Along with its globally inspired culinary scene, non-stop nightlife and shopping to go broke for — one of Sao Paulo’s greatest attractions is the striking abundance of brilliant art. And not just pieces on walls in the multitude of museums and galleries strewn across the massive city (though those constitute a significant draw in their own right that we’ll get to in a minute). This city’s unique treasure trove of art, unmatched anywhere, are the ubiquitous, vibrant urban galleries of graffiti that line block after block of this megalopolis.
While there are plenty of opportunities to spot the city’s roadside attractions from notable artists across town, the best one stop shop to take in a wide range of the local graffiti geniuses is Beco do Batman (Batman’s Alley) just off Rua Harmonia in the Vila Madalena district — a super arty corner of the city. It takes its “Batman” name from the comic book character, because walking into this paean to street art feels like falling into the beautifully inked pages of a strip — minus the “pow” “bam”. The most disjointed, trippy comic strip in the world. Only 500 ft long, the curved alley is COVERED, top to bottom, with the most jaw-droppingly fantastic street art anywhere. From huge pieces by established names who sell their artwork in top galleries around the world — like the twin brothers named Os Gemeos — to smaller, similarly striking pieces by up and coming stars of the graffiti world. And unlike most museums or even galleries, Batman’s art is not only on view 24/7 but also constantly changing, evolving. It’s an open canvas on which young talents can show off their skills, and announce their arrival in the graffiti big leagues. Even the most dubious art snobs will leave with a new appreciation of the term “street art.”
Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t be. Just give a call to our tour guide, Flavia Liz Di Paolo, a call (or check out her English site here) and get ready for an insiders look at the art of Sao Paulo.
The Art Tour Continues
While in Vila Madalena neighborhood, take advantage of the many fine art galleries dotting the area. First stop, Galeria Vermelho, which was fashioned out of three workers’ houses – to maintain the look of the area. One of the better-known art galleries in Sao Paulo, Vermelho is mainly focused on young Brazilian contemporary artists who use all forms of media in their work, like one of their artists they represent, Cedu.
Next up, stop in at Choque Cultural, which is awash in local artists. Dealing mostly in graffiti and graphic design work, they wisely help promote this Sao Paulo art form by selling prints at very reasonable prices — as low as a hundred reals (about $60). And for those who can’t make it down there in person, they have an excellent online print shop.
Another gallery of note, on the newer side, is Spray, owned by Rui Amaral: pioneer of Sao Paulo street art by night and University professor by day. His gallery has pieces from graffiti artists who worked around the city but also internationally known street artists like Shepard Fairey. When asked why he thinks street art is so prevalent in Sao Paulo, Rui’s answer is perfect, and logical, “the city is just so gray.”
For a bit of a change of scenery, my guide, Flavia, drove me to her friends’ hat shop, also in Vila Madalena. Not an obvious choice to go with the art tour…until you step into the madness of Du E-Holic, possibly the zaniest hat shop I’ve ever seen. (In case you’re wondering no, I guess I don’t really go into hat shops that often. But maybe I should.) It wasn’t even the hats themselves that made this store so bonkers. Though these are probably the first hats I’ve seen made of x-ray film , cement bags, and leather. But it’s about more than just the odd hats — it was also about the found art objects – pieces of furniture, toys, old cameras — that hold the hats. Looking at the little surprises glued on to the wall was just as fun as trying on the hats. Oh and did I mention the free popcorn? I know, a win all around.
After that quick detour we were back on full on artsy track, on our way to Galeria Zipper, another new contemporary gallery that focuses on young emerging Brazilian artists. Out of all the galleries we visited Zipper had the widest breadth of genres. There was some graffiti, some sculptors (a nice refreshing change), and even an entire exhibit consisting of photos of Legos – all by mostly unknown artists.
Down the block from Zipper is Baro Galleria, which unfortunately was in the middle of renovations so I wasn’t able to see too much but Flavia somehow got us into a small part of the gallery so I could get a quick look at a couple of pieces. Though the most interesting part of this gallery is actually across the street. Coletivo Amor De Madre which is basically a shop where the artists exhibiting in Baro can sell usable designs, from shovel chairs to samurai swords umbrellas. You know, just regular every day household objects. A smart idea, really. Normally all you can pick up in a museum shop is a couple postcards and maybe a book or two. But here you can own something by an artist that you admire at a reasonable price, which is actually useful — not that art isn’t useful. Like the awesome cassette tape doormat.
If you’re not so much into the gallery scene and are looking for something a little more mainstream (yes, I’m judging you) then worry not because Sao Paulo is filled to the brim with pretty spectacular museums. First off pick yourself up a Mapa Das Artes Sao Paulo, a map of the museums, galleries and art points of interest in the city. Again, the city is huge and it may be hard to see all the museums it has to offer, but at least with this map (it’s free in any cultural center) you can plan your trip out to get the most out of your day.
One of the must see museums in the city is the Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo (MASP). The building itself is a work of art. Built on four bright red columns in order to keep the view of the city, you won’t be able to miss this city landmark. The top floor has a massive portrait gallery with pieces from all the classical painters (Toulouse-Lautrec, Rembrandt, Gauguin) and plenty of modern artists. The second floor is a collection of only Brazilian artists. It’s a bit disjointed, jumping from still art to abstract but all in all it was fascinating to see the history of the country through its art. One issue, was the less than impressive gift shop. I know, I know. No one should go to a museum for the gift shop but there were so many pieces I wanted on postcards and they didn’t have any!
If you want to do something very Brazilian, head for the Museu do Futebol. Housed in the oldest soccer stadium in the city and only recently built, it’s completely interactive. So even if you’re a non-sports enthusiast you’ll still be entertained. A lot of it is in Portuguese, but really it’s soccer, how hard can it be to follow along?
One place that you must visit while in Sao Paulo is Ibirapuera Park. For one because it’s beautiful and second because it houses some of the city’s best museums. Make sure to check out Museum Afro Brasil. Fair warning – the entire museum is in Portuguese. Nothing is in English. So you may enjoy what you’re looking at but unless you have a native speaker with you, you probably won’t have any idea what it is. That said, go anyway. Seriously. This was really something else. An entire museum dedicated to the slave population that built the city, it’s not something you see every day. It really was unfortunate that I didn’t understand most of what I was looking at because there was a real sense of history exposing itself to me. But again, the place is full of energy and walking around, looking at the photos and traditional clothes was totally worth the confusion.
The other must see in the park is the Museu da Arte Moderna (MAM).The first modern art museum opened in Latin America (yeah, ALL of it), MAM holds a huge permanent collection of work along with temporary exhibits that range from interesting to just bizarre. When I went there was a room full of multicolored hammocks…Hmm. The most striking piece in the entire museum may actually be outside of it. The Os Gêmeos(twin brothers who practically defined the Brazilian graffiti scene) mural outside the museum is like something out of a dream. I probably spent as much time staring at that one wall as I did inside the museum. Frankly, if it’s a nice day (which it almost always is in Brazil) take a stroll around the sculpture garden, grab some food from the museum’s delicious cafe – which you’ll be desperately in need of if you’ve done this full tour.