials I was using! Plus the paintstick colors were much better than the chalk. He finally wore me down and I let him do his first 'permanent' piece of street art:


The scene was repeated a week later:


With this result:


Believe it or not, I won't let him draw anywhere with anything. He recently drew on one of our cabinets in the house and I was not happy about it- he has the walls under the stairs as his free-for-all region. And when I let him draw in the street, I tell him where he can draw and where he can't. Yesterday we went to Pelourinho and we mostly did drawings with sharpie markers. Only draw on the paper, I told him:


Up until yesterday, I was just being an indulgent parent. But comparing the stuff he was drawing with what I was drawing, I think that he often came up with the better piece, and now I have to call him a collaborator. Check these out:



But by far my favorite picture of all of them is this one:


Way to go Lucas! In another five years I'll just hand the art supplies to you and hang out and take pictures.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Stratocasting

Today I started shopping around my poor neglected Fender Stratocaster. I brought it to four music stores within easy walking distance of my house to show it to the employees and leave my card, in case they know anyone who might be interested.

It was quite amusing to walk into the stores with my plain black gig bag, get the attention of the blasé employee, and then watch their eyes light up when I took the guitar out. Nobody bought it (I didn't expect anyone to) but man did I get some people excited. Strat copies are quite common here, as they are everywhere, but the real things are relatively rare and fairly valuable as a result. This one is particularly intriguing to those who know Stratocasters because it has a number of features that were produced by the company for a limited time only. And it's in really good shape.

What was really amusing to me about the whole exercise is that had I tried the same thing in the U.S. I would have been completely demoralized, and probably fuming, by the time I left the second store. Not only would this guitar have been much more commonplace in the U.S., but music store employees seem to make it their mission in life to cultivate a snotty, arrogant attitude with the customers- perhaps this is a coping mechanism for dealing with musicians. Or maybe it's because they are musicians. There's a great story by a cartoonist named Mary Fleener about snooty music store employees- I couldn't tell you were to find it, but if you ever get the chance you should read it.

Okay, I'm gonna be fair now- not all music store employees are assholes. I've met some really nice, real, laid-back people working in music stores. But I won't go back into the store where I bought the guitar I am now trying to sell because I didn't like the way I got treated in there a couple times.

None of this seems to apply here, or maybe I lucked into finding a way to do an end run on the snobbery. And I have been very impressed by the wealth of knowledge these people have about guitars, and Strats specifically. I've learned more about my guitar since I brought it to Brazil than in the rest of the twenty years I've owned it. They take their music seriously here, and if you don't believe me, go into any restaurant in the Pelourinho and check out the house musician- I've never heard one that wasn't at least very good. Then again, I'm not sure how many of those restaurants are still open... Pelourinho's been in free-fall for the last couple years...

The only guy who was at all negative about the guitar was a luthier that I showed it to- he said I could only expect to get half of what I'm asking for it here in Bahia, which would make it worth about as much as I could get for it in the United States, which means it wouldn't have been worth the hassle to cart the stupid thing down here in the first place. But I think he's wrong, or he may have been testing the Gullible Gringo waters to see if I'd bite.

Or he may have been right. In which case I'll be disappointed.

At any rate, it's time for this fine guitar to find it's way to someone who's going to play it a lot more than I do.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Flickr Fix

My mom told me on the phone yesterday that 'everyone misses me' on my blog. Well, to all fifteen of you that read this on a semiregular basis, I apologize. I won't go as far as to call myself something that rhymes with 'sad flogger,' but I will write a post, at least a quick one.

I actually have two unfinished posts in the queue since my last published one. I get into them a ways, lose momentum, and then never get back to them. One of them was actually pretty interesting from a drama-in-Brazil standpoint, maybe someday I'll get back to it.

So what's been up with me? Well, the family aside, way too much work, which is too boring to write about, and then my latest obsession, which has been to beef up my Flickr presence.

