In a city known for the high quality of its street art, Batman Alley stands out as particularly awesome. Located in the trendy neighbourhood of Vila Madalena, Batman Alley is an outdoor gallery with every spare inch of space covered in street art. The work is ever changing as artists create new works and in the process cover up older pieces.
The artwork in Batman Alley is brash, bold and colourful. Sometimes you really need to step in to see the detail. Alternatively, you need to step back to see the big picture (literally!). The artwork expresses so much such as political opinions, poetry, philosophy.
I asked our guide Leo from FlaviaLiz about the origin of the name. He told me it comes from the 1980’s when someone drew a cartoon of Batman on the wall. People started referring to it in everyday speech as a recognisable place and the name stuck. The area is safe during the day and a popular tourist spot.
The alley is popular for photos and parties. We saw a woman doing a photo shoot of her baby belly during our visit.
As unsanctioned artwork, there isn’t any approval process in putting your mark on Batman Alley. On the other hand, with the quality of the work on display, you better be good if you want to put your work up here. The street artists though have a code of conduct where they respect each others work. You can’t draw without asking the original owner of the work. If the work is fading etc, they may let you take over the space. So we’re talking a self-policing community of people creating work for the people.
Art defaced probably by someone who hates Corinthians, one of the major Sao Paulo football teams
Although the alley runs only about 250 feet long (a couple of city blocks), allow yourself plenty of time to take it all in. The street art in Sao Paulo is truly impressive and none more so than what you find in Batman Alley.
The first time I heard of Capoeira it was a fitness class described as Brazilian dance exercise. Sort of like Zumba but from the last decade. Since I have zero co-ordination, I never took the class. In Brasil, I discovered that capoeira was more than dancing and nothing like the Lambada, the Brasilian dance popularised in the 1980’s. In fact, Capoeira is a form of martial arts with a long history dating back to its colonial times.
What is Capoeira?
Capoeira is a Brasilian martial art that incorporates dance, acrobatics, rhythm and music.
Two opponents face each other and then do a serious of complex, quick manoeuvres which are based on attacking and defensive moves. The opponents are constantly moving. This movement means the practitioner is a moving target and also helps the person feint and attack better. You can also do a rolls and acrobatics so that it is very hard for your opponent to pin you down.
Demonstrations involve a where everyone forms a circle around the two opponents. People play instruments and sing the traditional songs. There’s a lot of clapping as well. The traditional instrument is a berimbau. The songs are traditional with many in a call and response format.
Wall of instruments
In the traditional form of Capoeira, the moves tended to be more like fighting. There are a lot of strategic moves and unpredictability in the movements. The newer tradition of Capoeira emphasises acrobatics and grace. Some old-timers don’t even consider it capoeira.
History of Capoeira
Capoeira has its roots in the African slaves brought to Brasil by the Portuguese. The Portuguese established massive sugarcane plantations in Brasil with cheap labor supplied by African slaves. The slaves were treated brutally and lived in inhumane conditions.
The slaves practiced capoeira as a way to keep themselves agile and develop their fighting techniques. If they were spotted by their masters, the slaves would merely pretend to be dancing. People think capoeira was started in the 16th century. No one really knows because of its secretive origins. For the slaves, capoeira was a form of cultural identity when everything else had been stripped from them.
Many slaves were also able to escape using their capoeira skills and set up their own communities hidden away from the Portuguese. One such community apparently numbered about 10,000 escaped slaves. Even within the areas that they controlled, the Portuguese soon realised that capoeira gave their slaves real fighting skills.
With the end of slavery in Brasil in 1888, people who had capoeira skills started using them for criminal enterprises. Basically, the slaves were freed but had no jobs or skills. No one wanted to hire them because they were deemed lazy. The freed slaves resorted to crime to make ends meet or as mercenaries practiced in the skill of capoeira.
In 1890, the authoritiesprohibited the practice of capoeira. People who were caught practicing capoeira were jailed if they were lucky. If they were unlucky, they were put to death or had their achilles tendon severed.
Capoeira wasn’t decriminalised until 1940 when the Brasilian authorities were finally convinced capoeira had cultural merit. Today, Brasil is proud of its capoeira tradition and has exported its practice worldwide. Capoeira has even received a special status as a UNESCO protected heritage.
Images of past glory at the school
The Capoeira Demonstration
Like most things in Sao Paulo, they didn’t make it easy for us to visit a capoeira exhibition. We finally found a dance school who was having a special exhibition with its old Master.
