Street Art in Rio de Janeiro: The Voice of Colors by Rita, Eduardo, and Jorge

Street Art is becoming more and more not only tolerated, but also actually recognized and promoted – not exclusively in Rio de Janeiro. All over South America, Street Art has a long tradition – as a medium where colors give people a voice.

Street Art in Rio de Janeiro
#favelismo – an art movement turning poverty and humiliation into power and pride. That’s what great street art stands for.

I’m introducing Rita Wainer, Eduardo Kobra, and Jorge Selarón, three of the greatest urban artists that left ineradicable traces in Rio de Janeiro.

Street Art: The Voice of Colors

Street Art is, obviously, artwork in public locations where the artist does not only speak his mind, but often also for his or her people. Today, also private property owners and investors are commissioning pieces. However, many muralists are still working illegally. Therefore, some artists choose to remain anonymous or work under a pseudonym. The most famous enigmatic urban artist is undoubtedly Banksy from the British city of Bristol.

Streetart by Ernest Zacharevich in Georgetown in Malaysia
Street artists do not only decorate walls and things, they also use them as props. Probably the most famous pieces made in this style were created by Lithuania-born Ernest Zacharevich whose name is inextricably linked with Penang Island in Malaysia.

Street Art such as murals did not derive from graffiti. Just think of Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera who created long before the invention of spray cans. However, both are often connected and combined. Especially the illegally working artists are using spray paint, stencils, posters, and stickers. This way, they can quickly apply their piece – long before the cops enter the scene.

Main spraying street art in Rio de Janeiro
Canned Art in Rio de Janeiro.

Street Art often carries a social or political message – and sometimes it just doesn’t – especially when private investors commission the pieces. Is this a sellout? I don’t know. Obviously, there are different approaches to urban art.

Street Art in Bogota, Colombia
Nadie gana – nobody is winning; a pretty clear message stenciled on a wall in Bogotá.

I personally enjoyed the urban art in Colombia the most since it is wild, anarchistic, angry, and rebellious. Compared to Bogotá, much of Rio’s street art is quite tamed; nevertheless, beautiful and exciting. So let me tell you the story of three ingenious artists.

Rita Wainer

Rita Wainer, obviously one of rather few women active in urban art, was born in 1978 in São Paulo. Brazil‘s most populated city is the cradle of ingenious artists and consequently a hub for phenomenal art. She already was a highly aspiring Brazilian fashion designer when she decided to move to Rio de Janeiro in 2013. At the same time, she gave up soft fabric for hard bricks and rough earth, hence, she became a visual artist.
Come to think of it, the step is pretty congruent since fashion can totally be considered urban art.

Street Art by Rita Wainer in Sao Paulo, Brazil
“The city is ours” – a clearly feminist mural by Rita Wainer in her home city São Paulo.

In January 2013, Rita opened her internet store where she’s selling her sculptures. She does so straight from her ample flat close to the Copacabana. Without any middlemen, but with great success. Already during the first three years, she had sold 1,000 pieces – or as she puts it in an interview: Pelé’s thousand goals.

Street Art by Rita Wainer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
There is a lot of passive-aggressiveness in Wainer’s portraits: Her ladies are always alone, sort of defenseless.

The resourceful variety of her works – illustrations, painting on tiles and places – and, of course,  walls – is less surprising when you look at her hyper-artistic genealogy.

The Cradle of Creativity

Everybody in Brazil knows some Wainers. Whether it’s Rita’s mother, the artist Pinky Wainer. Or if it’s her grandparents, the actress and model Danuza Leão and her husband, publisher Samuel Wainer. However, this is only the very close family.

Keeping up with the Wainers?
No way. Obviously, Rita follows her own path. She does not want to be just an idle clanswoman with a golden spoon in her mouth.

Street Art by Rita Wainer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
No smile. Never.

Although Rita Wainer’s murals are just one niche of her artistic activities, for obvious reasons, it’s the most conspicuous.

Street Art by Rita Wainer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Don’t mess with her: A Medusa-like female holding a poniard.

She’s painting girls. Skinny girls in bold, unshaded colors. Fragile beings with serious facial expressions. As they look at you, their glance is piercing – hardly any expression.
Often, they even don’t look at you but turn their head away from the beholder in oblivion. Maybe it’s haughtiness. Undoubtedly it’s never fear.

Street Art by Rita Wainer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Female marine: yearning and love – I keep waiting for you. This mural is also at the Boulevard Olimpico, not far from Kobra’s Etnias.

Although these girls are so skinny and deem so airy and fragile, there is something very fierce to them. Maybe it’s the black outlining, maybe the pointy outline. In any case, take their prickly gaze as a warning….never to mess with them.