I pay 25 bucks a year for the privilege of unlimited uploads to Flickr.com. I post lots of photos, I participate in various groups, and I submit pictures of my artwork to them whenever I make something new. It's been fun, and I've been at it for a couple years. Because of Flickr I discovered just how much of a global phenomenon the sticker thing is, and discovered wheatpasting and my other current obsession and favorite medium industrial oil stick markers, aka 'streaks.'

But one thing that was starting to really bother me was my Flickr stats. Flickr tells you how many times your pictures have been viewed, how many people call each one a 'favorite,' how many comments you've gotten on each one, etcetera etcetera. They even have some mystical algorithm for 'interestingness' to figure out which are you most... interesting pictures.

To put it bluntly, my stats didn't rate and I didn't like it. I'd look at some other people's pictures and they would have been viewed hundreds of times and have dozens of comments and I was left saying why not me too? So about six weeks ago I set out to try to boost them stats.

The obvious way to do this is, well, to take great pictures I suppose, but barring that you need to participate in the community. So I started adding 'contacts' and 'favoriting' lots of photos and writing 'comments.' This hopefully makes me more visible and makes more people like me and make all those numbers surrounding my images larger.

It's been kinda fun, although a lot more work than I would have expected. I recently broke the 200 contacts threshold, which is a good start, but some of these people have five hundred or a thousand contacts. I would like to get to 500. And I'd like to actually be familiar with the photos and artwork of those contacts. That's part of what's making it so slow- I won't just add a person, I want to make sure they actually take pictures/make artwork that I like, and then I add them. Being somewhat picky, that takes a while. I've gotten into a kind of pattern: cruise one of the many groups I belong to until I spot an image that I like. Then I look at the rest of the person's photos, and 'favorite' a couple of them. Then I decide if I'll make them a contact. Often, the person will then make you a contact (I always do) which is the whole object of the thing- if you are their contact, then they're more likely to see your new pics and make comments and blah blah blah!!

It suddenly occurs to me that all this might be very boring to anyone who isn't into Flickr, or online networking, or anything like that. So I'll try to keep it short and relatively interesting.

I started out adding lots of graffiti and street art contacts, as that was my Flickr entry point. Then I started to get bored of that, so I began adding lots of visual artists working in other media. I'm a firm believer that if you want to be an innovator in one thing, you have to have strong influences from other things. Then you start innovating.

But the best thing about the whole process has been finding all these fantastic artists from around the world, who are making incredible stuff and posting it online for everyone to see. Here's a few of my faves:

  • Binho Martins, from here in Brazil, who paints on canvas as well as making tattoos and street art
  • Enrico infidel D'Elia Righetti De Angelis, from Rome, who does fantastically intricate drawings and bizarre portraits
  • Insane, who is my current favorite graffiti artist, from São Paulo
  • Meredith Dittmar, from Portland, Oregon, who makes fantastic sculptures out of 'polymer clay' (Fimo and the like)
Wait a minute, you are saying, Isn't this Flickr site supposed to be about photography?

And then you remember: Hold on, didn't you major in photography in college?

Where's all the photographers??

Yeah, yeah. Photographers. There's lots of photographers on flickr too. And technically most or all of these other artists are photographers too, unless they're getting someone else to take pictures of their work. But the truth is, I'm not in it for the photography. I'm trying to immerse myself in the other visual arts, and I can find lots of inspiring stuff right here on my laptop.

I started out this whole thing trying to make a parallel effort on fotolog.com, which is the preferred photo community of most of the graffiteiros around here. But I gotta confess- I don't like it very much. It has none of the bells and whistles of Flickr, and is kind of dumb. If you've already added someone as a contact, it still asks you if you want to add that person as a contact. Yo, Web 2.0 people! Let's get with the program! I did however find at least one artist I really like on the site, this guy Mateo who lives in Germany.

So what's the upshot of this whole thing? I currently have 213 contacts, and 143 of them call me a contact. Someone added me as I was writing this post. I have one photo that has been viewed 38 times since I started this six weeks ago.

I'm still getting almost no comments.

And almost nobody is favoriting my images.

Which brings me to the unfortunate question: are my pictures just not that interesting?

Or am I not trying hard enough?

Maybe things will look different when I have 500 contacts.