Getting ready for the main event
When I say old, I mean former teacher as well as aged person. The man was about 90 years old but had a fluid lithe grace. He would have been practicing capoeira as a youth back when it was still illegal. That’s the Master in the photo below sitting in the corner with the hat. He commanded a lot of respect and reverence from the crowd.
Capoiera was amazing to watch! The little hall was full of people, including the performers. My friend and I were the only foreigners watching. I can truthfully say I had no idea what they were singing but I found the whole thing mesmerising, including the music.
Waiting his turn
We were lucky enough to see different styles of capoeira performed by the capoeiraistas. Some of the older performers were definitely more aggressive while the young children were very acrobatic and graceful. Everyone seemed to be having fun though.
The dance school was not in a great neighbourhood and my friend’s driver/bodyguard stayed with us. When we returned to our car after the event, we found 2 policemen arresting a guy who was trying to break into the car! I’m afraid I never quite got used to the ever present danger of crime in Sao Paulo. Every time it would take me back.
I’m afraid I have no idea where this school was in Sao Paulo. Even if I did, I would not be comfortable recommending it to a tourist. You need to go with someone who knows what they are doing and possibly have an escort to avoid any unpleasantries.
It’s not often a place leaves me speechless. Looking around at the trinkets cemented into the walls which were curved every which way, I was at a loss for words.
We were at a house in Parasaipolis, the second largest favela in the largest city in South America, to visit the Casa de Pedra (The Stone House). The house is the work of Estevado Conceicao, an artist hailed as Brasil’s answer to Barcelona’s favourite artist and proponent of Catalan Modernism, Antoni Gaudi. Our guide, Leo from FlaviaLiz Tours had met Estevado at his day job when he was working as a gardener.
We are shown around by Estevado’s wife, Edilene, who is completely supportive of her husband’s vision. My friend and I agree that we would not be so understanding. My husband had an enormous collection of pennies housed in beer bottles when we moved into our first house. Shortly thereafter, the collection found itself being donated to charity 🙂
Edilene and her daughter in front of Casa de Pedra
Estevado, the Brazilian Gaudi
The parallels to Gaudi are obvious – the use of organic forms and the recycling of materials. Whereas Gaudi used shards of ceramics to decorate his works, Estevado is more liberal. He has cemented into place whole trinkets and everyday objects that he has found.
Yes, that is a typewriter on the ceiling. Watch your head!
Although Estevado has been nicknamed the Brazilian Gaudi, he had never heard of Gaudi when he started on the Casa de Pedra.
The Gaudi Foundation was so impressed with the Casa de Pedra that they flew Estevado to Barcelona so that Estevado could see in person the works of the artist he so admired. Estevado also created a cow for the international Cow Parade. His work, Cowdi, got auctioned off for charity bringing in 31,000 Brazilian Reals (approximately £6000).
Surely, Estevado’s wife, Edilene, has to be the most patient and understanding woman EVER. Apparently Edilene takes a portion of his gardening income for the housekeeping bills and then he is free to spend the rest on buying trinkets to cement into the walls. I also can’t even imagine living in such a house. Other artists have a studio where they can let their imagination run wild but their families don’t necessarily have to live with and through the creative process.
The kitchen is Edilene’s domaine but even here Estevado could not resist beautifying the room.
Like many people in Parasaipolis, Edilene and Estevado are from the Northern province of Bahia. They came to Sao Paulo for work many years ago and settled in Parasaipolis. They have a son and a daughter who live with them in their house. A small section of the back of the house serves as a lounge, kitchen/diner. Upstairs, there are three bedrooms. The rest of the house is devoted to Estevado’s vision.
The daughter’s room
The son’s room
Estevado’s Casa de Pedra
Estevado started creating in 1985 when the family had a rose tree they wanted to preserve. He cemented the tree with artefacts and never looked back. Although he does some art for sale, his major piece is the Casa de Pedra.
From the outside the house looks like the stuff of a bad acid trip (a cement house with objects haphazardly attached to it). The inside is pretty much the same. The neighbours are pretty unhappy with the house believing it to be black magic. I’m pretty sure anyone in any neighbourhood would a strong opinion about living next door to such a house.
