In celebration of Brazilian twins, Os Gemeos, and their museum exhibition at the Boston ICA opening today and carrying through to November 25, 2012, we look back at one of two cover stories we have run with the two artists. This one dates back to July 2010, at a time where their installation work was becoming some of the most experimental and immersive in the world, and when their street work was as impactful as it had always been.
Documentation and text by Caleb Neelon
Portrait by Lost Art
UPON leaving the massive Os Gêmeos Deitch Projects show in 2008, Too Far Too Close, I felt that simple but often elusive feeling of joy. The brothers’ enthralling show, with every inch of space imbued by their touch (Os Gêmeos means “the twins” in Portuguese. think “Gemini”) was an exuberant magnum opus of love and bliss.
It may call forth intellectual musings on the merging of folklore, Latin family ties, and South American magical realism, but chances are the oohs and pointed fingers of a nearby five-year-old offered a more true assessment of what the Gêmeoses had pulled off.
As they build upon these monumental gallery projects across Brazil, Europe, and the rest of the world, Os Gêmeos takes their exhibitions in new directions that incorporate their love of theater, spectacle, musical performance, and sculpture. All the while, they continue their graffiti-based practice of murals and street painting, bringing that joy to people who will never visit one of their gallery or museum shows.
Then, as now, graffiti’s great strength was, is, and will hopefully remain, its ability to cross boundaries of culture and background like no other art form. For Os Gêmeos, that boundary crossing took the form of an art freely mixing the traditions of graffiti with their mutual fantasy world; all taking shaping since the mid-1980s amid the gut-wrenching pain and pants-melting bliss displayed on every São Paulo city block. As Os Gêmeos continue their ascent as the greatest artists the graffiti and street art movement has ever produced, the simple qualities of joy, caring, rage, and empathy ring through their work, rooted as ever in a love that began at conception. —Caleb Neelon
Os Gêmeos: Before we were born, we were both living in a place and we held each other’s hands and decided to come together. We had our first life inside of our mom’s belly. From the time we were born we have been influenced by our family. The way they created us and tried to make us live was the essence of everything. We were born with a lot of problems, and the family supported us with a lot of love. As children, we played a lot together and invented a lot of ways to play, we created our own toys, and our brother Arnaldo, who’s very creative, helped a lot. He always created something fun to do and invited us to participate. He’s 10 years older than us, and he’s very intelligent. So we always played different games, like improvising ways to play. Especially destroying and burning the toys that we were given and saving the ones that we made ourselves. We loved that.
Caleb Neelon: The twins’ giant city of São Paulo was an enormous, sprawling hub, its population nearly doubling during their lifetime. The neighborhood of Cambuci was lower middle class, a place where people spent their days outdoors, a neighborhood where everyone knew one another, but also a place to head inside after nightfall. When the mid-1980s arrived and the hip-hop boom spread worldwide, Cambuci was fertile concrete.
We were two kids that liked to try to destroy everything. Terrible. We never stopped doing things, we loved to invent lots of new ways to play, going inside old factories to destroy the roof and the rooms inside, and set fires everywhere. Cambuci was a very industrial area and we grew up in this. It was a rough era, too, with a lot of crime and dangerous places, but when we discovered hip-hop culture everything became easier.
The first time we saw graffiti was in 1984 or 1985 in Cambuci, with this crew PORTAL. Some of the members were from a famous b-boy crew called Fantastic Break, later called Street Warriors. “PORTAL” stands for what translates to English as “perfect respected organization for all the orange people,”—orange people meaning, like, toy people. Some of the members, guys like Mancão, Fuba, Edu, and Bulldog, also painted graffiti. One night when we were out to dinner with our parents we saw a street corner full of people painting a wall with spray cans. We went crazy. But we also realized that these people hung out there every night. So it was easy, we liked to draw and they knew how to spray paint.
We drew a lot in that time, almost every day, and our mom and dad always let us do that. They gave us our first spray cans in 1985, one was burgundy and the other was baby green. The simplest things for us were so supportive. For example, they let us create stories, illustrate them, and explain them to the family. We painted our clothing, our room, and our house. We had freedom to do that, and when we realized that there was no more space to use inside the house, we started to go out and bomb graffiti. That was when our family started to worry.
