From Sao Paulo to New York: How a Street Art Project Changes Lives

(images via Raquel Brust)

Last Thursday night in Brooklyn:

A suspicious-looking group is huddled around the Bedford Avenue Stop in Williamsburg. One girl is carrying a huge pipe-like figure, another is hoisting a heavy white bag on her shoulders. The group is in a good mood. First a stop at the local liqueur store, then off to N 5th Street. Only interrupted once by a madman, who is curious if this mixed crowd of cheerful people happens to be on the look-out for aliens.
“I saw them once” he proudly claims. “The Martians came in a huge spaceship. I was close-by when it all happened!” The group giggles and laughs and then continues on its way – with a very different goal in mind.

The girl carrying the pipe-like form is no one else but Raquel Brust, a well-known street artist from Sao Paulo, Brazil. What she is carrying is her newest creation of art: an oversized photography of a woman’s pair of hands in poster-format. To understand her art is to understand the city she has lived in for the past years.

Raquel, who moved to Sao Paulo to pursue a career, quickly found the city anonymous and overwhelming. “I wanted to shut my ears and myself off from the outside world”, she describes her first impressions. “I couldn’t stand the noise, the chaos – everything going on all at once.”
Although she had initially intended on working in the city, she also wanted to give Sao Paulo a personal note. This is why 4 years ago she came up with her own interpretation of street art: the Project Giganto, from which she obtained approval by the city.

Her idea involves taking pictures of mostly aged people, who are marked by the side effects of urban life, and portraying their lives in this very city. Being exposed to Sao Paulo on a day-to-day basis can take its toll on especially the older generation. The constant pollution, (traffic) noise, and even just the fact that life in the city can sometimes be rather anonymous – who really wants to grow old like this?

The photographs are then blown up to a monstrous poster size. Some show a person with a personal item, such as an elderly man holding a picture of his beloved ones. Others are focused on different body parts. For instance, in her first year of creating the project she took the face of an old Brazilian native and glued it to the windows of an urban family. “It’s all about the contrast: Shooting pictures of people who will never be used to certain attributes of the city and putting their faces on well-known places that have a lot of foot traffic”, she explains in her charming Brazilian accent.

The artist in front of her own work
How far-reaching her work can be
(all images via Raquel Brust’s Web site)

Raquel wants people to stop and think about what her art could mean. She therefore started hanging her photographs in places that were once common meet-up points of an area and that have been destroyed by the city or government to make room for new but to her eyes ugly buildings which mean nothing to the citizens who have lived there for so long.

Important to her is to bring some human presence to the big city – a place she considers rather inhuman and impersonal. Therefore, an ordinary object is brought to an extreme and hung on popular places throughout the city – for the past 4 years already. Each year has been different as she focused on a different topic. And 2012 was the year she decided to bring her Giganto to the Big Apple.

The group she is with this night is a mixed assembly of folks: Her Brazilian friend, her friend’s cousin, two guys who are seeking out an adventure, and me. All of us have probably only one thing in common: We have never hung up posters in the middle of the night in Brooklyn and we are all very interested as to where the night will lead us.

It is first all about finding the right spot. Raquel is good, she comes prepared. She wants it right there, on a well-lit construction site (which is likely to be monitored by security cameras). Although she was here only a few days ago, her favorite spot is now taken by random ads that take up one side of the wall. And here is where her respectful manner can be detected: Instead of tearing the ads off, like one of us suggested, she walks up and down the street to find a different spot. “No, because then they could do it with mine, too,” she declares. The rules of street art – she is familiar with them.

After some back and forth, the artist finally starts unwrapping her tools and wants to get it on with. By now it’s probably 12 PM. A street full with bars and drunk people is only one block over. Although two cop vehicles pass the scene within only five minutes apart, we decide to continue the project. Two people position themselves on different street corners to look out for police cars.

Raquel, her friend, and another helper start unwrapping the two posters and drag them across the street to its new home. Each poster depicts a hand of an unknown older Brazilian woman. The Brazilian artist decided not to give the poster a face. Instead, she chose this picture to show the contrast between the very young neighborhood and the old hand which will never get a chance to see it. Williamsburg seemed to her the neighborhood she saw the most change in the past few years. Its transformation from a traditional neighborhood to a trendy and over-generalized spot where the masses stream for enjoyment was exactly where she wanted to set an example.

They have to work fast in the dark. The first hand tears. Raquel tries to fix it with glue, but her efforts end in vain. By then, 10 minutes have already passed. The artist and her helpers decide to disregard the first hand and roll out the second poster. This one also starts to tear beneath the oversized thumb but it can still be fixed in the very last stride. No one tries to think about the fact what a fruitless night it would have been otherwise.

The last straw of the Giganto in NYC

After a good ten minutes, she steps away and critically examines her work: A monstrous picture of a woman’s hand right there, on a bustling street in the heart of Williamsburg. The guards are called away from their look-outs. Raquel still fiddles around for another 5 minutes. The paper wrinkles have to be straightened and the right side of the picture still needs some more glue – here and there. “I like the tangible feeling of glue and the waves of the paper. It makes me feel I am creating something, this is work with my hands,” she says happily.
The rest of the group is slightly panicking and urges her to leave the poster alone before the cops show up around the next corner.

Then it’s done! Project Giganto has found its way into the most populated city of the USA. Everyone is thrilled and excited to have been part of this. Whiskey disguised in a bottle of vitamin water is handed out. Raquel and her two friends who hung the poster are full with glue but also carry a very special glow on their faces: The glow of having been part of something that withholds a big meaning in another big city. The glow of having been part of art with such a complex history but that looks so easily created on the blue background …

Joyful jump in front of the finished poster!
The artist and her remains of the second poster

With tears in her eyes, Raquel finishes her interview before she gets drunkenly lost in the streets of Williamsburg. “The people back in Brazil do not forget about the Giganto. It meant a lot to them four years ago, when the project started,” she describes. ”And it still means a lot to them today. They are the very first to call me every year on my birthday. Their faces hanging in Sao Paulo – they still sometimes cannot believe it!”

Her art can be found on the streets of Sao Paulo (make sure to go through this city with your eyes wide open!), in London, and now in New York City. Keep an eye out for the monstrous hand decorating the construction site on the corner of N 5th St and Wythe Ave. Now you know the story!

The Giganto at night….
… the Giganto at day!
and Raquel’s very own interpretation of it!

[Find out more about Raquel Brust here!]

[Find out more about the Project Giganto here!]

[Find what else Raquel is up to here!]