We walk hunched low through tunnels in the house. True to his inspiration, there are no straight walls in Estevado’s creation. Each corner you turn brings you to another viewpoint of yet more random items whether they be cellphones, religious items, a typewriter, cups and saucers. You climb between floors using an assortment of found objects (such as a swimming pool ladder) and holding onto whatever’s cemented on the wall.
Leo, my hand model, shows how the pieces are cemented into the wall with metal wires.
We climb through tunnels until we reach the roof which really has amazing views of the roofs of Parasaipolis. He has created a roof terrace like no other. Plants are bedded into assorted containers and then decorated some more. Too much is never enough. For whatever reason, Estevado has enshrined a few bicycles up there. It’s a really strange feeling to sit on a rooftop bicycle in a Sao Paulo favela.
The rooftop bicycle
Edilene on the rooftop garden
Estevado’s children’s friends apparently love visiting the house. I can see that. For a child the rabbit warren is a perfect place for imaginative play. And the bicycles on the roof garden? I know I would have a problem getting my kids off the roof garden.
What Does It All Mean?
Even now weeks later, I find that describing (and understanding) Estevado’s work is difficult. I felt uncomfortable inside the house which was a masterpiece of sensory overload. In many ways, the house reminds me of the larger city of Sao Paulo – crowded, attractive in unexpective ways and yet loved.
Here I am wedged into a space fighting claustrophobia.
The house really is a symbol of consumerism in this day and age. So many cheap items mass-produced, enjoyed briefly and then thrown away for the next thing that catches the eye. In Estevado’s house, these items are enshrined – a testimony to life in the late 20th Century.
Estevado is now retired from gardening. He will not be expanding his house anymore he has promised his wife. Instead he will spend his time filling any uncovered space in the house. I was hard pressed to find such space myself but I’m sure Estevado knows every square inch of his house.
A recreation of the house appears in the popular Brasilian soap opera, I Love Parasaipolis. Thanks to the fame from the soap opera, Edilene tells us there is almost one visitor a day to the house. Visitors are asked to pay 30 Brasilian reals for entry (£5.50). It’s definitely not a place for the claustrophobic. Moreover, Paraisopolis itself is a place that is best visited with a local such as our guide Leo.
The walls surrounding the houses get higher and higher as we drive closer to the favela. Then suddenly there is a road with no walls. The road’s dusty flatness comes us a surprise after the well-paved streets of the main city . Welcome to Paraisopolis. Somewhat ironically, the favela’s name translates as Paradise City. It may not be your standard vision of paradise, but it is home to many people for whom conditions could be much worse.
Leo, our tour guide from the tour guides Flavia Liz, has assured us that he has gotten permission from the powers that be to visit the favela. We are here in Paraisopolis to meet a couple of artists who work with recycled materials. I will write about these artists in a later post because their work is really interesting in its own right.
Leo has been given two conditions for our visit to Paraisopolis. We need to have our windows rolled down so people can see in our car and we can only take photos if we ask for permission. Apparently we are safer in Paraisopolis than anywhere else in the city on that morning. The word of the one gang that controls the city’s favelas is the law in this neighbourhood.
The rooftops of Parasaipolis
After having spent a week in an armoured car with tinted windows that don’t open, I am at first disconcerted by the fresh air and sunshine streaming in through the car windows. Soon, however, I am fascinated by the life in the busy streets. There are a lot of children staring at us curiously (Sao Paulo can only afford half-days of state-sponsored schooling). You also get mothers with babies on their hips, beautiful young women sashaying along in their tight clothes and the occasional dodgy looking group of men hanging out on a doorstep.
A grinning old lady who doesn’t mind being photographed.
Paraisopolis is the second biggest favela in Sao Paulo. This favela sits cheek by jowl with the wealthy neighbourhood of Morumbi. My friend’s daughter goes to the American School in Sao Paulo which is located in Morumbi so I am guessing an equivalent neighbourhood in London would be St. John’s Wood. A well-known photograph of a luxury high-rise in Morumbi, which has a swimming pool on each floor, overlooking the favela shows this juxtaposition clearly. The neighbourhoods are so close and yet so far.
SAO PAULO, BRAZIL, 2005. (Foto: Tuca Vieira)
Like other favelas, Paraisopolis sprung up in the steep hillsides surrounding Sao Paulo when people from the north of Brasil came south in search of a better life. Even if they found jobs, they were priced out of the housing market in the city. The immigrants became squatters on the outskirts of the city which eventually became a neighbourhood. So, bizarrely, people may own their homes but they don’t own the land underneath their house.
