By Reighan Gillam
January 4, 2017
This guest post is part of our new blog series on Comics, Race, and Society, edited by Julian Chambliss and Walter Greason.
Graffiti covers many of São Paulo’s walls like a creative and colorful blanket laying upon the concrete. In The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti, authors Rafael Schacter and John Fekner write that street artists “infuse a site with personal energy, vivid stories, and a ‘sense of place.’” The Urban Saçi graffiti series constitutes one vivid story among many graffiti images found throughout the city. A Saçi is a folkloric figure in Brazil commonly represented standing on one leg, wearing a red cap, and smoking a pipe. He assumes the role of a trickster figure that engages in everyday pranks that inconvenience his targets. For example, if something goes missing someone might say, “Saçi took it.” Saçi’s red hat enables him to disappear and reappear at will, facilitating the execution of his pranks. Saçi is commonly represented as an Afro-Brazilian boy. Significantly, the urban graffiti series visually references Brazil’s slave past in the public sphere.
Graffiti artist Thiago Vaz created the Urban Saçi graffiti series. His images adorn walls, bus stops, park benches, and buses. He selects the street as his canvas based on its accessibility. In an interview he states:
I only depict Urban Saçi in the built urban environment. I like this space of the street because it is part of everything that is public. The newspaper, you have to buy the newspaper. When you have to buy the newspaper you have a culture of readership. Many people do not have a culture of readership (cultura de leitura) and aren’t interested in the newspaper. But in the street, going by bus, on foot, in a car, you are seeing. So it’s something very direct isn’t it? So I think it [the street] has a very broad canvas for the people.
Vaz notes the democratic potential of representing his art in the street. Everyone who passes by his work has access to it without paying for a newspaper and without having to be an avid reader. He also chooses spaces that align with Saçi’s characteristics, which he has described as “non-typical” such as on partially hidden walls around the city. The unexpected nature of such placements suits the legend that Saçi can appear and disappear at will. Instead of sequencing Saçi images on paper to be found in a book, newspaper, or other written document, Vaz presents the Urban Saçi sequentially throughout the city of São Paulo.
Vaz depicts Saçi through three themes. As a mischief-maker Saçi uses artful feats to accomplish deeds deemed impossible by others. Here Saçi waters a tree through seemingly impossible means.
Vaz also depicts Saçi as, what he considers, a Brazilian super hero. “The superheroes for many decades have had a very strong presence here with various youth,” he noted. “I include super man, spider man etc. characters that came from outside,” he continued, “Brazil doesn’t have a hero. Why doesn’t it have a hero? Let’s create a hero. So Urban Saçi can be a hero.” “For me, Saçi represents a Libertario (a liberated figure) because he appears in the street freely and he can’t be sold, he can’t be commercialized,” Vaz concluded.
Although Vaz calls Saçi a super hero, perhaps he is best understood as a folk hero that sides with the common people by exposing unequal social conditions. Several of Vaz’s images depict Saçi against U.S. American cultural icons like Mickey Mouse and Spider-Man. The third way he depicts Saçi is as a marginal member of society. For example, he depicts Saçi as a catadore or trash picker, one of the men and women who take their carts around the city of São Paulo picking up recycling to make money.
In this image, Saçi pulls a cart with the Banespa building inside of it and the sign of recycling on the outside of the cart. Trash pickers scour dumpsters to find recyclable materials. At the end of the day, one can see them with their carts piled high with cardboard boxes and plastic bottle heading to the recycle center to collect their daily wage. By placing the Banespa building, an icon of the city and the former headquarters of the Bank of the State of São Paulo, in the cart of a trash picker the image asserts the centrality of trash pickers to the everyday functioning of the city. Many of the trash pickers are black and brown, which attests to the racialized structure of economic inequality in São Paulo. Again, Vaz’s image of Saçi communicates that if he were another black man in the street he might be pulling a recycle cart.
While the Urban Saçi series can entertain, it also narrates slavery through Saçi’s bodily presentation and clothing. In July 2014 I came across an installation called “Legends in the Street” on Paulista Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares in São Paulo. The installation, produced by the SOPA Art Br studio as a public project, gave information about different Brazilian folkloric figures for those passing by.
