Painting a favela
By Nacho Doce
Before I was able to experience a Sao Paulo favela firsthand, my knowledge of that world was mostly defined by a movie I saw only a few weeks earlier called “Linha de Passe,” or “Passing Line” in English. The title is a metaphor of the concept of teamwork, the imaginary line that connects players passing the ball in soccer. In the movie the players are the four brothers of a family, and the ball is life itself. What I took away from the movie about a slum family’s struggle to survive, was an idea of what it’s like to live on the edge of life, on the edge of a precipice.
That movie and a newspaper article about a social graffiti project in one of the city’s largest favelas ignited my curiosity, so I searched out and met founding members of the project named OPNI, a Portuguese acronym for “Unidentified Graffiti Artists.” OPNI was founded in 1997 by 20 youths in the city’s marginal slums with the goal of transforming the streets into an open-air gallery where the community can express its gripes. Of the original 20 only Cris, Val and Toddy are left after most were either arrested, abandoned the activity, or died from drug abuse.
To reach OPNI in the Vila Flavia favela on the outskirts of Sao Paulo took me two hours by bus and train, the same time it takes for many of the slum’s mothers and daughters to travel to the city’s better-off neighborhoods where they clean homes for a living. That’s a four-hour round trip, every day.
At our first meeting, Cris, Val, and Toddy described the life of survival in the favela that I was searching to experience. Through urban art, capoeira and rap they give children an alternative to the world of crime and drugs. I had found the passing line.
During my first night in Vila Flavia, as I stood in the window smoking a cigarette, I began to collect mental statistics on cars driving by with music blasting. Of every ten cars, six were playing funk carioca, three rap, and one samba. I could even hear funk carioca coming from the cell phones of children walking past.
The next day I went for coffee three blocks from the house where I was staying, and was surprised to receive a “good morning” from passing strangers, something that even in the elevator of my own apartment building people rarely offer. In my first favela walkabout with Toddy, along the graffiti-covered streets that are now part of the landscape, I commented to him about the dominance of funk carioca in the cars and children’s cell phones. “It’s the real cancer of the favelas,” he said. “Have you listened to the lyrics?” He explained that the songs only talk of sex and criminality. He considers the music worse than drugs. “It turns daughters into mothers,” he said. I was speechless.
Later the same day I met up with Cris. The three OPNI founders took turns escorting me around. We came across graffiti of a mother and daughter. I looked around us and saw that we were in the middle of a crack zone, where the drug was openly sold. Entering in a nearby bar Cris introduced me to its owner who commented that it wasn’t in their interest for photos of drug vendors to reach the media, and that the OPNI project would all be ruined if it happened. I realized that they were making a pact with me, my discretion in exchange for freedom to roam with a camera. The next day I sensed while walking the streets that even with a camera hanging from my shoulder I had become just one of the neighborhood. One of the vendors gave me a tour of the alleys where they lived, explaining the difference between the favelas of Rio and Sao Paulo. In Sao Paulo, he said, there was a pact from the PCC, a massive criminal organization that operates from the state prisons and favelas, to not kill inside the favelas, whereas in Rio there wasn’t such an organization.
That night I went to see capoeira and graffiti classes for children at OPNI’s headquarters named Sao Mateus en Movimiento. Teaching graffiti was an artist named Ogrão. As he painted on a panel a scene of buildings in favelas with the electric cables clearly emphasized, I asked him what it all meant. “The only thing that joins buildings in favelas is electricity,” he answered. When Ogrão and Cris later took me for my first nighttime tour through the narrow streets and alleys, I suddenly realized that I still had the camera on my shoulder, something I would never do in the city for fear of being mugged. It dawned on me how safe I felt, in the middle of a favela.
While strolling we suddenly heard a different type of music coming from deep inside the slum, and I asked them what it was. They said it was probably from a Umbanda or Candomblé ritual. We followed the sound and came to a house. One of them entered first out of respect, to comment that there was a “gringo” outside doing a story on the community, and we were invited in. They were in the middle of a ceremony, and I put my camera away in my backpack. The Holy Mother told me that I could come back in two days to photograph an even larger ritual they planned. Excited, I must have thanked her a thousand times. I was so worked up at the invitation that suddenly the photos I was hoping to take began to lose importance next to the whole “favela experience” I was assimilating.
The day I accompanied the graffiti classes on the street for children was special. They were very concentrated on painting the favela wall, and when I climbed up a house to take a panoramic shot I realized how tiny that one wall was among so much poverty. But it was wonderful to see the children dream of creating.
At the end of the class the kids helped themselves to fruit from a truck that parked nearby.
My last day there I sat on a sidewalk with the OPNI group, eating sausage on a stick after they had just finished painting another wall. I had begun to learn favela jargon and one of them asked me, “Brother, you’re connected.” I can laugh at that now, because in the favela they are the ones “connected” to life. They’re the ones who decided not to take the easy route through crime. In the city there are walled condominiums where kids play in their own swimming pools, but their parents are too afraid to walk on the streets.
I finished the conversation by proposing to the group that we give a camera to each child so they can take photos of their life in the favela. The all looked at me and Toddy said, “If we give them cameras they’ll trade them for pipes, you dig?” We all laughed together.