We met ACME on the corner of the Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana and Rua Sá Ferreira, three blocks from the beach and a place I had already passed a million times before, but never knew hid the entrance to a completely different world.
ACME is an internationally renowned street artist in his 30s who, along other artistic accomplishments, was invited three times and participated two in the Event Graffiti Urban Art Hoptimun Festival, organized in partnership with the General Council of the Seine-et-Marne in Paris, France, with expositions in the Grand Palais des Champs-Elysées. ACME can also have his art spotted in very unusual places in cities all around the globe and as of last year, he is also responsible for the inspiration of the Ninho das Águias project in collaboration with Sciences Po – campus of Poitiers students.
The day was scalding hot. Many people passed us on their way to the beach and many more sat in the shade of botecos at the bottom of the favela. ACME stopped at a stand to buy some fruit that was placed over old-printed newspapers, on the pavement, in front of the station to collect the garbage from the houses on the hill – aka, a dump. “I’m taking my guests to go grocery shopping with me!” he joked.
The walk up was made harder by the fact that the tram recently built by the government that goes up until about halfway the climb to ACME’s house at the very top, was turned off. “They said it was only going to be off on the 1st of January, but I guess someone didn’t want to come to work today…” ACME stated, as if it were a normal thing.
Although tiring, walking all the way up allowed us to have an idea of what these people have to do on a daily basis. ACME’s wife Iani, while pregnant of their second child, barely left the house, and after giving birth to a little girl, Livínia, was forced to climb up all those stairs, which opened up the stiches of childbirth.
Some of the houses, especially those next to the tram rail, are built very close together and there isn’t much airflow. Even passing by at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, the homes we could look into were totally dark and people sat outside on the staircase chatting. ACME said that on certain times of the year tuberculosis is a very common problem, which I had already heard is the case in other favelas I’ve visited in Rio and in São Paulo.
The path to his house is marked by many graffiti on the walls. Some fruit of his own imagination and others made in collaboration with artists of many nationalities – American, French, Peruvian… Later on we were told that the aim was to, hopefully one day, have people follow his art up to his house without either ACME or Iani having to go down to pickup their guests. It is still not the case, but the dream lives on.
During the climb, ACME told us of the importance of his wife in his life. He always spoke of their wishes as one, said that she took care of the more “burocratic” part of their work and was the one to address the women. According to him, “down there it’s different. Women can talk to men and it’s no problem. But up here you can’t just talk to another man’s wife. So Iani talks to the women.”
ACME lives in a very privileged part of the favela, although access to it is complicated. They have a lot of open space, fresh air and an incredible view of the ocean. He explained to us that the canalized water that supplies Pavão-Pavãozinho goes all the way up the hill, to then make its way down filling the boxes of water from the houses. The chance of their home not being provided with running water up there is smaller than at the bottom of the favela. The electricity that supplies the homes is illegally taken from the street cables, which means that many times they have no energy, like it was the case on New Year’s Eve itself, for example.
When we finally sat down to talk, we had met his wife and kids, gone up to the soccer field, taken many pictures and heard many other stories, such as the neighbors that had chosen to give up their home in exchange for money, but never received the promised amount from the government or the little girl ACME saw running around playing as a child, just the way his son was with his friends while we talked, and is now fifteen years old and prostituting herself.
“A problem is like a wave. From afar it looks small, but from close by it swallows you” philosophized ACME, while listing the hardships of Pavão-Pavãozinho – garbage, unemployment, family, pollution, ethics, sexuality, traffic of drugs, sense of community… And presenting to us, what he believes, to be a vaccination against these things: Art.
ACME learned to draw at a young age copying the figures from comic books. Later, he adventured in drawing his family, earning recognition as an artist inside his home. He had a wish to leave anonymity; he went to the streets as a way to diffuse his art, his point of view. But he learned that fame made him feel uncomfortable, that being on the spotlight doesn’t always bring in good things. So he changed his perspective and started doing art with another purpose: the sole pleasure of doing it.
“Some people say you shouldn’t mix life with your work, but I think that to mix life and work is true art.” ACME said, opening his life for us to do our work there as well. Pavão-Pavãozinho is situated in the heart of Rio de Janeiro, between Copacapana and Ipanema. If history had taken another course, people would be willing to pay a lot of money to reside on that very hill. Instead the ones who do live there suffer, in the sense that the simple things, basic things and one could even say indispensable things, are not in their disposition.
However, it is full of life: Animated chatting on the staircase between young mothers discussing their love lives, Funk songs blasting from speakers which are giving their all to hold the base, little innocent children who appear completely nude in front of ACME and Iani’s house wanting to play of impersonating the characters from a TV show with their son and of course, ACME’s art, an explosion of color in the gray and brown environment of the favela.
As we made our way down the hill, following the exact route we used to go up, I was looking at things a little differently. The next days as I walked and drove through the streets I have been in a million times before, I started to notice the graffiti. ACME himself said that down here, street art has a bad connotation. It is seen as dirty and visually polluting. Up there, when doing his art, people bring him coffee and cake; the inhabitants of the favelas praise him for it. On our way down I noticed the meaning graffiti has in Pavão-Pavãozinho.
And even down here I look at it and I still see it – the explosion of color, the hope for change, the possibility for melhorias.