One aspect of the streets in the Rio neighborhoods that we visited surprised us: the condition of the heritage buildings, or at least the pre-modern-style buildings. In the districts of downtown, Santa Teresa and Lapa, colonial and classical style houses and commercial buildings sit among lackluster modern buildings. While a very few are well-maintained, most seem dilapidated, and graffiti coats most of them. The commercial and cultural activities of these districts are vibrant, and yet the buildings seem forgotten. We realized that in many other places we’ve traveled, rehabilitation of historical buildings plays a prominent role in economic and artistic revitalization, as well as proud expression of spirit of place. We would like to understand better why these buildings, presumably from the 18th to early 20th century, sit so mute and ignored. 

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There is graffiti everywhere in Rio. It ranges from cryptic tags to full-on street art. It is not just here and there; it seems to cover every available surface of every building, wall, and bridge. 

Some of the street art is lively and fun — very expressive. 

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There are tag icons everywhere. This is the part where it seems that the proponents compete feverishly to mark every part of the city that doesn’t move. The tags are dark, cryptic — a little like, “I’m watching you!” 

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In between are caricatures and slogans. 

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I asked the guide for our food tour what Rio residents think of the blanket of graffiti. (He is a 30-something Brazilian graduate student in anthropology. He probably thinks more deeply than most about these urban markings.) His immediate response was, “Well, we don’t like it much.” But after a pause, he continued. He said that he finds the street art fun and alive and expressive. He also said that much of the text and caricatures have political messages. There is huge dissatisfaction with politics in Rio and the country. Activists have been murdered, seemingly with governmental involvement. The street markings are a rare way for common people to express themselves. His comments were a little like the first lessons in a new language: What at first looks like undifferentiated texture starts to resolve itself into meaning. There may still be an aesthetic feeling of chaos and degradation, but there are also messages about real life in Rio. 

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