We decided to start painting in the street; however, this was very hard. We had no money to buy spray cans, and even just finding good spray paints was very difficult. In 1986 we decided to use latex house paint with a roller to fill in our paintings and use a spray can for our outlines. It was cheaper that way. We used every kind of paint we could find, not caring too much, because we liked to paint, and anything we could find to use we’d use. We were very young then, like 13 or 14, and had to paint our graffiti without our parents finding out. We’d hide our cans inside our jackets before we snuck out of the house, or when our parents would take us to visit our grandparents we’d hide some spray cans in the trunk of our father’s car. Then when everyone was having dinner with the family we’d say we were going outside to play, steal the key to the car, open the trunk and get our paint out, and paint the whole neighborhood.
Every street had its own gangs and there were a lot of fights, but there was a lot of fun, too. It was the street era when everyone used the streets, staying out late at night, some people calling themselves funçao, listening to old school funk, rap, cap in the head, All-Stars, Puma, Nike, and Lecoq shoes, keeping everyone awake with a boom box playing forever. At the time we loved b-boying and painting graffiti, but we also loved not letting anybody sleep.
São Paulo is a very big city, one of the biggest in the world, and we began seeing a lot of graffiti around. We started to recognize names we saw on the street, but none of us seemed to have a way to connect with each other until we all started to gather at São Bento—a subway station in the center of São Paulo—where there was a bench that b-boys, MCs, writers, and DJs all met at every Saturday. This was very important; it was there that we met all the other writers and exchanged information. It was there that we met people like Rooney, Zelão (RIP), Vitche, Defkid, Marrom, Bad, and Guerra de Cores, and we exchanged information about the hip-hop culture and how-to-paint techniques.
There were also clubs like Cadilac, Palmeiras, and Club House where all the people around Cambuci would meet to dance. We decided to enter in the b-boy competitions, but we always had to fight as we left the venues. You know, youth with nothing to do, so everything was about having fun. We were around 15 or 16 then. At the time, people stole your shoes with just a simple word to you. You always had to be ready, especially when you had special new Nikes, and you had to fight for them!
In Brazil, adopting the hip-hop culture as presented to the rest of the world was simply impossible. Hip-hop was a culture born of found materials—an abundance of records, paintable subways, spray paint easily liberated from stores, cheap but carefully chosen clothing—in New York City. But those same found materials, elsewhere, were simply unavailable. And so a pattern developed over and over again as global phenomena arrived in Brazil: popular culture became adapted rather than adopted. The parts that work are retained, the parts that don’t are discarded, and ingenuity fills in the gaps. Brazilians call it antropofagia, or cannibalism.
In the late 1980s we met guys like Speto, Binho, and Tinho, guys who came from the skateboarding scene but hung out with us. We learned so much in this era, especially via Speto, who was very good for that time, and he knew a lot about drawing and illustration. He showed us many things that we didn’t know. We remember teaching him how to do lettering (wild style) and he taught us how to draw characters from different angles, and how to find a style. Before that, we were influenced a lot by Vaughn Bode and old school mugsy characters by guys like Doze TC5, Skeme TNT, and Tack FBA.
It was really a magical time. We all discovered the streets together and learned to defend the idea that graffiti can be made in front of everyone, even if you don’t have permission, especially in the daytime and on Sundays. Because it’s a more relaxed day, there are fewer police in the streets, and they think you have permission if you work in the daytime.
Antropofagia is the instinct to improvise and recycle everything that man can create, to change and reconstruct things for better visual communication. Brazil is one of the best places in the world to create art and to express yourself. People are open to that, and open to receive and transform what you give. It’s a magical place where everything can grow up, both good or bad. It’s really a free country, a free spirit, a country of improvisation, of swing, of what we call ginga, and of happiness. We have all of these elements inside of our work, all this Brazilian love and hate, all this struggle, all this fighting for a better place, these questions and fights, and sometimes a simple escape.
