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Sao Paulo street art debate over what makes cities livable

Associated Press logo Associated Press 3/24/2017 By SARAH DiLORENZO, Associated Press
In this March 20, 2017 photo, a child walks alongside a street murals in Sao Paulo, Brazil. A campaign to clean up and beautify Sao Paulo has come under fire after the city's new mayor painted over a series of well-known graffiti murals. (AP Photo/Andre Penner) © The Associated Press In this March 20, 2017 photo, a child walks alongside a street murals in Sao Paulo, Brazil. A campaign to clean up and beautify Sao Paulo has come under fire after the city's new mayor painted over a series of well-known graffiti murals. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

SAO PAULO (AP) — When completed in 2015, the mayor's office hailed the graffiti panels along Avenida 23 de Maio as Latin America's largest open-air mural — 70 works of street art stretching for more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) along a boulevard connecting a well-to-do district with the city center.

This Oct. 20 2011 photo shows a mural by street artist Eduardo Kobra along the Avenida 23 de Maio in Sao Paulo, Brazil. When completed in 2015, the graffiti panels were hailed by the mayor's office as Latin America's largest open-air mural - 70 works of street art stretching for more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) along the boulevard that connects a well-to-do district with the city center. (AP Photo/Andre Penner) © The Associated Press This Oct. 20 2011 photo shows a mural by street artist Eduardo Kobra along the Avenida 23 de Maio in Sao Paulo, Brazil. When completed in 2015, the graffiti panels were hailed by the mayor's office as Latin America's largest open-air mural - 70 works of street art stretching for more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) along the boulevard that connects a well-to-do district with the city center. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Then this January, they were painted over.

This March 23, 2017 photo shows panels painted gray to cover up murals along the Avenida 23 de Maio in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The removal of the murals was among the first acts of new Mayor Joao Doria's "Pretty City" campaign: a traveling circus of street cleaners and maintenance workers who install new trash cans, plant trees, pick up garbage and cover up graffiti around Sao Paulo every weekend. (AP Photo/Andre Penner) © The Associated Press This March 23, 2017 photo shows panels painted gray to cover up murals along the Avenida 23 de Maio in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The removal of the murals was among the first acts of new Mayor Joao Doria's "Pretty City" campaign: a traveling circus of street cleaners and maintenance workers who install new trash cans, plant trees, pick up garbage and cover up graffiti around Sao Paulo every weekend. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

It wasn't done by vandals or other graffiti artists, as often happens with street art, but by sanitation workers acting on the orders of Sao Paulo's new mayor, Joao Doria, a millionaire businessman and former host of "The Apprentice Brazil." The mayor even donned a pair of orange coveralls and wielded a spray gun to put a thin layer of gray paint over the murals — angering people who considered the paintings part of the city's cultural heritage and sparking a debate about what is art and what should be protected.

In this March 9, 2017 photo, street artist Eduardo Kobra poses for a photo in front of one his murals in Sao Paulo, Brazil. "Street art in Sao Paulo is a postcard for Sao Paulo," said Kobra, an artist who started out in street art known as "pichacao" , a generally monochromatic, rune-like calligraphy. (AP Photo/Andre Penner) © The Associated Press In this March 9, 2017 photo, street artist Eduardo Kobra poses for a photo in front of one his murals in Sao Paulo, Brazil. "Street art in Sao Paulo is a postcard for Sao Paulo," said Kobra, an artist who started out in street art known as "pichacao" , a generally monochromatic, rune-like calligraphy. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Removal of the murals was among the first acts of Doria's "Pretty City" campaign: a traveling circus of street cleaners and maintenance workers who install new trash cans, plant trees, pick up garbage and cover up graffiti around Sao Paulo every weekend. Doria says the goal is not just to clean up Sao Paulo but to restore Paulistanos' pride in their hometown.

In this March 22, 2017 photo, a man walks next to a mural created by street artist Eduardo Kobra, in Sao Paulo's Vila Madalena neighborhood, Brazil. Sao Paulo has long touted such colorful murals in tourist guides. (AP Photo/Andre Penner) © The Associated Press In this March 22, 2017 photo, a man walks next to a mural created by street artist Eduardo Kobra, in Sao Paulo's Vila Madalena neighborhood, Brazil. Sao Paulo has long touted such colorful murals in tourist guides. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Many in Sao Paulo have cheered the campaign for aiming at a widely despised style of street art known as "pichacao" — a generally monochromatic, rune-like calligraphy covering buildings across the city. Doria's administration has increased fines for pichacao, is installing cameras to catch practitioners, and encourages everyone, especially taxi drivers, to report it.

Sao Paulo Mayor Joao Doria smiles during a meeting in his office in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, March 23, 2017. A millionaire businessman and former host of "The Apprentice Brazil," Doria says his campaign to beautify Sao Paulo is not just to clean up the city but to restore Paulistanos' pride in their hometown. (AP Photo/Andre Penner) © The Associated Press Sao Paulo Mayor Joao Doria smiles during a meeting in his office in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, March 23, 2017. A millionaire businessman and former host of "The Apprentice Brazil," Doria says his campaign to beautify Sao Paulo is not just to clean up the city but to restore Paulistanos' pride in their hometown. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

But most Brazilians make a distinction between pichacao — derived from the Portuguese word for tar — and the colorful and pictorial street paintings they call "graffiti." The latter are largely tolerated, often celebrated and widely seen as linked to Sao Paulo's urban identity.

