Artist Spotlight: Mag Magrela
Digital Brazil Project: How did you start out as an artist? Did you have a mentor who taught you? How did you learn the techniques that you use?
Mag Magrela: II think that everyone is born an artist and in life as we evolve, we develop further, so it was like that for me. I always really liked art and I always expressed myself that way and when I was a child I had a strong artistic impulse. Then in 2007 I took a three-month graffiti workshop here in São Paulo with Rui Amaral, who is one of the precursors to street art in Brazil. So I began with him. The truth is that in those three months I learned some things, but I also started going out to paint in the street with the other people from the workshop. So through this course, it isn’t that I was learning how to paint, but I met people and over the years I also learned some new things. Little by little I began to understand that it was possible — that it is possible — to live off of art and to be an artist, which was never an option for me. I was never taught in school that creative careers like this existed. I was so lost as a teenager and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. In my twenties I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, either. After that workshop when I was 23 I said, “Hey, I
It hasn’t been just one mentor. Every person with whom I’ve connected are people who teach me a lot and I transform.
think this is it!” And I began to find myself and to experiment with artistic techniques. I started to do exhibitions, and paint in the street, and meet the people who paint in the street here in São Paulo. This just kept growing, and people on the internet liked my work and I started to sell canvases, and then I started getting invited to paint murals and made a living that way. So my life as an artist was maturing as I was beginning to feel more secure and having a voice and representation within the graffiti scene. Eventually I distanced myself from graffiti because in Brazil the idea of graffiti is associated with illegality. Like you go to a place and do it without asking for permission and people go tagging. I have done that, but nowadays I do it less. I like to get permission for the wall and talk it over with the owner and discuss ideas. It’s another kind of interaction with the street. For me the street is something else, I don’t want to attack the street. I want to exchange, communicate, and learn with people who are in the same space, who are out there in the street. So basically my artistic life started a little late, and that’s fine. There’s no right or wrong way to begin. I started at 23 and it’s been growing ever since and today I go with my intuition. There’s no formula. I let things happen. I discovered my own technique along the way and I do what I feel like doing. So for example I don’t really like using spray paint. I prefer to use brushes and latex and acrylic paint. I don’t really like the way spray paint ends up. I use it, but I use it very precisely for certain things. But really this process took years of experimentation because nothing was set in stone. And regarding the mentor that you asked about, I think I’ve had many mentors. Ever since I was kid, I had this bond with my dad, who painted with oils at home and I never painted with him, but I used to watch him. So the first time I painted in the street, I had never done it before, but I already know how to do it because of years of observation. So with my dad I learned through observation and over the years I’ve met so many people. It hasn’t been just one mentor. Every person with whom I’ve connected are people who teach me a lot and I transform. So it hasn’t just been one person who has done that to me.
Digital Brazil Project: Which are artistic mediums to you work in and how do they interact with one another?
Mag Magrela: Graffiti opened a portal for me to different possibilities of expression and it’s beautiful because I think there are so many expressions. I use different techniques to express myself, so I write poetry, I make music with other women, which is really cool, too. I paint murals and canvases, and I do performance art. I have a performance piece called “Meu muro”/ “My Wall,” which I did in New York during a residence there. I also like sculpture. I feel that these things feed each other. When I’m in my workshop it’s really cool because I learn a lot and time is different. When I’m working on a canvas, time is different. When I’m in the street, it’s something else. Whatever I learn in my workshop, I take to the street. When I’m in the street, there’s a whole
issue of lightness, of movement, everything is bigger, it’s more out there. At the workshop everything is inside, more contained. Then whatever I learn in the street, I take back to the workshop. When I’m making music, the perception of the brain when I’m writing melodies, harmonies, and arrangements certainly influences the way I’m going to paint and what I’m saying in the painting. This alleviates some of the issues that I wasn’t able to address through painting. Poetry is the same thing. There are some things that we can only express through words. That anguish or that glee or whatever else you were looking to communicate is much better with words. And sometimes those words are on a canvas, or painted on a wall. I like to give my works titles and the title is usually from poetry, so everything is all tied together. Each one compliments the other.
Digital Brazil Project: What does it mean to you to paint in the street?
Mag Magrela: It means everything! It’s extremely important. As I said, I have enormous respect for the street. When I go painting, I don’t want to attack the street, I want to communicate and have an exchange. Sometimes I go with my objectives, when I’m expressing myself I have nice things to say and there are some difficult things too, since we live in a complicated society. And I use my anxieties to help me express myself. But when I put this in the street, even though I want to say something, I go with respect for the people who are living there, the people who pass by. So for me it’s extremely important. I learn so much when I go to the street. Painting in the street enables me to break down the boundaries, break down the social walls, of social inequalities. It’s a moment when I can communicate with many different kinds of people, from people experiencing homelessness to people who live in working-class neighborhoods, or people who live in rich neighborhoods and
When I go painting, I don’t want to attack the street, I want to communicate and have an exchange.
if I weren’t there painting in that moment, I never would have had the chance to interact with them. So painting in the street enables that unique interaction. And it’s magical, people love it. People are so connected to artistic expression. In the different places where I’ve painted, the connection really is magic.