This helped a lot in developing our work, the way we use yellow for the characters, the way we need to put a lot of detail in our landscapes. This explains why we sometimes cover our characters’ face, sometimes covered but open in another way. The characters speak to the city, a lot of people identify with them, they are part of the civilization. The way we use stencils in the clothing of the characters, the way the lettering has to be in perfect straight lines, the way we paint our fantasy world Tritrez, it’s all these ways we avoid the mass of information that you find in São Paulo.
In 1993 Os Gêmeos received a phone call from Barry McGee, who explained, in limited Portuguese, that he was Twist, a graffiti writer from San Francisco, that he’d found their phone number on a mural they’d done and he was in Brazil for eight months on a travel fellowship.
When Barry McGee came to São Paulo in 1993 it was very important for us. He showed us beautiful throw-ups, tags, and characters, and it was very impressive to see that you don’t need a lot of colors to do nice pieces, just black and white and good hand style. After that we started to find good spots, which was really important as we tried to find our own style. We traded flicks via the postal service—there was no Internet then—and we remember the packet that Barry sent us, full of things like flicks, stickers, and lots of other good shit.
We loved it, and making that connection showed us that we could use fewer colors and do more and more and try to find a good result. Just after that, in 1994, we discovered that there were great scenes in Argentina and Chile, and we traveled there and had a great time.
The seeds that Barry McGee planted, the idea that the simplest parts of graffiti could be its most elegant and nuanced, took off in their minds. Os Gêmeos embraced even more the Brazilian quality of improvisation, slowly creating a tool chest of nontraditional graffiti painting techniques. By 1995 they had settled on their now signature yellow and red color palette, and began to paint lone characters in the streets of São Paulo, characters that bore little resemblance to what graffiti meant in the rest of the world. To do so, Os Gêmeos began to mine the baroque religious and folkloric traditions of Brazil’s deep heart, its northeast, a region where the Gêmeoses had yet to visit, as well as their mutual fantasy world Tritrez, where the two had spent their lives since conception.
In Cambuci there’s no nature. We decided to paint our own in landscapes on the walls, putting a lot of nature in them. We love nature and see it in different ways. Cambuci was a place where people go out in the afternoon and sit outside to have a conversation, where children in that time played soccer everywhere. It’s just so massive to grow up here. We think this was the point that we created Tritrez, our fantasy world, so we would have a world to travel to and feel close to the things we love, and feel better. It’s our way to escape all this charging life.
We don’t like to talk much about Tritrez, since it’s unique to us, a place that we believe in, the place we come from and the place that we go to when we pass away. “Tritrez” means “three lives,” our life inside our mom’s belly, life here, and the infinite life when we die. There’s nothing to worry about in Tritrez; everything’s in complete harmony. We can feel the smell of the wind, see many colors in the river; all the fish have particular colors and lights, you can touch whatever you want, and different flowers grow up along your path. Beautiful women dance around the trees, big giant trees with houses inside. Sometimes there’s a music box played by a guy with amazingly colored clothing. The sun sometimes takes more time to sleep. It’s a place where water, wind, land, and fire are in perfect harmony. Whales fly with a fighting tower atop their backs, whales play different music, and light-ducks light the way by night.
It’s the place that we go when we don’t feel good. We go there and feel the orange sky, the water on our feet, the wind that comes from the valley, making us comfortable and forgetful of the here and now. It’s a magic sensation that lasts a second, and when we enter this state we don’t listen, we don’t hear, we don’t speak—we are high. It’s like an orgasm when we start to draw and paint something from Tritrez, a Nirvana, that keeps us full of energy, like running for miles or following a nice round of sex. You look at what you did and relax for a moment, and then your body and head start to ask for some more. It’s funny sometimes how love makes you hate and hate makes you love!
We believe that when you paint and put something in the street, museum, gallery, video—whatever—this touches somebody. People need time machines, they need to fly, to feel love, and we love to make that and give that to everyone for free. In exchange, we have so much to learn from life. We just bring back the way that we played when we were kids. When we were four or five, we were building things, destroying toys, and reconstructing them into others. What we do today is the same. Making sculptures is one way that makes people touch and feel in three dimensions, because everything we paint is a piece of the movement. It’s like a movie, everything is a frame from this one long film.