This March 22, 2017 photo shows a building facade covered with a style of street art known as "pichacao" in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. Many in Sao Paulo have cheered the mayor's clean up campaign that takes aim at the widely despised style of street art, a generally monochromatic, rune-like calligraphy that covers buildings across the city. (AP Photo/Andre Penner) © The Associated Press This March 22, 2017 photo shows a building facade covered with a style of street art known as "pichacao" in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. Many in Sao Paulo have cheered the mayor's clean up campaign that takes aim at the widely despised style of street art, a generally monochromatic, rune-like calligraphy that covers buildings across the city. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Many considered the murals on 23 de Maio a showcase for Brazil's vibrant graffiti art, and Doria's decision to paint over all but a few touched a nerve about what can be lost when cities revitalize blighted areas.

A man navigates his skateboard, backdropped by wall ramps defaced by a style of street art known as "pichacao", in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, March 23, 2017. Most Brazilians make a distinction between pichacao, which is derived from the Portuguese word for tar, and the colorful and pictoral street paintings that they call "graffiti." The latter are largely tolerated, often celebrated and widely seen as inextricably linked to Sao Paulo's urban identity.(AP Photo/Andre Penner) © The Associated Press A man navigates his skateboard, backdropped by wall ramps defaced by a style of street art known as "pichacao", in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, March 23, 2017. Most Brazilians make a distinction between pichacao, which is derived from the Portuguese word for tar, and the colorful and pictoral street paintings that they call "graffiti." The latter are largely tolerated, often celebrated and widely seen as inextricably linked to Sao Paulo's urban identity.(AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Some of Doria's critics tie the cleanup campaign to other parts of his business-oriented agenda: a privatization plan to sell off city stadiums and open bids for concessions in public parks as well as an effort to revitalize the dilapidated downtown, an important canvas for pichacao.

A worker water blasts the base of a statue during graffiti removal clean-up efforts in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil, Friday, March 24, 2017. Many in Sao Paulo have cheered the mayor's campaign for taking aim at a widely despised style of street art known as "pichacao", a generally monochromatic, rune-like calligraphy that covers buildings across the city. (AP Photo/Andre Penner) © The Associated Press A worker water blasts the base of a statue during graffiti removal clean-up efforts in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil, Friday, March 24, 2017. Many in Sao Paulo have cheered the mayor's campaign for taking aim at a widely despised style of street art known as "pichacao", a generally monochromatic, rune-like calligraphy that covers buildings across the city. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

"This is not just about a fight against pichacao," said Marcio Siwi, a doctoral candidate at New York University who studies art, architecture and urbanism in Sao Paulo. "This is bigger than that. This is about bringing revenue into the city in a way that's very controversial."

A man walks past a wall defaced by street art known as "pichacao", in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, March 23, 2017. Sao Paulo's mayor has significantly increased the fines for pichacao, a widely despised style of street art, and is installing cameras to catch practitioners. (AP Photo/Andre Penner) © The Associated Press A man walks past a wall defaced by street art known as "pichacao", in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, March 23, 2017. Sao Paulo's mayor has significantly increased the fines for pichacao, a widely despised style of street art, and is installing cameras to catch practitioners. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Other cities have waged similar campaigns. The mayor of Lima, Peru, in 2015 ordered the painting over of murals authorized by his predecessor and was showered with complaints from artists and architects who said the murals had reclaimed a dilapidated area. New York has largely won its war to banish the graffiti that once covered subway cars — an art style several graffiti artists in Brazil have cited as inspiration — but many New Yorkers protested when the owner of a Queens warehouse known as 5Pointz, which had become a shrine to graffiti art, painted over its murals in 2013 ahead of its demolition.

In this March 22, 2017 photo, homeless people sleep on the sidewalk backdropped by a mural in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. Some critics say the mayor's cleanup campaign, that includes painting over murals, is just a superficial attempt to attract private investment by papering over Sao Paulo's inconvenient realities, a largely abandoned downtown, a big population of poor and homeless. (AP Photo/Andre Penner) © The Associated Press In this March 22, 2017 photo, homeless people sleep on the sidewalk backdropped by a mural in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. Some critics say the mayor's cleanup campaign, that includes painting over murals, is just a superficial attempt to attract private investment by papering over Sao Paulo's inconvenient realities, a largely abandoned downtown, a big population of poor and homeless. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Sao Paulo has tried to clean up pichacao before, but it has also long touted its street art, with even the city's own tourism bureau offering it up as a slice of the "real," gritty city. One law even calls for graffiti to be valued and protected — as long as it is done with permission. Pichacao, though, is always considered illegal.

