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“Graffiti is a crime,” Brazilian street artist Alexandre Orion reminds me, as we chat during Puma’s International Urban Art Festival in Buenos Aires. Obvious that may be, but its controversial status seems easy to forget in a world where top graffiti artists’ discarded pizza boxes are sold to fans on eBay, and where even square professionals like newspaper editors and publicists are doing stencils on the crumbly barrio walls.
The slick festival itself where Orion’s work was shown in May seems to reinforce the message that graffiti is mainstream and acceptable, big business even. But at the core of his work is a thoughtful challenge to the status quo, and a direct engagement with the city, which transports my imagination outside of the shiny exhibition centre where we sit.
“I live on the street, the street is my life,” he says. “I try to create a connection between the place, the technique, the meaning and the aesthetics in what I do.”
His best-known work, ‘Metabiótica’, is a series made for members of the public to interact with, unbeknown to them. Orion painted forms and figures on the walls of Sao Paulo and patiently waited, sometimes for months, for people to intermingle with them in interesting ways, before capturing the moments in black and white photographs.
The results are stunning – and at times dark and sublime: wings sprout from a woman’s back as she waits for the bus; a young boy is stalked by a shadowy figure with a bottle; a man appears as though about to be shot by one of Orion’s graphic protagonists.
“People feel that the photos are not real,” Orion tells me. “’How did he do it?’ I hear people asking me all the time. ‘It looks like Photoshop.’ Because it takes up to two and a half months to take the photos, it seems like Photoshop. That’s the idea, that it seems like a trick.”
Despite the set-up nature of the photos, Orion considers the most important ingredient in the work to be the unpredictable element of real life. “I have an almost sick control over the set-up of the work, but when I take the camera I lose that control completely and I just wait for whatever. Anything can happen after that and it always happens in a better way than I imagine.”
“A photo is a partial view of reality,” says Orion, whose intentions with this series included questioning the very nature of photography. “Barthes put in check the notion of reality in photography. It’s about choice and edition. It’s not real. In this series, what happens is reality, but it’s a partial vision of everything. It’s an illusion.”
Metabiótica has received much acclaim, taking graffiti into the realm of the art gallery, the exhibition centre and the bookshop, as a beautifully produced black-and-white volume. Yet in contrast to that project’s printed permanence, another less known urban intervention, ‘Ossario’, was washed away within hours of its creation.
This piece consisted of hundreds of skulls created by rubbing soot off the walls of the Max Feffer traffic tunnel in Sao Paulo. It took 17 nights for Orion to create a work of 400 metres – including 3,500 skulls – making a gigantic intervention in the inhospitable environment.
‘Ossario’ was a reaction to the shocking amount of pollution he found in the underpass. “When they built this tunnel four years ago the original colour of the walls was yellow, and I saw that in four months it became black. I was curious. I thought it was something to do with the material the tunnel was made of. I couldn’t imagine that it was the pollution. When I realised it was, I came up with the idea of using it as my material,” he says.
The technique Orion used was ‘cleaning’: scraping off layers of grime to create his message. “In this place, you had cameras all over the tunnel so I would never use real paint on the walls, but cleaning is not a crime. So I was joking, saying I’m doing reverse graffiti, so there’s no crime involved. And it’s provocative, because they should clean and they don’t, so I do.”
The municipal authorities tried repeatedly, each night, to stop Orion from making the work, but they couldn’t legally interfere, “Cleaning is not a crime. What is a crime is the environmental damage caused by unashamed pollution,” he says.
The authorities then decided to clean the tunnel, but only washed off the part that Orion had been working on. Unfazed, he continued to create skulls, and soon found others imitating his technique in tunnels all around the city. In response, the authorities not only began to clean the tunnel every two months, but they also cleaned every other tunnel in the city.
“But they will all be dirty again in less than four months,” says Orion. “It would be better to stop polluting instead of cleaning up.”
On his website, the piece’s introductory page includes a quote from André Gorz’s book ‘The Social Ideology of the Motorcar’ that reads: “These splintered cities are sprung out along empty streets lined with identical developments; and their urban landscape (a desert) says: These streets are made for driving as quickly as possible from work to home and vice versa. You go through here, you don’t live here.”
‘Ossario’ articulates this urban alienation by using its forgotten, overlooked and wilfully ignored materials. Now, he wants to use those very materials to paint with, expanding the work into a bigger project called ‘Art Less Pollution’. “I’m using it as a pigment. In a way it’s an old technique – it’s charcoal, a traditional pigment – but it is really toxic and came from the car exhaust.”
Orion’s innovative approach to graffiti has come a long way since he began painting on the streets. He is part of the generation of street artists that was influenced by hip-hop culture, creating colourful freehand graffiti. This group forms a contrast to the first wave of graffiti artists in Sao Paulo, which emerged from punk culture and was characterised more by its use of stencils.
Graffiti is an international movement, and artists have always held differing philosophies about their work. “Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal,” Banksy, a British graffiti artist and one of the world’s most famous, once said. “A city where everybody could draw wherever they liked, where the street was awash with a million colours and little phrases… A city that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business.”
Orion’s view, despite his consciousness-provoking work, is slightly less idealistic. “People used to say that graffiti is a democratic art – but I don’t think so – the artist decides to do something and it’s very imposing.”
“Is graffiti political?” I ask him. “Yes, always! When you decide to do something in a public space, it’s a political act. No matter what you do, it’s political. So you have to respect that. I have to provoke people to think about something. If they hate it, I have to think about why. It’s a kind of respect. I impose, but I care about people’s opinion.”
For more information on Alexandre Orion, visit: www.alexandreorion.com.