The Street Art of Paulo Ito
In São Paolo, we were lucky to spend time with street artist Paulo Ito, who introduced us to Brazilian street art, and many of his incredible works. We find Paulo's work particularly intense and beautiful for its strong commentary about contemporary life in the city. The subjects of his paintings are often critical and controversial, but extremely relevant to urban life. Usually positioned in a specific location or temporal context, Paulo's works are emotionally driven: "I try to choose themes that bother me, and bother other people. I also like to paint something in relation to a specific day, like Valentine's Day or Christmas. I identify some of these topics through feelings of hate. Because if it touches me strongly, it probably will touch others."
Paulo began creating murals in 1997 at São Paulo State University of Campinas, where he and his friends would paint on campus. He graduated and realized that few people would be interested in his often sad and disturbing paintings—but he couldn't change his style. He did some commercial projects for small businesses, and that same year started to paint his own ideas in the streets. This is when met other graffiti artists and started to work with them.
Although Paulo tried to become a gallery artist, it was without success—most likely, in his opinion, because his work is raw and honest: "Now, I avoid painting on canvas because I don't like to sell things or to paint while having to think about selling" he says, "The paintings I do are the kind of thing that people aren't interested in buying. Although groups and street art crews in São Paulo are very collaborative and they paint together, art galleries or institutional projects involving money can, unfortunately, create competitive feelings between artists. There is also a rivality between fine-art artists and street grown interventionists—this is something I feel and hear in stories—but traditional artists won't talk openly about it. I think it's a dangerous business to produce art for a market; it operates in line with what is trendy, which can come and go."
In collaboration with Alex Senna.
"Galleries only worry about money. So, they only focus on the kind of art that offers them a nice commercial opportunity, and only on the street artists who are able to do these kinds of works. It is not always easy to transpose artists' works from walls to canvases or into some sellable bracket. There are risks in putting street artists in galleries, absolutely, and Brazil isn't the kind of place where people want to take these kinds of risks. They prefer to work with big names who are already well-known and established—but of course there are some exceptions."
When asked about political leanings in his work, Paulo explained, "I lean towards the left, but I try not to be for or against the right (or left). I think working with humor is important. You have to be careful not to point at anybody, because people can point at or criticize themselves. A lot of artists use themes of love and innocence in their work. I used to be romantic in terms of thinking about transforming art. But in order to create, it is indispensable for me to use a little bit of hate. I'm not trying to do political or social art, I'm just trying to produce something that makes sense to me, and to other people."
According to Paulo, in Brazil, colorful and inoffensive works are safe, popular and easier to sell. "There is also an over-rated valuation of colorful works. This points to popular conceptions that using more colors makes the art work look better, and is also related to the national identity of a tropical weather—but I think that this kind of thinking is linked to our poor educational system and a huge lack of cultural understanding. The sad thing is that not only poor people live this situation, our elite is also composed of very closed-mind people without culture and show low-cognitive skills. They are only worried about money, and try to follow European or USA cultural values. It's not unusual to hear that if unknown artists show their portfolios in galleries, that the first step to join the gallery pool is to have an individual show in Europe or USA."
In collaboration with Alex Senna.
With regards to sanctioned and unsanctioned work, Paulo is thoughtful to state that both the scale and time taken to produce his works affect his opinion: "Sometimes, I paint in unsanctioned spaces, sometimes not. It's all about what I'm going to paint. I will not risk hours of work with the possibility of not finishing the painting or having it be erased. For me, the work starts before the painting itself. I need to have an idea, to then find the right wall, to choose the right colors and the right location. I can't criticize rich people on a favela wall. Sometimes, to express the whole idea, it's necessary to paint the context around the main character, turning it into a complex scenario. In these situations, I prefer sanctioned space. If I want to paint something easier and smaller there's a lot of walls to do it on, and I don't have to ask for permission. A lot of graffiti writers are focused on vandalism that can have better and more interesting relationship with illegality. But it doesn't mean that they are more subversive compared with sanctioned productions that have a message too. Illegality doesn't means subversion, necessarily, and vice-versa."
Inspired by the movie “De la servitude moderne” about contemporary work as slavery.
Audiences for street art are generally pretty wide, with vastly diverse views. For Paulo, his works are an important way of communicating with people in the city. "I think that people need to be interested in street art or graffiti (or in the world) to understand my work, because some people will not pay attention and will only feel the colors. But some others have a more active mind and they will read the messages, or at least try to. Overcoming this first step, people will react and form their own opinion about the work, and this is the most beautiful moment—even if they have difficulties understanding, or if there's something I didn't express clearly in the painting. Different understanding that can be sometimes better or more interesting than the original idea."
More of Paulo's work: