Baixo Ribeiro and Mariana Martins
Baixo Ribeiro and Mariana Martins, at Choque Cultural, 2004. Photo: Rui Mendes

One of the essences of graffiti is to expose conflicts, release energies, expose the system's splinters and create instant art, often made in the dark of night, seasoned with humor and ideological residues. Tuned with other cosmos, for 20 years the Choque Cultural gallery has appeared in the São Paulo art circuit interested in an expanded, diversified production, outside the traditional art system and involving other interlocutors. Mariana Martins and Baixo Ribeiro, architects and researchers, opened up to the art of tattooing, performance, hip hop, skateboarding, punk rock, all in tune with the dissolution of the cultural boundaries of a mediatized society. They believed that the art world needed this new energy. A provocative “disorder” then becomes the driving force of an aesthetic program whose ideas emerge from ruptures and not from continuities. The poetic dimension is driven by its socializing function. In this context, formal, conservative criticism, which observes this type of art from a distance, has given way to a more “smart” glimpse with tentacles in experimental exhibitions by emerging young artists and audiences. A pioneer in urban art in Brazil, Choque, right in the first years of activity, becomes a contemporary reference with crossings of pioneering poetics.

There has always been a generalized anxiety to restore art to life, to everyday life and to society. Baixo Ribeiro recalls that Choque, above all, is an idea that worked. “Actually, it's a concept that, to put it mildly, means that when the different are put in a collision, they generate energy, and we manage to direct that energy towards creating a social impact. Basically this is our method”.

Restless researchers, the couple broadens some reflections on color by tattooing their bodies, giving life and movement to a tangle of traits they have chosen. They literally demonstrate that the perception of the chromatic phenomenon goes far beyond the limits of a screen, a video or a wall. The spirit of graffiti starts there, with the idea of ​​walking down the street, of performing the way you want and with whom to show up.

Three names are behind Choque. In addition to the founding couple, historian Eduardo Saretta, a member of the art collective SHN, also works. And it is Saretta who does most of the traveling to organize international productions. “He is responsible for contacting artists from abroad,” says Baixo. The trio organizes exhibitions, with residencies and interventions throughout the city. It was like that with the action Buenos Aires in Shock, in 2009, when ten artists took up residence in São Paulo for two months and carried out various interventions throughout the city. Among them was TEC, an Argentine artist who has been part of the cast of Choque since 2006.

How did the idea of ​​launching a gallery so different from the existing ones come up? “I entered FAU/USP in 1982 and found Mariana and several artists. We used to hang out with Alex Flemming, Mauricio Villaça, Carlos Matuck, Arthur Fajardo, who did graffiti. They were artists who had a vision of the city as a platform for communication and also for art”. They formed a group after Alex Vallauri, pioneer of the movement in Brazil, Hudinilson Júnior, John Howard, Walter Silveira, author of the iconic Hendrix Mandrake Mandrix (1978/2018). They used the city as a place of communication and as a poetic issue. “Today, many things are back and many works/poetry, made in the style of lambe-lambe, are stamped especially in the center of São Paulo. The artistic diversity is great, some works are printed in woodcuts, others mix everything and there are those that are inspired by the haikai poem”.

The generation of graffiti artists after Vallauri, according to Baixo, was not linked to them. “Speto, one of the recognized artists, did not look at Vallauri's work”. He was in touch with hip hop, a strong movement that mixes music, dance, skateboarding, something related to behavior. This group wanted to develop their own style, do something more authorial. “The musical movement influenced many artists, provoking the possibility of the graffiti artist being an author”. In the transition from the 1990s to the 2000s, signed graffiti emerged, when Choque realized that there were artists who dominated the large scale. “We thought there might be a market, most artists worked in advertising”. When hip hop appears with a worker and factory concern, the lyrics start to be spray-painted. “The artists were excited with the diversified works, and in this mix appear Merlin, Speto, Nunca, Os Gêmeos, among others, from a generation of graffiti artists that are here to stay”.

With the climate of change, Choque welcomes various types of collaboration, such as exhibiting together in museums and galleries here or abroad. This is how the gallery performed with part of its cast at Jonathan Levine, in New York. “This exhibition was very important because it was reported in the New York Times, which considered the exhibition as something new”. In 2009, another important milestone, the São Paulo Museum of Art (Masp) receives Choque with the exhibition Inside out, outside in, curated by the trio. Among the successful experiences, Baixo considers the exhibition Cultural Shock at Fortes Vilaça, in 2006, at the beginning of the gallery. “A professionalizing experience for young artists”.

Inside Out/Outside In
Panoramic view of the exhibition De Dentro para Fora/De Fora para Dentro, at Masp, 2009. Photo: Flavio Samello

In 2002 they decided to produce prints at affordable prices for new collectors. “But it wasn’t enough just to sell engravings”. The house they were installed in was a place of work. “In the basement, the walls were full of graffiti, stickers and upstairs we made the place more tidy to receive print buyers”.

The effervescence that hovered over Choque was not enough to unite some supposedly similar groups. Baixo recalls that some tattoo artists, for example, did not know the artists of the graffiti group. “To bring them together, we decided to make the show Calaveras (Skulls), on the Day of the Dead, bringing together 15 graffiti artists and 15 tattoo artists, who sold their work to each other”. Choque's public saw the exhibition as a space for buying prints. People from fashion, digital culture, video or those simply attracted by the ebullition passed by. “Curators, advertising company owners, people from the arts like Carla Camargo, Emanoel Araújo, José Olympio also arrived to talk”. It was from there that they decided to discuss the art space and organized the exhibition garbage disposal. “We spoke with the owner of the restaurant next to the gallery that opened the space for us to do something. At the house of indigenous artifacts, also nearby, the owner suggested that we look for the graffiti artist Nunca, who had contact with indigenous artists, and so we organized an exhibition with works by Diego Karaja”. The set of actions carried out by Choque Cultural in these two decades reaffirms the gallery as a place where contemporary aesthetic emergencies find various channels for dialogue. ✱

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