Digital Brazil Project: How would you describe the figures that you paint?
Mag Magrela: They’re women and feminine energy. Every year that passes, I understand more about the figures. There are some things in my art that I can’t really explain, they just happen. The truth is that these figures show me feminine energy, which I think is what’s missing from society as a whole. It’s the feminine energy of caring, of respecting, of generating, of time, of the cyclical nature of things, of planting. I think that there’s a lack of feminine energy, and in fact everything that comes from the feminine is being massacred in society, especially in my country. So everything that is natural, like wilderness and forests, everything that is feminine energy is being massacred. Today I understand that it was crucial to search within myself and cure the feminine in me, which was very damaged. Years back, my women that I painted in the street had bruises on their bodies, they were bleeding. They were very hurt because I was very hurt. I needed to express that, so little by little I was healing myself, healing my soul or my being or whatever you want to call it, and they were also expressing that. Today, there are other elements that I can express and other feelings, not only that pain. There’s still pain because unfortunately things haven’t really changed. Things haven’t changed in several aspects, from violence against women to the mistreatment of planet Earth. These women represent feminine energy. They represent the human being as a whole. It’s the feminine that exists in all human beings, not only in women because I think that human beings have both polarities.
The interesting thing about my figures is that they don’t wear clothes. Which is something that I can’t put on them; it doesn’t really make sense and I guess I’ve never tried. I like them nude. It’s interesting because since they’re not sexualized, I paint them in the street and many people don’t even notice that they’re naked and they are not shocked. Nonetheless, I’ve had a few acute moments when I couldn’t make them because their nipples were showing. Interestingly, one of the places where I had to cover it was in New York. My friend who lives there told me, “No, here there’s a puritanical relationship with the body and covering up.” She talked about the hypocrisy of that as well, but I thought it was fascinating. In Brazil we have our own issues with the body and with how people dress, what they read, what kind of porn they consume, and so you put a naked woman in the street who is not sexualized and it’s not a shock.
I think that there’s a lack of feminine energy, and in fact everything that comes from the feminine is being massacred in society, especially in my country.
Digital Brazil Project: In São Paulo, what are the city’s policies regarding street art and graffiti? Does the city support projects? Is painting in the street criminalized?
Mag Magrela: Well, when you go paint without permission, if the police catch you, you are fined. This is a new policy. When I started painting, there was another kind of politics where if you painted without permission, they just removed your piece and you weren’t fined, but you had to sign saying that you committed an “environmental crime” and instead of paying a fine you had to purchase and donate staple food baskets to food-insecure families. Nowadays if you’re caught painting without authorization on public or private property, you pay a fine that’s I think about BR$4000-5000. So spontaneous graffiti has gone down some, but it’s still happening, and pixação and tagging exists, but it’s done by
especially brave people since this kind of art is now complicated since they mess with your money. At the same time, a few years ago the city started issuing Calls of Artists that began to support street art in São Paulo. Now there’s the Open Museum of Urban Art, which together with private companies supports projects and gets permission from the city, so I can paint murals in the city. This opened a whole range of possibilities. While there is repression, there is also this other area that facilitates artmaking, but you have to know how to access it. You have to have an education to be able to read and write proposals for the Call for Artists, you need to know producers, so there’s this segregation between those who are able to make this kind of art with these Calls for Artists and those who can’t. The scene is bustling right now because of these public Calls for Artists and because of the corporate sponsorship of projects. There are so many buildings being painted right now in the city. In fact, I’m currently dealing with a situation in which I have funding to paint a building from the city government of São Paulo and the Consulate of Germany, but I can’t find a building to paint, because most of them are already painted. We have so many buildings in São Paulo, but a lot of these buildings ask us for money to be able to paint them. They want us to pay for our work to be there. And you have to tell them, “No, man, this is a work of art, not an ad.” So, people are still learning about this movement. I’m not going to pay to have my work up, it’s an exchange. I’m creating it for the city. So, I’m living through this odd situation right now where I have the money, but I don’t have a place to paint. Usually it’s the other way around, where you have a wall but you don’t have any money! So there’s an emerging scene here in Brazil.
Digital Brazil Project: Are you able to work during the pandemic?
Mag Magrela: Yes, I am working during the pandemic. At the beginning I had several orders for canvases, so that was great because I was staying productive and I think it helped me deal with the pandemic psychologically, because art has a healing power to it and I could be there and focus and not let my mind wander. In Brazil, it’s been complicated because we never had a de facto shelter-in-place and now people are going out and doing things, so there are some opportunities to paint murals now with all the PPE. I’m not sure if I want to do it yet.
Interview and translation by Kristal Bivona.