We also believe in God and in his writing, and sometimes we represent that in our work. Brazil is a very spiritual country, around 89 percent are Christian, and most of that Catholic. This came from Portuguese colonists, and the Evangelists. There are also the African religions that we call Afro-Brasileiros, people from the northeast of Brazil. In Brazil you find all these religions and the mix of religions, people of faith. Sometimes we represent a small church in order to show the belief of the people and how they trust in God.
Os Gêmeos sat me down in their tiny São Paulo rowhouse bedroom in December of 1997 and played the movie Style Wars. Like all graffiti writers our age, we knew every word. Os Gêmeos could parrot every inflection of the New York accent, from Seen’s Joey Goombah Bronx Italian to Crash’s Nuyorican machine guns bursts to Case 2’s unmistakable diddy bop fountain of slang. Yet Gêmeos spoke barely a word of English and only vaguely understood what Seen, Crash, or Case were saying. For my part, I’d landed in Brazil 10 days earlier familiar with a pair of curses in Portuguese, but not “hello” or “thank you.” Finger on the pause button, we scrolled through Style Wars seconds at a time, incrementally translating the movie into a gobbledygook of mutually understood Spanish.
Things have changed greatly for Os Gêmeos in the past dozen years, as they have gone from struggling young artists in their early 20’s to presently straddling, at age 36, the greatest heights the art world offers. Tritrez is now most fully realized in their massive museum and gallery installations taking place around the world. Yet it’s within the graffiti community the twins still feel most comfortable, a community that initially opened these additional new doors, and like their family, keeps them grounded today.
In 1999, Loomit and Peter M from Germany were here in São Paulo and invited us to Europe for the first time. When we finally made it to Europe, everything was super new for us. We met a lot of writers like Loomit, Mode2, Neon, Milk, Pure, Codeak, Espo, Jon One, Daim, and we traveled around Europe, discovering, learning, and showing our style. We had always liked to see stuff from guys like Chintz, Agit, Nug, Honet, Bando, Delta, Moses, Panda, Frs, Aislap, Apollo, Chob, Opak, Vino, Rocky, Blue, Rioga, Lamano, Banos, Blu,Trane UV, Pie, Dumbo, Nema, Aislap, Taps, and many more. After 1999 we continued traveling to Europe almost every year to show our work, making a lot of good friends there. Lots of respect to crews like VIMOAS, TMA, BGS, TVE, TNT, TPG, FIA, BTM, TSK, ALL, THE, WCA, SDKWUFC, MOD, FY,156, NOT, TPM, WOW, and many more.
More recently, we also got to travel to Lithuania for the first time, which was very special to us because it’s our family country, where our grandfather came from. We feel familiar there. We love the people, beautiful girls, amazing food, and snow on the houses in the winter. People still look at you from their windows, and the history is present everywhere in Lithuania, with a lot of romance in the air, a lot to discover and learn.
Finally we got to travel to northeast Brazil as well. This came very naturally in our life, since we don’t try to exactly represent the culture of northern Brazil in our work. We think this happened because here in São Paulo we grew up with many different people around, and this was part of our life. Many of our friends have family from the northeast, so we saw the costumes, the food, things like that. We were there in the northeast two years ago, it was so new and so magical to see, how they’re rich in culture and improvisation, how they escape from their problems and create a very beautiful world. It was amazing to see. Of course all of this came naturally from inside us too. Sometimes we feel an influence from Lithuanian folk culture, mixed with the Maracatu (massive popular theater and performance traditions) from northern Brazil, but the essence of our work is Tritrez.
Many other places influence our work, like Japan, Germany, Greece, and Italy, all in many different ways. Also traveling to the United States every year makes us understand more and more the graffiti culture and all the elements, the real history, and all the magical moments. We met a lot of the old school writers and had a great time with Mark Bode, Lee Quinones, Blade, Doze Green, Daze, Mare, Keo, Ken Swift, Mr Fabel, Ket, Reas, Quik, and also the new generation that keep the spirit of graffiti alive. Respect to Adek, Sacer (RIP), Skuf, JA, Gusto, Miss 17, Yes2, VFR, Nekst, Desa, Earsnot, Cinik, Cope 2, Sen2, Remio, Ver FTL, Amaze, Revok, Grey, Twist, KR, MUL, FX, GOD, PVC, IRAK, TC5, MSK, FBA, THR, NSK, KD, and TATS. We also learned a lot about the contemporary arts scene there, with Deitch Projects Gallery.
