By Sarah Coursey, EditorRIO DE JANEIRO – It’s easy to miss Smael. The 29-year-old graffiti artist could easily be mistaken for a college student, and certainly not one of Rio’s premiere graffiti artists. When he gets to talking, all toothy grin and wide eyes behind smart spectacles, it becomes clear that while his mannerisms may be unassuming, his mark on Rio’s contemporary art scene is forthright. With expositions from Copacabana to Paris, the artist moves comfortably in international circles and keeps his hands busy with works on canvas, street art and an upcoming clothing line.
Rio was a late adapter to graffiti in Brazil. In the late 90s, with Rio graffiti still in its infancy, São Paulo was nearing the two-decade mark of its entry to the scene, born with tagging in the favelas. When the first Carioca pieces started appearing on buildings in 1998, Smael’s work as a member of the Nação Crew helped pave the way for the now-famous Santa Crew, whose work now dominates the streets of Santa Teresa. Despite Rio’s relatively short history in graffiti, Smael noted, “Today, Sao Paulo’s work is very homogenous, and in Rio there are many schools of graffiti styles and more variety, and there’s a lot of freedom in that.”Smael noted the political and social distincton between taggers, or those that put their own names or the names of their ‘crew’ on a wall, and graffiti artists, those creating figurative pieces now considered works of art in their own right. Smael commented,” The tagger wants to put his name on the wall, to be famous, and is a vandalist, but the graffiti artist is interested in aesthetics and community.”
Smael recognizes the value of promoting graffiti as the preferred street art form, and believes it can help the less fortunate. “Graffiti has created a new horizon for young people that have gone on to become artists and teachers. There are cases in which drug traffickers are now graffiti artists. It’s a gateway to a new perspective on life for the poor in favelas who don’t have other opportunities.”
The Brazilian government went as far as to pass the law 706/07, proposed in August of 2008 and approved in March of this year, effectively decriminalized graffiti while weighing heavier punishments on taggers. The law recognizes the artistic and cultural value of graffiti, and is considered by many artists to be the medium’s long-awaited and official stamp of approval. This came years after the forward-thinking Prefeitura of Rio’s project “Não pixe, grafite” (Don’t Tag, Graffiti) in 1999, which brought together 35 graffiti artists, each with their unique style; an initiative which inspired Smael to get his start.
When the Prefeitura came out in support of graffiti artists, Smael was frequenting the now-legendary Zoeira parties, hip-hop events responsible for launching artists such as Marcelo D2, now a household name. The events inspired the artists and vice versa, creating a community of like-minded people who shared their passion for art and music in the early days of Carioca graffiti.
It didn’t take long for Smael to emerge from the underground scene into the commercial gallery world. In 2003, just four years after he bought his first spray cans, his works on canvas were sold in the since-closed Haus Gallery, part of the Casino Atlantico complex in Copacabana. Smael’s art is now exclusively represented by the Inox Gallery, in the same location. On August 13, he will be the subject of a joint show at the gallery with São Paulo artist Alexandre Orion. His work is also on display in Santa Teresa at the posh pousada Castelhino 38, until August 2.
More information on the artist can be found at www.smael.com.br.