Here you can check out Ria Wainer’s online shop.

Eduardo Kobra

Yes, Kobra as well: Born in São Paulo in 1975, however, in the poor neighborhood of Garden Martinique. Therefore, no descendence from a dynasty of artists. Nevertheless, with over 500 works painted all over Brazil and 20 other countries around the planet, Kobra is one of the world’s most famous muralists.

But yes, he started as subversive as almost every urban artists, as an illegal tagger. He got arrested three times for his passion. Illegal? Sure! But talented? As a matter of fact, one judge was so impressed by Kobra’s talent that he sentenced him to….paint. He commissioned Kobra to create a mural on the wall of a police station of all places!

Street Art bei Eduardo Kobra in Sao Paulo, Brazil
Sentenced to paint? Not in this case: This work at Congonhas Airport in São Paulo is based on a photograph from the 1950s and is not pure decoration but also meant to be a tribute the Brazil history.

Eventually, in the 1990s, Kobra got the chance to make some money with his art designing posters and painting toy sets. Expectedly, his talent was quickly acknowledged, hence the jobs got more professional and sophisticated. This is especially very admirable since Eduardo Kobra got no professional training whatsoever.
His asset is exclusively his talent.

Brazil’s Superstar

Today, Kobra is unquestionably most famous for his hyper-realistic portraits of famous people that he paints over graphic patterns of geometric shapes in bold colors.

Street Art bei Eduardo Kobra in Sao Paulo, Brazil
LGBTQ-friendly mural at the Parque Ibirapuera in São Paulo.

He paid tribute to great Brazilians such as architect Oscar Niemeyer and racing driver Ayrton Senna.

Street Art bei Eduardo Kobra in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Ayrton Senna on a wall at the Lapa district in Rio. Senna died at the age of 34 died in an accident at the San Marino Grand Prix.

Anyway, slowly but surely he paints his way around the globe by paying tribute to historically important personalities such as Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein, Anne Frank, Mahatma Gandhi, and Malala Yousafzai. Also, since 2015, there is Bob Dylan in Minnesota and David Bowie in Jersey City since 2016.

Raising the Voice of Color

No, Kobra is not as angry and rebellious as the young men at the Candelaria district in Bogotá. However, he’s not oblivious to what is going on in his country and thematizes social and political problems. For instance, in his hometown São Paulo, he raises awareness for the destruction of the living environment of the indigenous people through his mural Belo Monte.

Street Art bei Eduardo Kobra in Sao Paulo, Brazil
Mural Belo Monte in the city center of São Paulo.

Okay, but how about the awareness for the concrete jungle? As a matter of fact, in 2016, Eduardo Kobra was invited to create a giant mural. Las Etnias, Ethnicities, measures over 32,000 square feet and therefore made it to the Guinness Book of Records.
Of course, by now, it has been exceeded at least twice.

Higher, faster, farther – obviously, very few Cariocas had a reason to celebrate the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. It was a good example of how gigantomania can totally fail. Therefore, for me, it’s really difficult to celebrate an artistic project that was commissioned in the same larger-than-life spirit.
Nevertheless, nobody can dislike the idealist idea of we are all one people behind his work.
So here are the five panels that today embellish Rio’s Boulevard Olimpico.

 Las Etnias bei Eduardo Kobra
Starting on the mural’s left side with a Mursi woman from Africa,….
Las Etnias bei Eduardo Kobra
…. followed by a Kayin woman from Myanmar / Asia.
Las Etnias bei Eduardo Kobra
A Tapajós Indio from the Americas is the central portrait.
Las Etnias bei Eduardo Kobra
To his right an indigenous man from Europe….
Las Etnias bei Eduardo Kobra
…and a Huli from Papua-New Guinea / Oceania.

Eduardo Kobra does not have an agent or manager and can be contacted through his website.

Jorge Selaron

The Cristo, the sugar loaf, these ‘colorful stairs’ – apart from the world-famous beaches of the Copacabana and Ipanema, obviously, it’s these three points of interest that every visitor to Rio de Janeiro puts on his to-do-list.

Albeit, surprisingly – and sadly – not many of these visitors know about the man who created those stairs, the world-famous Escadaria Selarón.

Escadaria Selarón in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
An eclectic mix of tiles and pieces of china.

It was Jorge Selarón, a painter and ceramist, born in 1947 in Limache in Chile.

Selarón led a pretty restless lifestyle, obviously. He had passed through 57 countries before finally moving to the Lapa neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro in the 1980s. As a matter of fact, he moved right next to the stairs that eventually should make him famous – and finally become his death place.