The plaque dictated Saçi’s story in the following way: “There are days when nothing goes right. The alarm does not ring, a sock is missing and the milk is sour. You’re late and do not find the keys. Your dog wakes up weird, tail down. Watch out, he may be having fun at your expense. He, the bad thing, the master of small evils. Always hidden, ready to prank someone. Born in the heart of the forest, but had learned to travel in a whirlpool and now walks everywhere. Also, he was seen wandering around town here.”
The plaque offers a standard rendition of Saçi folklore that communicates his identity as a trickster figure who plays pranks on his unsuspecting victims. I juxtapose that with the way that Vaz narrates the story of Saçi during an interview about the Urban Saçi series: “Saçi was the son of a slave that lost his leg. He wanted to take off his leg to live freely because he was imprisoned by the shackles. And he lived alone in the forest. He had freedom. And the Portuguese added the red hat to symbolize that he is no longer a slave. He got the pipe from an Indian.”
To be clear, there are probably as many Saçi narratives as there are people who tell them. Vaz’s narrative diverges from more mainstream renditions through his emphasis on slavery and freedom. The mainstream narrative for popular consumption on the street makes no mention of Saçi’s slave heritage. Vaz makes reference to the violence of slavery in referencing Saçi’s need to rip off his leg to free himself from the shackles that confined him.
This attention to the violence of the slavery and the loss of his leg is portrayed in Vaz’s images as well. In mainstream depictions of Saçi, that I can find, he is shown with one leg. I have read some legends that state that Saçi was born with one leg. However, in Vaz’s series, one can consistently see the tear in the jeans, which signifies that a leg was present, but is now missing. The shredding of the pants alludes to the tearing off of Saçi’s leg in his effort for liberation.
The memory of slavery continues to generally be submerged in Brazil. Ana Lucia Araujo writes,
Despite the development of celebrations and the presence of Africa in public speeches, the Brazilian slave past has remained concealed in the public space. The persistent obstacles in creating permanent public spaces dedicated to the memory and history of slavery indicate how difficult it is for the nation to deal with its slave past – this is correlated with the problem in Brazil where the majority of the population of African descent are still relegated to the lower ranks of society.
In fact, the violence of slavery must be submerged in order to assert that contemporary race relations are harmonious. São Paulo contains one public monument to slavery called The Black Mother (Mãe Preta). It depicts a black woman nursing a white infant. Micol Siegel reveals that this monument was “one of the sites of elaboration of what would come to be termed ‘racial democracy,’ the celebration of racial mixture increasingly important to Brazilians’ sense of their national identity in the 1920s.” Racial democracy refers to a Brazilian national narrative of harmonious race relations achieved through racial mixture, which downplays the presence of racism in the country. Images of slavery that emphasize interracial closeness, such as the Black Mother Monument and the telenovela Escrava Isaura , which emphasized romantic relations between masters and enslaved people, support the narrative of harmonious race relations. Narratives that emphasize the violence of slavery undermine ideas of racial harmony by exposing a history of persistent racial inequality. Vaz verbally narrates this violent history and makes it visually manifest in Saçi’s ripped pant leg.
Ana Lucia Araujo outlines the stakes of recognizing the role of slavery in Brazilian society:
Indeed, the construction of monuments, memorials, and museums underscoring the slave past could eventually lead to the official recognition of the significant Brazilian participation in the Atlantic slave trade, recognition that could be interpreted as an act of repentance that could encourage demands for material and financial reparations.
São Paulo is making strides in commemorating slavery through the Museu Afro, which houses exhibitions on the history of slavery and exhibitions that explore slavery through photos. The Urban Saçi graffiti series publicly rewrites a Brazilian national folk figure from one of national love to that of a legacy of the slave past that continues to walk among us.
Reighan Gillam is an Assistant Professor in the Department and Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. Her research examines the relationship between race, visual images, and power in media produced by Afro-Brazilians in São Paulo, Brazil. She is working on a book manuscript entitled, Strategic Visionaries: Afro-Brazilian Media Producers and the Politics of Representation. Follow her on Twitter @Reighangillam.