Over the years, the informal city in Brazil has developed its own visual identity, reinforced by its popularity in the film industry and the commercial success of funk music. But the diffusion of images from this does not always play in favour of the favela inhabitants and the improvement of their environment.
It is very difficult to estimate how many people in São Paulo, Brazil, live in the favelas, as there is no reliable official register of any kind. A few years ago, talking with Gilson Rodriguez (the informal mayor of the Paraisòpolis favela) it turned out that over the last official census the envoys of the municipality limited themselves to counting the people who reside on the ground floor of each house (here, it counts on an average of 3-4 floors). It is not very surprising that the favelas in Brazil have an autonomous and unofficial government structure. However, we have estimates around 30%¹ of the population of São Paulo who lives in the favelas. This means that there are about eight million human beings excluded from almost any form of welfare, organized in informal government structures and often openly hostile to the official government. Even the architectural symbols of the formal city don’t have so much value outside its borders.
The favela, together with its government, its laws and its monopoly of violence, has also developed its own urban iconography. The visual strength of the informal landscape is astonishing: the reddish color of the bricks, dotted with blue water tanks, uniformly covers entire Brazilians’ hills. In addition, many favelas are located in extremely peculiar landscape positions and this has contributed to fuel their charm, in and out of them.
THE BIRTH OF AN AESTHETICS
Firstly, Brazilian favelas’ images were spread through cinema thanks to blockbuster films directed by Cidede de Deus and Tropa de Elite. However, it is with Funk music that the favela begins to represent itself, spreading an inner imagery around the globe. Born in the late 1980s in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas as an escape from the oppressive climate of military dictatorship, Funk has gradually evolved into a cheeky and often humorous genre. It has nothing to do with James Brown, if anyone was wondering. Indeed, Funk it’s a Dance-HipHop genre based on repetitive rhythms and vocal distortion – a kind of Brazilian Trap if you will. One of the most important productions was Anitta’s music video of the song called “Vai Malandra”, shot by Terry Richardson and played 400 million times on YouTube. Social exclusion, machismo and racism concentrated in an erotic and violent kitsch landscape, the most powerful tale of contemporary urban Brazil. But the genre is even more interesting because it manages to appropriate non-traditional sexual imaginaries by mixing them with the violent and materialistic aesthetics of the favela, as in the video of “Rahina da Favela” by Ludmilla, which represents a matriarchal favela, aestheticizing many of its symbolic elements (from the plastic chairs to guaranà bottles). The success of this visual identity is due to internal consumption. In fact, it emerged from a survey that the inhabitants of the informal city, in percentage, access more to internet than those of the formal city.
Rahina da Favela cover song, Ludmilla, 2020.
Social networks have a huge number of users in the favelas, which means that the production of images that come out of these areas is incredibly higher today than it was thirty years ago, when the only way to get it was to bring a photographer inside the favela with its equipment (which is still very risky today). Much of the mainstream video production is based on an underground scene that has flourished in recent years thanks to social media, especially in the most famous and central favelas such as Paraisòpolis. Here, every week the main street is flooded with people from all over the city for the “Baile do 17”, the biggest funk event of the informal community. It’s not a coincidence if Instagram has become a very important element in funk lyrics.
Screenshot from Airbnb, 21/10/2018.
Screenshot from InsideAirbnb, 21/10/2018.
CONSEQUENCES ON THE REAL ESTATE MARKET
Certainly, it is good that such a large slice of marginalized society finds media space, but on the contrary it is less obvious to understand how these phenomena affect urban space and the favela. The risk of gentrification is far less paradoxical than it may seem. It is a phenomenon already taking place in several areas of both São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where on Airbnb you can rent a sea view house in Vidigal for a week, paying what a family in the favela would pay for a year. Are you surprised? There is an exclusion of the weakest segment of the population. On the makeshift rooftops of Rio’s favelas in the summer you can see tanned Western tourists taking photos of the sunset and their caipirinhas. It is certainly a much safer business than drugs (which are never abandoned in any case). This phenomenon, already described by Robert Norwit², is now precisely mapped by Murray Cox on his site, InsideAirbnb³, which offers constantly updated maps of all Rio de Janeiro listings. In São Paulo, the phenomenon is more linked to the simple real estate market: the favelas compete with formal territories by offering prices that are not much lower.
Federico Godino, Airbnb listing of San Paolo (Br), 2018.
In Fig.2, obtained from a Murray Cox database, we can see how the main favelas of São Paulo have a significant presence on Airbnb. Obviously, this affects the level of rental prices, which in the most famous favelas (Heliopolis and Paraisòpolis) has two main consequences: exclusion of the weakest sections of the population and occupation of all building land to the detriment of public space. Real estate speculations, linked to the popularity of informal neighbourhoods, are nothing new in São Paulo (the most important precedent is the one of Beco Do Batman).
Federico Godino, Evolution of the Beco do batman area from 2000 to 2020.
Beco literally means “alley”: it’s a small street within Vila Madalena, a neighbourhood that until the end of the 1960s was made up of peasant houses with chicken coops and grazing animals. In this alley, which does not follow the rules of the urban grid in the ‘90s, murals began to multiply by artists who exploited the secluded condition to give vent to their creativity, without attracting too much attention. The phenomenon remained in the shade until the advent of Instagram, which brought the neighbourhood to a sudden notoriety and began to change the ways in which artists use the space available for them. This place started to acquire even more popularity on social networks, that’s why the layout of the works also began to change, moving more and more to a model designed specifically for reproduction on social networks. Today, the ways in which visitors enjoy the works of art are clearly incorporated within the works themselves: the murals invite the audience to position themselves in front of them and add elements that interact with his figure in a sort of diorama in which they are often integrated elements of urban furniture such as benches or swings. Artist tags and references to their Instagram and Facebook pages are constantly in sight.
Screenshots from Instagram, 11/10/2019.
The consequences of this popularity did not take long to make themselves felt for the neighbourhood, in which a very rapid gentrification mechanism was triggered, firstly leading to the opening of art galleries, bars and trendy music venues; secondly, in strong real estate investments in the neighbourhood. Today, the blocks around the Beco do Batman are populated with high rise condominiums, but the Beco has remained the same. This alley managed to give identity and real estate value to an entire neighbourhood, but to feed this mechanism it must remain unchanged and equal to itself.
Today, similar phenomena are happening in the Favela of Paraisòpolis, the most central and richest in the city, which has become famous for its landscape and for the presence of various artists. Among the countermeasures adopted by the Gilson Rodriguez community there’s the will of creating an internal monetary institution⁴, which safeguards the interests of the inhabitants from the investments of the informal city. Beyond the visual identity, a true social identity has been created here, capable of preventing the problems of gentrification, exclusion and erratic use of the common space that the fame of favelas has created in the past.
Translated into English by Francesco Merra.
Cover: Federico Godino, Beco do batman, 2020.
¹ “SP 2040. – A Cidade Que Queremos.”, São Paulo: SMDU, https://pt.scribd.com/doc/, date of consultation 22/01/2020.
² R. Neuwirth, Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, New York, Routledge, 2006, pp. 25-67.
³ M. Cox, Get the Data, from Inside Airbnb, date of consultation 22/01/2019.
⁴ Banco criado em Paraisópolis oferece crédito em dez favelas brasileiras, www.folha.uol.com.br, date of consultation 15/04/2021.