By Candy Pilar Godoy, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Nestled between Santa Teresa and Cinelândia is the neighborhood of Lapa, an enchanting district full of dilapidated architecture, colorful characters, and Samba filled bars. Yet amongst the grit, grime and sweat of Lapa’s bleeding heart comes a diamond in the rough – the steps.
Known as Escadaria Selarón (Selarón’s Staircase) the famous stairway is made up of 250 steps and measures 125 meters long. They connect the neighborhoods of Santa Teresa and Lapa, leading from Rua Joaquím Silva up to Rua Pinto Martins.
Their splendor is not only due to size, but to décor; the steps are adorned in over 2,000 brightly colored tiles from more than sixty different countries. They have been featured in everything from Fanta commercials to the pages of National Geographic, with their international recognition growing to include appearances in music videos, documentaries, newspapers, and travel shows. Most recently they appeared in Rio’s poignant 2016 Olympic video bid “The Passion Unites Us”.
The stairway, with its impressive size and bold colors, attracts tourists from all over the globe who come to admire, take photos and donate tiles from their homelands. “It’s massive,” said a visitor from France, “I had to come and see it for myself.”
Yet perhaps more interesting than the steps themselves is the history behind them. If you grace them you’re bound to see him – Jorge Selarón, the Chilean born artist behind the steps. If the stairs give off the aura of a magical realm, then Selarón is head wizard.
“I’m a genius!” declared Selarón, “I made the most fantastic staircase ever in the history of humanity. In Rio de Janeiro! Because it couldn’t have happened in any other city!”
Born in 1947, Selarón left his hometown in Chile to travel the world at the tender age of seventeen. He journeyed to 57 countries, staying anywhere from a few weeks to a few years, before landing in Brazil in 1983. He became captivated by the Cidade Maravilhosa and decided to stay put. “There is nothing like Rio,” said Selarón, “Name any other city…Rio is 1,000 times better.”
In 1990 Selarón began work on the decrepit stairway outside of his house. He had little money or food, and no experience with sculpture. “I had never done a sculpture. Not even a small one,” he said.
He began adding to the steps using whatever he could get his hands on. Tiles found in urban waste piles, mirrors and original paintings covered the steps, with Selarón modifying and replacing visually unappealing pieces whenever he had extra money. He started to feature the color red, claiming “there are certain colors, particularly red, that bring joy wherever they are.”
The steps were slowly transformed from a decaying brown mass to a whimsical mosaic cascade. After ten years of work came a spot in a Fanta commercial, and the resulting deserved recognition. The stairway’s popularity increased and it was soon a sightseeing staple for tourists.
The eccentric 63-year-old explains it as a constantly mutating piece of art, ever-changing as more tiles and inspiration pour in. “It’s like if the stairway was alive. It’s always changing and becoming more beautiful…You see and feel the difference.”
And when will the steps of Lapa, his labor of love, finally finish? “’This crazy and unique dream will only end on the day of my death” says Selarón.