By Doug Gray, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Complimenting Rio’s natural beauty perfectly, even helping to blur the line between the sea and hillsides and the gray asphalt roads, Carioca graffiti is among the most prevalent, eye-popping and colorful to be found in any major city in the world.
Despite blowing up in New York in the mid-70s, the art form in Brazil is still a relatively new phenomenon, and its arrival in Rio at the end of the 1990s was sudden, stealth-like and unstoppable, with the artists often given a shrug of the shoulders from the authorities that would be the envy of anyone arrested for spray-painting in a New York subway.
Leading the movement was Toz, aka Tomaz Viana, a Bahiano who moved to Rio in 1990 and is currently one fifth of the ever-morphing Flesh Beck Crew that he founded in 1998. As a direct result of their early work at a time when the walls of Zona Sul were untouched, previously confined artists were drawn out of their bedrooms and their work was thrust directly in to the public eye.
“Everyone who drew at home then hit the street,” Toz begins. “Sure there were taggers before us but their black lettering on the walls was gang related, by organized football crews and those immersed in the roots of early baile funk. Their audacity more than their style inspired me, seeing the letters in the highest places. I loved the challenge of getting the best location for your tag”.
The new art was different. When the police approached Toz in the early days and denounced him for tagging he simply replied he wasn’t, he was creating a work of art, and they largely took a step back, looked at it and told him to carry on if they liked what they saw.
“Of course I’ve been taken to the police station and so on, but they just asked what I was doing, I explained and they told me to be on my way. It’s all luck. There is no ‘no’ in Brazil, culturally we don’t behave like that. There is always a way around a situation, and Rio is the capital of that mentality. Unless they don’t like the way you talk to them or something specific about what you’re painting the police will let you be.”
Through his characters – a baby boy, a girl called Nina, and a team of ghosts – Toz has been brightening up the walls of Rio for over ten years, and in the process become one of the most iconic and successful local artists of his generation, with commissions for Coca Cola and Nike and his own gallery in Copacabana.
“Some people see my work as childlike, but the characters represent much more than that. Nina represents women and womanhood, and the baby looks young but also old, giving the male perspective on life. I know how men can be – trying to be macho but also very boyish and immature too. We are a pop culture generation who grew up on cartoons, Disney and so on, and our generation ‘gets’ what I do.”
Though not specifically representing his wife, Nina’s appearances in his work across the city often reference in some way the relationship he has with Maria Clara, a professional on the international beach volleyball circuit. Together they make quite the quintessential Carioca couple, but his success has drawn some negativity from the scene he helped begin.
“Since 2004 graffiti in Rio has become commercial, it can now be a profession. As soon as you have success or start painting and selling canvases there are people who will say you are no longer true to your roots. Graffiti is my passion though. I still paint on the street and always will.”