Graffiti Art or Vandalism: The São Paulo Debate

A Brazilian mayor orders the removal of murals and graffiti to make the “city beautiful”

Jason Hortillas
But public outrage on the definition of what is art has turned ugly. Is street art the heartbeat of a city? If the government decides to remove that pulse does it erase the identity of that culture? But what if the majority of your city welcomes graffiti and you still paint over it anyway? A former reality show host, now politician threatens to wipe out artistic freedom of expression. I know, when you think of a reality show politician Donald Trump comes to mind, but it’s someone else – another former host of The Apprentice, Mayor João Doria of São Paulo Brazil.

In the eyes of Doria and his “Cidade Linda” campaign, he’s similarly riding on the “great again” slogan, but the Portuguese phrase that translates to “beautiful city” works like addition by subtraction. No remorse for the deletion of art, Doria’s trigger finger is quick on his spray gun to cover it all in gray. The monochromatic color scheme like a Regis Philbin suit and tie combo is the start of a dystopian landscape where prison walls replace the vibrant colors of Sao Paulo streets. This is not hyperbole; Doria literally sprays painted over a mural in the city at the beginning of his term 2017.

Graffiti holds a negative tone to the establishment. Defacing property is usually the phrase that comes to mind. If you change the word graffiti into mural, semantics changes perception. But who decides this? If art is subjective, there is no definitive gauge to make a final ruling on who is a criminal and who artist.


In the wake of this initiative, Doria threw a bone to artists after protests proved the general public did not agree with his plans. Museu de Arte de Rua or The Street Art Museum would commission up to 150 local artists to the sum of $250 thousand dollars. Doria’s administration claims that subject matter will not be a factor in the artist selection process.

Here comes the overlying question: if you paint only in government sanctioned locations do you lose your title as a graf artist? Keep this in mind however – the previous administration, who was by far more graffiti friendly already had commissioned artwork. Why then would Doria make a proclamation of draping its art in gray and then decide to allow it in other places? It’s truly petty if the primary reason of this hoopla was to delete the legacy of his predecessor. Are artists willing to accept these tactics? Is the destruction of other art acceptable if your own work takes its place?

This is not a Spit tag sprayed over a RAMO burner (check out the film “Beat Street“). Less admired than the murals sprawled over town, tags indigenous to the region are called pichacão. Public opinion about the legitimacy of the tags and taggers called pichadores are divided. Known to hit residential buildings, lack the same kind of support. It seems like a mural or burner gets the thumbs up where the bombing of multiple tags in front of your crib is not a good look for resale value. It becomes a case of the fresh off the lot Lamborghini over the rundown Toyota. Yes, the Lambo turns heads while the Toyota is an eyesore – but are not both allowed to drive on the same road? Elimination of the Toyota then is asking any burgeoning artists to hand up their brush, or in this case, spray can.


You don’t get a masterpiece overnight. A SAMO tag was on the streets of New York years before you saw a Jean-Michel Basquiat in a gallery. Let’s say a never before Keith Haring doodle shows up on an old apartment drywall and watch how quick someone will rip that thing off its foundation and right to the auction block. Value is subjective. Let Sao Paulo serve as an example that even as major cities embrace graffiti and street art, the elite still call it delinquency, permit or not. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – it keeps the art form’s cultural history of rebellion intact.
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