Urban trail: an Irish artist’s take on the street art of São Paulo
The graffiti and strange ‘pichação’ of his adopted city were the natural inspirations for James Concagh’s giant train-station mural
Language of the city: James Concagh with some of the pichação that inspired him. Photograph: Tom Hennigan
Language of the city: James Concagh talks to his volunteers about the project at Dom Bosco station. Photograph: Tom Hennigan
Language of the city: the volunteers work on James Concagh’s mural at Dom Bosco station. Photograph: Tom Hennigan
Language of the city: James Concagh and his volunteers work on the mural at Dom Bosco station. Photograph: Tom Hennigan
James Concagh has long been inspired by the urban landscape and textures of his adopted home city of São Paulo. He calls its ubiquitous graffiti “the language of the city”, so when he was asked to work on a piece for a train station in the Brazilian metropolis it was natural that the Irish artist would turn to street art for inspiration.
CPTM, or São Paulo Metropolitan Train Company, has long since stopped fighting the practitioners of this urban art form and instead allowed its stations and rail lines to become an important space for promoting the work of the city’s grafiteiros.
So when CPTM commissioned Concagh to paint a 20m mural at its Dom Bosco station, in eastern São Paulo, the 54-year-old knew it would be built around the city and its visual codes. The work is to mark the 15th birthday of the line on which the station stands, so Concagh invited six Dom Bosco employees to work with him. “Being a collaborative project, none of us in the group knew exactly where it would lead or how we’d get there,” he says.
They completed the mural over three weekends in May. On the first Saturday the CPTM volunteers were more than willing to mix plaster and apply it as a base to the wall that was their canvas. But when they were asked about what they wanted to contribute to the work they were distinctly vague. “I’m happy to do it because it is something different to a normal day’s work, but what we actually have to do I am not sure. I’ve never done something like this before,” Jairo Dias, one of the team working with Concagh, said.
During their sessions together Concagh drew out of the group some of their thoughts about their jobs, their city and how they could represent these. By the second weekend the team was using charcoal to sketch out their ideas on the plaster. Train carriages, tracks, tunnels and urban and rural views took form.
The group grew in confidence as they responded to Concagh’s challenge to visually capture something of their jobs and city – so much so that the next phase of the project provoked a certain tension as Concagh started to take their ideas and work them into his overall vision for the work.
“Even though I warned them I would change some things around, the second Sunday was a bit tense, as, naturally, they had mixed emotions, asking, ‘What is James doing to our work?’,” he says.
“It was strange at first seeing what we had done being altered by James,” Dias says. “But he is the artist, and when he was finished you could see that he had kept some of our ideas. My art is still there, but it is fun how it became something different in his hands. It will be there forever now, and people will pass it every day and look at it, so I am proud of it.”
The mural, entitled Urban Trail, is made up of layers of concrete, plaster and paint. Concagh has reworked the team’s sketchings into more abstract shapes and added markings inspired by the city’s pichação graffiti form.
The colouring is subdued: neutral concrete grey and plaster white dominate. The layers aim to evoke the accretion of generations of graffiti on São Paulo’s surfaces. “It has the connotation that we are not just dealing with today’s story but the wear and tear of the city, people coming and leaving marks that are then worn away by man or natural processes,” says Concagh. “I would like to leave some trace that people can see has a time element to it.”
The final effect is of a mural emerging organically from the bare concrete wall, as if the anarchic art of the city outside has seeped into the station.
Concagh, who is originally from Dundalk, moved with his family to London when he was young, then returned to Ireland to study at the National College of Art and Design, in Dublin. Shortly after he graduated, in 1984, he moved to Brazil, working at a school for the children of poor farmers in Espírito Santo state. He taught woodwork to kids who walked up to 40km to class, caught up in the social fervour that greeted the end of a long military dictatorship. “It was a very exciting time, with the sense that this was a new movement that would transform the country, and I was very interested in the social aspect coming into my art.”
Concagh moved to São Paulo, South America’s biggest city, in 1988. “As an artist, it is visually interesting the whole time. As an urban-based artist I thrive on cities. São Paulo has this diversity which means you never quite know what is going to happen next. Also, it is free from certain ‘regularities’ of European cities. Things don’t quite work here, and yet they do. There is a sort of casualness about how the city moves. It has the codes of a city, but at the same time it doesn’t. It breaks down certain barriers.”
He cites as influences on his work the paulistano artists Paulo Pasta, Sergio Fingermann and Leda Catunda, but he resists following any particular school: as his perception of the ever-mutating city changes, he says, so does his style. “The critics say I should form some particular style that ties in with paulistano art, but the problem is I am influenced by the city, which is always on the move. At the moment the city’s art scene is feeling quite colourful, whereas I don’t go for that. I am more into the grey of the city, the language of the city which is not particularly colourful.”
Concagh’s unusual artistic journey has been recognised in his adopted home. In 2013 he had a solo show at the city’s prestigious Brazilian Museum of Sculpture, whose Paulo Mendes da Rocha-designed building is an icon of the São Paulo brutalist school of architecture that Concagh so admires.
Dom Bosco station is also in this brutalist style. Its concrete concourse is an appropriate space for displaying this self-described brutalist artist’s largest work, which now greets thousands of paulistanos every day as they step off the train from town.
GRAFFITI VERSUS ‘PICHAÇÃO’
New challenges old
When graffiti first came to São Paulo it was, as in many other places, viewed as a social ill that degraded life in this gritty industrial city. But these days its citizens and most of its political leaders embrace this urban art.
Today city hall turns over public surfaces to São Paulo’s grafiteiros to bring colour to the concrete jungle. Some of these artists, such as the Os Gêmeos brothers – the Twins – have won international renown and had their work exhibited in Brazil and abroad.
But if graffiti has gone mainstream, a new phenomenon has emerged to claim its countercultural space. Strange runic symbols have been sprayed on to buildings in the city. These crosses between tags and hieroglyphs are pichação – roughly, “tar writing” – left by youth from the urban periphery who use them to communicate with each other and mark their presence in a city they often feel alienated from.
Many city residents hate them for it, despising their pichação as visual pollution. In poor neighbourhoods where the work of pichadores is everywhere, some residents have asked grafiteiros to spray the walls of their homes, as pichadores will not cover signed graffiti.
Concagh, who is fascinated by pichação, has incorporated elements of it into the mural. “People don’t like it, but it is here,” he says. “It is not going away, so what are we going to do about it? Maybe we could try and understand that it is a coded, mysterious language that needs to be addressed. Pichação is people making a place in the city to talk.”