A charming house until you notice the corrugated tin roof.
Haphazard but colourful building
Crowded conditions in Paraisopolis have led many homes to have a second floor. People just built another house on top an existing house with the most random collection of staircases connecting the two parts. Many of the staircases just looked really unsafe cobbled together from whatever materials were at hand.
Watch your step!
Another thing you notice is the spider-web of illegal cabling running along every house and street providing services such as electricity and gas. The pipes just open onto the street and you feel the occasional splash of water from dodgy plumbing. The city’s rivers are polluted thanks to the illegal dumping of untreated sewage from the favelas.
Lots of illegal cables everywhere.
Wedged between Morumbi and the mountain, Paraisopolis has to accommodate approximately 100,000 people who live there. The city of Sao Paulo has built some high-rise buildings but the premium on land means there are not very many.
Government-built residences to replace the ramshackle housing.
The neighbourhood has become famous by association with the Brasilian soap opera I Heart Paraisopolis, a fictionalised account of the neighbourhood. Although it reminds me of the British soap opera Eastenders about a working class neighbourhood in the East End of London, the Brasilian soap opera has better looking people. Women in Paraisopolis are well-groomed and well-dressed no matter what the circumstance.
A sign advertising childcare.
One of the wider back alleys in Paraisapolis.
Clothes drying on a line in front of the fabulous football pitch.
Paraisopolis has its own schools, grocery stores, boutiques etc. There is also a terrific football pitch with astroturf. Many people live in Paraisopolis but work in Sao Paulo. The city is trying to extend services such as gas and water to the neighbourhood which is a de facto acceptance of the favela. Currently, many of the services are illegal connections to the city’s supply.
Selling eggs from the back of the car
Football = Religion = Opiate of the Masses?
Life is different in Paradise City. Yet, it feels like a real neighbourhood. We walk around with the artists that we met. It seems they know everyone and everyone knows them. I expect there is much more of a community here than in the wealthier areas where each house is surrounded by high walls topped with razor wire.
Marijuana-related poetry (e.g., I want to die on your lips like a joint)
Having seen the wonderful if disturbing 2002 film Cidade de Deus (City of God) set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Paraisopolis. I trusted that Leo was not going to take us into a dangerous situation.
Yes, there are signs of marijuana use but Paraisapolis seems to have the trappings of a working class neighbourhood where many people try to eke out a living as best they can. As we leave Paraisopolis, I find it disturbing to note that these conditions are not the worst in Sao Paulo.
The Mercado Municipal in the city of Sao Paulo in Brasil has pretty much spoiled me for any fruit for the rest of my life. I knew much of the fruit we got in Europe and North America came from South America I had, however, never tasted the fruit when it was fresh and before it was flown thousands of miles. Wow! The taste – sweet, tart, acidic or even chalky just exploded like fireworks in my mouth.
Leo, my guide with Flavia Liz, a company that does personal escorted tours of Sao Paulo, made me a happy woman when he took me to the Mercado Municapal de Sao Paulo. A well-known hotspot for gourmet and food lovers, it has more than 250 stalls that sell primarily grocery items. The stalls are piled high and heaving with fruit, vegetables, cheese, spices, wine and bacalao (salted cod).
Nuts by the bucket
Coffee that will put hair on your chest.
What size would you like?
The building was constructed in 1928 to be a market and has Art Deco influences. During the short-lived revolution of 1932, the military stored munitions here. Post-war, it reverted back to being a market and remains a foodie destination to this day.
Art Deco Entrance
Our guide told us that if you wanted to impress any dinner guests you get your fruit and vegetables from the Mercado Municipal. Considering all the fruit I tried was scrumptious, I have to agree with him. I tried other things too such as the expresso which was so strong I was wired for a good 10 hours afterwards and the mortadella, a sweet and tangy Italian salami, famous for being made into sandwiches in Brasil. The fruit, however, spoke to my sweet tooth (or perhaps even sang Handel’s Hallelujah chorus).
If anyone wants to feed me these grapes, I would not say no.
Little slices of calabrese deliciousness
There is a mezzanine level with restaurants which gives you a bird’s eye view of the hustle and bustle below. The market deals with about 450 tons of food per day!!
From the mezzanine level, you also get a closer look at the stained glass windows created by a Russian artist famous for his work with stained glass in churches. Apropos because the market might as well be a temple to the glory of delicious food.