Escadaria Selarón, or the Selarón Steps, connect Rio’s Lapa neighborhood next to downtown with the Santa Teresa district on the hills above. The Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón started adding colorful ceramic tiles to the urban stairs outside his home in 1990. The neighbors weren’t terribly happy with his bright colors, but he persevered. By the time he died in 2013, he had clad 125 meters of urban stairs with over 2000 tiles from over 60 countries. He dedicated his work to the Brazilian people.
As you can see, the stairs are now one of Rio’s most popular tourist destinations. Almost too many people to even see the stairs.
The vibrant colors and exuberant collages are joyful.
When we looked closer we found all sorts of surprising tiles. Selarón sought out tiles from each of the 50 US states.
The spirit of Hawaii is in there too.
As well as Princess Diana.
Selarón was an outgoing outrageous character. He loved posing for tourists on the steps outside of his house.
On a rainy January morning in 2013, his body was found on his stairs. We were told two different stories about what happened to him. The first story we heard was that he had gotten too beholden to a local gang; he killed himself to avoid being violently killed by the angry gang. The second story also implicated the local gangs. Selarón forbade drug commerce and use on “his” stairs. A local gang couldn’t support his disruption of their territory, so they killed him. Such sadness for someone who brought joy and art to Rio.
We learned that he usually depicted himself as a pregnant man. He also painted many tiles with the image of a pregnant African woman. No one seems to know why!
Here is a panel along the side of the stairs. Selarón explains a bit about his project. You can read the English translation below.
THE GREAT MADNESS
This work of art began in 1990, as a personal tribute to the people of Brazil, using the colours of the Brazilian flag green, blue and yellow.
In 1998, when the stairway was almost finished, I discovered a place where old European tiles are sold (at Praca XV on Saturdays) to collectors and designers. I was so impressed that I knew I had to buy them, even if only one at a time. But as I brought these new imported tiles back, I realized there was no space left at all.
So I then invented the idea of always changing the tiles in a continual labour of substitution. This original idea generated a living, constantly changing, work of art.
Normally a work of art is changed or restored when there’s an earthquake or fire etc… But this work is very different. People sometimes think that I used broken tiles to save money; but the fact is tiles in the colours of the Brazilian flag are not available. I had them made especially for this stairway. Then I broke them up with a hammer and mixed the shards together with whole tiles. The stairway has become a world collection of tiles, with more than 2,000 (two thousand) different examples.
There are tiles from Portugal- Spain- England- Scotland- Ireland- Germany- France- Morocco- Holland- Belgium- Czechoslovakia- Austria- Switzerland- Poland- Egypt- Algeria- Turkey- Israel- Greece- Italy- Syria- Lebanon- Iraq- Saudi Arabia- Russia- India- Pakistan- China- Japan- Thailand- Indonesia- Philippines- Korea- Tunisia- Uruguay- Nigeria- South Africa- Argentina- Columbia- Chile- Peru- Venezuela- Bolivia- Ecuador- Canada- USA- Mexico e Brazil.
On 7 December 1999, I cried with emotion when I succeeded for the first time at painting my own tiles. It was an unforgettable day. This was all that I needed to be able to paint the Pregnant Woman who has always appeared in my painting ever since 1977 because of a personal problem… Since then, I have been painting tiles to honour all who have helped to make the history of this great nation: composers, singers, sportsmen, journalists, TV presenters, professionals, businessmen…
Also some of my friends, clients, neighbours, who have always helped me with this work of art with sacrifice, obsession and great love.
You too can take part by sending me a tile in the post. I promise to send you a photo of the tile in the stairway which has 215 steps.
I will only complete this crazy original dream on the last day of my life.