There are similarities between Brazil and the USA, like the Latino people, the improvisation, and the ways they invent to create. We learn a lot in the US. You know, information always arrives late to Brazil, so we were forced to create our own way to spray in the streets, but this was for a good reason: today Brazil has a different styles of graff and gets respect for that. What they created in New York City in the ’70s and ’80s will forever be special, influencing the entire world, with some countries taking and transforming into their own very particular scene. The tunnels of the subways in NYC have to be preserved. There are so many stories and history down there. It’s sad that they make The City clean, buffing walls and trains. Imagine how many stories of people’s lives were destroyed? It’s crazy, they talked about “cleaning The City” and they threw all the old red subway trains into the ocean! This is “clean”?
And still, these city transformations and robot governments around the world try to clean the city. Clean? How can they use our money to promote a campaign against graffiti, how can they use our money to clean our pieces? Oof! This is an eternal fight, and it’s good that the new generation in NY keeps graffiti alive. Only respect can make the history alive, visible, and forever young.
It’s good to know that some people keep on doing it, painting clean trains, both people from NYC, and especially writers from outside. They really enjoy the NYC subway, and while it’s hard to see pieces running, thanks to Not Guilty (NY), King’s Destroy (NY), Hard Knocks (Berlin), and Dirty Handz (Paris). You can see that the NY subway is a souvenir for the writers. It isn’t only the graffiti scene that influences our work; we pay attention to many different things. NY is a very good place to see shows, performances, street theater, and music, especially in the subway stations. We love that, and you meet incredible people.
During my 1997 visit to São Paulo, Raven and I met Os Gêmeos on a 12Oz Prophet magazine assignment, their first media exposure outside of Brazil, in fact, before they had traveled to the US or Europe. They knew they would make those trips eventually, and at the time made a prediction: “Coming to the States, we will look at things with our own perspective and we will interpret what we see with our own voice. Of course, something will be lost, but at the same time, our perspective will not.” Reminded of this prediction, they offered an update.
Nothing was lost, we learned a lot. With all our traveling we understand a lot more, learning how culture and customs develop. Traveling makes you know who you are and where you come from better. You understand more and your eyes open to things that you never paid attention to before.
When we started traveling, our work was more concrete. We knew at that time what we wanted in our work. Traveling was the consequence, so it was easier, because things that we learn we just filter and observe. It would have been different if we traveled in 1987, for example, and had been another foreign writer doing wild styles and stuff. We do love that, and we started here with that, but we like to discover other things, too. So all these years we’ve tried to study different styles to find what we have today. For us it’s better because we can see with different eyes, and see more from outside, and enjoy it more. I think that when the guys came to São Paulo around 1997, it was at the time when we were just beginning to find our style, and in this time we studied a lot to see how to develop our style, vision, and essence.
(Os Gemeos mural in Boston for Boston ICA retrospective)
It’s funny how in life everything is guided by God; we were here for some job maybe five years ago and found a flyer in the subway that read “Snow Show” on Broadway. Intrigued, we went and it turned out to be one of the best shows ever. It was from Slava, the famous company from Russia. Two years later, Snow Show came to Brazil and the manager of the company tried to find us there because they love the fantasy behind our work. It’s amazing how life connects everyone together, people that believe in the same world! Immediately we became good friends, and soon went to his amazing house in France, near Paris. He lived inside of a big, 800-year-old windmill by the river, and we were invited to paint the facade and make an installation inside. It was a magical month to live and learn about theater and performance. Last year we were with Slava and the Snow Show company in Hawaii, and then went to Burning Man with them. We didn’t do any work there, just went to see and meet people that believe in the parallel world.
August 1—November 25, 2012