A residential building features a mural in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, March 23, 2017. A campaign to clean up and beautify Sao Paulo has come under fire after the city's new mayor painted over a series of well-known graffiti murals. He has since promised a "museum of street art" that will showcase publicly authorized, privately funded murals painted by artists to be chosen by an independent committee. (AP Photo/Andre Penner) © The Associated Press A residential building features a mural in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, March 23, 2017. A campaign to clean up and beautify Sao Paulo has come under fire after the city's new mayor painted over a series of well-known graffiti murals. He has since promised a "museum of street art" that will showcase publicly authorized, privately funded murals painted by artists to be chosen by an independent committee. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

"Street art in Sao Paulo is a postcard for Sao Paulo," said Eduardo Kobra, an artist who started out in pichacao and is now invited to paint murals in cities worldwide.

This March 22, 2017 photo shows the facade of a building defaced with a street art style known as "pichacao" in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. The city has tried to clean up pichacao before, but it has also long touted its street art, and even the tourism bureau has offered it up as a slice of the "real," gritty city. A law calls for graffiti to be valued and protected, but only as long as it is done with permission. Pichacao, by contrast, is always considered illegal. (AP Photo/Andre Penner) © The Associated Press This March 22, 2017 photo shows the facade of a building defaced with a street art style known as "pichacao" in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. The city has tried to clean up pichacao before, but it has also long touted its street art, and even the tourism bureau has offered it up as a slice of the "real," gritty city. A law calls for graffiti to be valued and protected, but only as long as it is done with permission. Pichacao, by contrast, is always considered illegal. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

The removal of the 23 de Maio murals sparked a protest, and tweets flew with before-and-after pictures. Juca Ferreira, who oversaw the painting of the murals when he was the city's secretary of culture, said in a Facebook post that the new mayor's message is: "Art only for the elite."

Workers use scrub brushes to remove a street art style known as "pichacao" from the base of statues in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil, Friday, March 24, 2017. Most Brazilians make a distinction between pichacao, which is derived from the Portuguese word for tar, and the colorful and pictorial street paintings that they call graffiti. The latter are largely tolerated, often celebrated and widely seen as inextricably linked to Sao Paulo's urban identity. (AP Photo/Andre Penner) © The Associated Press Workers use scrub brushes to remove a street art style known as "pichacao" from the base of statues in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil, Friday, March 24, 2017. Most Brazilians make a distinction between pichacao, which is derived from the Portuguese word for tar, and the colorful and pictorial street paintings that they call graffiti. The latter are largely tolerated, often celebrated and widely seen as inextricably linked to Sao Paulo's urban identity. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Confusing many people, Doria has since said he wants to promote street art. But his office says officials removed the murals because some were covered in picahcao and others had degraded over time.

In this March 20, 2017 photo, a woman takes a photo of a mural, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Some critics of the mayor's cleanup campaign tie it to other signature parts of his business-oriented agenda: a privatization plan that will sell off city stadiums and open bids for concessions in public parks and an effort to revitalize the dilapidated downtown, which is now home to the majority of Sao Paulo’s homeless. (AP Photo/Andre Penner) © The Associated Press In this March 20, 2017 photo, a woman takes a photo of a mural, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Some critics of the mayor's cleanup campaign tie it to other signature parts of his business-oriented agenda: a privatization plan that will sell off city stadiums and open bids for concessions in public parks and an effort to revitalize the dilapidated downtown, which is now home to the majority of Sao Paulo’s homeless. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Juliana Serafim Francisco, a chemical engineer who turned up to check out a recent "Pretty City" outing led by the mayor, said the city was right to remove the murals, noting that graffiti is by its nature temporary.

"The graffiti wasn't well taken care of. It's prettier now," Serafim said as Doria scrubbed a plaza in the city's center. In general, she thinks the "Pretty City" campaign is getting big results without spending too much.

Doria has now promised a "museum of street art" to showcase authorized, privately funded murals by artists chosen by an independent committee.

Some critics say the mayor's cleanup campaign is a superficial attempt to attract private investment by papering over Sao Paulo's inconvenient realities — a largely abandoned downtown, a big population of poor and homeless, and the co-existence of rich neighborhoods that equal anything in Manhattan with marginalized areas.

Many "pichadores," typically young people from the city's outskirts, are trying to raise awareness about those kinds of problems, said Djan Ivson, a pichador himself.

"I see picho as a way of taking back the city by a section of the population that is excluded," Ivson said. "It's a natural response to the absence of the state in people's lives."

Many "Pretty City" interventions have focused on areas in Sao Paulo's historic downtown, which began emptying out in the 1970s and '80s after fires burned several fires and another business district was developed. These days, more than 50 percent of the city's homeless live in the Centro, where many buildings are abandoned or occupied by squatters and several blocks are so full of drug addicts they are called "Cracolandia."

While some critics say cleaning up downtown Sao Paulo is fine, they would rather see the mayor refurbish the city's poor outskirts or improve school and health systems. Doria has promised to tackle some of these problems.

"If people want to make a beautiful city, OK. But it should be for real, not just on the cover of the book," Kobra said. "Let's flip through that book and make sure that inside it's also perfect."

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Associated Press writers Franklin Briceno in Lima, Peru, and Deepti Hajela in New York contributed to this report.

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Sarah DiLorenzo on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/sdilorenzo .

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