Escadaria Selarón in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Upper tile from Berlin, lower tile from Portugal.

After having made a living from selling paintings in restaurants all over the city, Jorge Selarón had begun decorating the 215 stairs connecting Lapa with the Santa Teresa neighborhood with ceramic tiles in 1990.

Escadaria Selarón in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Flags from African countries in the upper row, musicians who left a great artistic legacy in the lower row.

The Sisiphos of Santa Teresa

He considered this sort of a Sisiphos work a tribute to the Brazilian people.

Decorating the stairs, he first used tiles and porcelain his friends and supporters donated. Eventually, people from all over the world contributed by supplying him with tiles. Therefore, you find the most incredible – and slightly absurd – motives there. In the end, more than 2,000 tiles from over 60 countries were processed.

Escadaria Selarón in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
As French as can be: A camembert cheese and a group of Breton women.

It took Selarón twenty years to complete his work – whereby he did not consider it finished. However, the stairs have been a city landmark since 2005. Also, Jorge became an honorary citizen of Rio de Janeiro.

Escadaria Selarón
A wild mix of faiences.

In a documentary from 2010, the artist explained that for him, the stairs would be finished only the day of his death.

Escadaria Selarón
In 2010, Selarón completed the imposing flag at the top of the stairs, on the corner of Calle Pinto Martins.

Sadly, this day came unexpectedly and far too early. On January 10, 2013, Jorge Selarón was found dead on the stairs, not far from his home.

The police did not rule out homicide since he had received death threats by a former co-worker. However, friends of Jorge’s claimed that he was depressive so that suicide cannot be ruled out as the cause of mortality.

Wanna read more about Brazil?
I’ve written city guides to Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo as well as other great places. Just go to my comprehensive post on Brazil.

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24 Replies to “Street Art in Rio de Janeiro: The Voice of Colors by Rita, Eduardo, and Jorge”

  1. I love street art and these are all excellent examples of them and their underlying messages. Kobra did a stunning mural in NYC that I shared on my blog many times. He erased it after a while but I have the photos.

  2. Hats off to all the 3 artists glorifying the streets of Rio. It's a great way to promote social causes. I specifically love the color usage in art by Eduardo Kobra. Just fantastic!

  3. Love love street arts and these are really amazing! Especially those images from Boulevard Olimpico. Such vivid arts and very realistic!

  4. I love street art and these colors of Rio De Janeiro are mind blowing. I loved Ria Wainer's feminine murals and even the Kobra's style of colorful geometric patterns.

  5. Wow! This is Most interesting place to spend the day and enjoy the beautiful views amazing architecture and art.

  6. These are fantastic and very creative graffitis. They are truly talented and lots of inspiration making this city more colorful.

  7. Wow, what a fascinating read. Of course, I am aware of Banksy, but these artists are up there with him. Some of the murals have incredible detail and colour. There is definitely an art to street art, if you'll pardon the pun.

  8. Very interesting art in Rio! I enjoyed reading about your explanation of some of the history too 🙂

  9. So much fantastic street art! My favorites are all the solid red tones. The art of the 2 boys riding the bicycle is delightful. These are talented artists, indeed.

  10. FABULOUS ART shared here. Thank you. I especially love the work of Rita Wainer's – what a great way to enhance the environment of a place.

  11. They do have some outstanding street art! I love it. I normally get around Scandinavia, where there is a ton of things to approve, before you can paint on a wall. Not sure if it is good or not. Because of the complicated process, mostly famous artists get to work on big walls. But at the same time, we miss some smaller local people, who can do something cute.

  12. What stunning street art, and from talented artists too. I've yet to visit Brazil but I'm so inspired too after seeing these awesome murals. Thank you for brining Rita Wainer to my attention, she's incredible!

  13. This looks fantastic, I really enjoyed the artwork, and how it was show casted. As it give the sense of peace and harmony that you have on your trip.

  14. Cool street art and how fascinating to actually meet the artists. I particularly love the work of Eduardo Kobra.

  15. I always find street art fascinating. There's also a posh community in my country where they put art on the empty walls of sky scrapers.

  16. I think street art is beautiful. Not like graffiti of old that had no true form or reason. This makes ugly places, beautiful and more inviting. Takes away the ghetto appearance and adds life.

  17. I like this different angle of exploring Rio. It's not the first thing you think of when you think of Rio. Now people can appreciate the art more instead of just passing through it. Nice!

  18. There is tons of beautiful street art on the streets in California. Can be very beautiful and explain the history of the area.

  19. Interesting post! Very informative, It really helps you realize the importance and meanings behind street art. I loved it.

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