Selarón's Stairs / "I have more than 4,000 stories I could tell you"

In addition to Copacabana Beach, the Christ Statue and the Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro has a heap of other beautiful and undiscovered places. In the bohemian neighborhood of Lapa in central Rio, hides Escadaria Selarón – one of the most fascinating and original staircases in the world. Its vibrant green, yellow and blue colors, which are colors of the Brazilian flag, is the artist Jorge Selarón’s personal tribute to the Brazilian people.

Escadaria Selarón, which translates to Selarón’s Stairs, was in the ‘90s just a set of dirty stairs by the artist's home (where he, by the way, still resides). In order to make his surroundings pleasant, Selarón frequently cleaned the stairs and planted flowers in a bathtub that he located by them. Soon, he started decorating the stairs with recycled tiles, ceramics and mirrors that he had found from construction sites throughout the city. And this is how his masterpiece was born 22 years ago.

“I became so obsessed with these stairs that there was a time in my life when I bought tiles for $2,000; but I barely had anything to eat,” Selarón says.

After Brazil won the World Cup in 1994, Selarón, 55, decided to celebrate the victory by further develop the stairway adding more elements to it. Although Selarón believes that the Brazilian flag, due to its lack of red color, is one of the ugliest flags in the world, he is proud of his artwork, and has recreated it by giving it "life” and adding red tiles. Since then, Escadaria Selarón has been a never-ending project, constantly upgraded with new tiles.

“To me, the stairs are like a woman who is never satisfied,” Selarón says. “Once it gets a new tile, it wants a new one, and a new one. It has become spoiled, always wanting new tiles; more attention and admiration.”

And just as Brazilian women are admired around the world, so is Escadaria Selarón. It has become a trendy tourist destination, attracting nearly 250 visitors daily from around the world. Furthermore, it has appeared in many famous media such as travel programs, documentaries and commercials. Snoop Dogg and Pharell Williams recorded the music video to the song Beautiful there. Since then U2, Flo Rida and ”the Incredible Hulk” to mention a few, have included the stairways in their music videos, movies and magazines.

The 215 steps that measure the 410-foot-long stairway are covered with more than 2,000 ceramic mosaics tiles from more than 60 countries. Of these, Selarón says that 25 U.S. cities are represented, including Atlanta, Philly, DC and Chicago. He points at a tile showing the Chicago skyline and explains that it, like many of his tiles, was a gift from a visitor. The exceptional images portrayed on the tiles make for a unique total vision. Some tiles represent a country's traditional symbols, religious icons and famous scripts; while others symbolize images and rectification of well-known paintings. However, there is one recurring theme found in Selarón’s work: that of pregnant black women – these are seen in more than 300 of his tiles.

The recurring theme that all are hand painted by Selarón is, different from his other colorful tiles, painted in black and yellow illustrating a dark and gloomy story. The pregnant women, painted in caricature, appear to belong to the underprivileged and socially excluded individuals living in the favelas of Rio. BBC’s recently reported that a 2010 census report made by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) showed that non-White Brazilians are now the majority of Brazil’s population; yet, these are primarily the ones living in extreme conditions of poverty. Analyzing some segments correlated to this issue, it is fair to say that racial discrimination and economic disadvantages have haltered the evolvement for this group. Women and children are the ones at most risk of marginalization seeing that issues of education, unemployment, health, various forms of violence and unwanted pregnancies are the major problems. The conditions perpetuate an ongoing cycle of poverty. To address some of the issues related to this, the government invented in 2006 the anti-poverty scheme Bolsa Familia, which is a social welfare program that provides financial aid to poor Brazilian families who have children.

Whether Selarón’s tiles of black, pregnant women is to address the social issue, or if they depict women with whom he may has had a past can be speculated. He claims that the theme is tied to a personal story that he does not wish to discuss. Regardless reason, the provocative images spark debates among visitors. Some find the tiles to be offensive while others find them intriguing. Nevertheless, the mystery has transformed into one of the artist’s bestselling items.

Since 1997, Selarón has sold an estimated 25,000 paintings. From his atelier, which is attached to his home, he sells everything ranging from $1-postcards to more expensive and complex tile paintings. Although he does not make a fortune on his artwork, he makes enough money to “get by” and to financially support his ongoing work.

“Everyone recognizes the image of the stairs, but very few people know its history,” he says. “Behind every tile is a story. I have had more than 4,000 tiles placed on these stairs since I started, therefore I have more than 4,000 stories I could tell you.” Like a magician pulling out a rabbit from his hat, Selarón starts telling the story of when Transformer-actor Anthony Anderson visited the stairs a few years ago. At the time, Selarón had no idea that Anderson, who was there with his wife, was famous. Anderson bought six paintings before other visitors recognized the actor. Instead of shying away like many celebrities would, Anderson put on an improvised show for his fans and started dancing and even getting the crowd to sing “Beautiful” with him.

“Things like that can happen here because these stairs have soul,” Selarón says. ”The most gratifying moments here is when I feel the positive energy from my visitors. Knowing that my work is appreciated keeps me going.”

Selarón’s laid-back personality matches his gray ponytail, worn-out jeans and red t-shirt. He is frequently seen among his visitors talking, joking and striking comical poses in photographs. Selarón, who was born in Chile, visited and lived in more than 50 countries before settling in Brazil in 1983. In May 2005, Selarón was awarded the Pedro Ernesto medal – the highest commendation granted by state of Rio. He was also named Honorary Citizen of the Municipality of Rio de Janeiro for his great and committed work. He cares for his stairs with much concern, and treats it almost as if it was an extension to his home.

“This crazy and unique dream will only end on the day of my death.”

{ exclusive feature}
by Rafaela Stalbalk

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