Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

Os Gemeos: Favela Walls and Fine Art

October 2005

Located on walls around São Paulo, the fantastically bright paintings of Os Gemeos (“The Twins”) grab the attention of passersby like a float from Carnival. Full of fluid lines, eye-popping colors (often yellow and red), and surreal characters, their work would be at home in a children’s book, but the story of these artists runs much deeper than Dr. Seuss.

Growing up in the Cambuci neighborhood of São Paulo, artistically inclined identical twins Octavio and Gustavo Pandolfo started doing street art in 1987, after discovering hip-hop culture and b-boying. They’ve since become fixtures in the Brazilian art world, founding Fiz, the first full-color magazine covering graffiti in their hometown. Though hip-hop exerts a strong influence on their work, they’ve never strayed far from their roots, always incorporating the values and visuals of Brazilian folk art in their painting.

The story has even gone international. After an auspicious meeting with San Francisco artist Barry McGee (Twist) in 1993, the twins have begun to exhibit around the world. Their paintings and installations have been the focus of shows at San Francisco’s Luggage Store Gallery and New York’s prestigious Deitch Projects, and earlier this summer they painted a mural at Coney Island as part of Creative Time and Espo’s Dreamland Artist Club project.

As their style has matured over the years, they’ve broadened their storytelling skills beyond latex paint and rollers. Many pieces now include long passages of Portuguese text, an apt metaphor for their style, where every piece is merely a page in a much larger book.

XLR8R: How long have you been painting?
Since we’ve known paper and pencil. When we were children, our grandfather worked in a big print factory, so he always had a lot of paper at home. When we stayed at his house we’d draw all night. Our family also supported us a lot. Our parents would buy us paint and brushes and our older brother, Arnaldo, would help us a lot. He’d stay up and draw with us, and he always had good ideas.

How did you get involved with graffiti? What were your artistic influences?
We learned about graffiti in 1987. We always liked to go out and play in the streets. We’d play with toys, set trashcans on fire, and even ring the doorbells of our neighbors and run away. At this time in Cambuci, the part of the city we were growing up in, there were a lot of b-boys. They’d dance in front of our houses until late at night, and they had graffiti designs on their clothes. We liked that.

Tell us about doing your first graf piece.
We went with our family to visit our grandmother, who lived like 10 blocks from our house. Our dad didn’t like graffiti and hip-hop at this time, so we had to be careful when we put the paint cans in the car and not make a sound. It was very funny. We went inside our grandmother’s for a minute then told our dad that we wanted to go play downstairs. Then we stole the keys to his car, took the cans of paint and bombed three walls near there. They were very ugly pieces!

Folk tales play a big part in your work. Why do you think they transfer well to graffiti?
It’s very simple. Folk art shows the roots of the country. Brazil is very rich in culture in all segments: dance, music, and art. We want to be an example for the world. We want people to say Brazilians have this beautiful culture, a very simple one with a lot of energy and love inside, like our Carnival. We don’t need things, like the best new shoes or a brand new car, to be happy. We worry more about what’s inside, not what’s outside. We just need a beer in the summer and some friends. We love simplicity. We love that you can go out and play football with your friend in the middle of the street, or if you’re a little cold you can make a fire in the street and be warm. Simplicity, freedom, and the ability to improvise–these are the important parts of being Brazilian.

When did the Brazilian graffiti scene start and what sets it apart from other countries?
Brazilian graffiti started in the ‘80s. People used latex paint and rollers to make big figures, but since the beginning, we’ve had many different styles. Some look like things from the Berlin Wall, some use really good stencils. The way it developed here is much different than other countries. São Paulo had no law for graffiti and by the end of the ’80s, around 1987, we had unique pixaçao (what we call tags) and grapixo (pieces). A lot of people who did graffiti in the ‘80s have stopped, but a new generation is doing their own thing. We always say whomever lives in the past belongs in a museum.

What messages do you try to spread with your work?
Our dreams, our love, our hate, things that we learn, messages from our family, fun, political messages, contradictions in the world, stupid things.

How did you two meet Barry McGee? Did working with him influence your style?
We met Barry in 1993 when he came to São Paulo for a gallery show. It was very cool. It was his first contact with graffiti from Brazil, and he didn’t realize that we had this style of graffiti. It was good for us because we learned a lot about American graffiti, like the movie Style Wars, stuff like that. We had some great times with him. We painted some things on the train lines and in the streets. We saw in his work a simplicity of style, how you can do something very simple yet very difficult. You don’t need 10 cans to do a “masterpiece,” just one color. He used a lot of black and white, and we like the way that his work is different than the traditional stuff.

How did your project at Coney Island go?
We had a great time there. We had good people work with us and support what we were doing. And Coney Island is a very nice place, very magical. The name of the wall is “O Teatro da Vida,” the Theater of Life. It’s about 100 feet tall. It contains everything around us: our lives, our dreams, and our reality.

What is the worst twins joke you two have heard?
People saying to us “You guys are brothers?”

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