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Friendly Monsters
Street Artist Fefe Talavera’s Project for the Deutsche Bank Towers


Fefe Talavera is a star of Brazilian street art. Now one of her colorful “Monster Paintings” adorns the portal of the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt. The work was executed for the show “Street Art Brazil” which is on view on the facades of the Schirn Kunsthalle and throughout the city. Sarah Elsing watched the street artist work.


On this beautiful August day something monstrous is happening in front of the Deutsche Bank Head Office. A small Brazilian woman – wearing sneakers and a hoodie with large headphones around her neck – is sticking letters onto the entrance portal. A fat yellow A is next. It is followed by N’s and E’s, and suddenly myriad letters tumble over one another. It’s the middle of the day and employees are on their lunch break, yet no one intervenes, although graffiti is illegal and a bank certainly doesn’t want any slogans written on its facade. But the young woman is not just any sprayer. Fefe Talavera is a famous Brazilian artist and her work is part of the exhibition project Street Art Brazil organized by the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt.

For Deutsche Bank, Talavera created a dragon whose body snakes vertically on the high glass area of the entrance portal. Like many of the figures the 34-year-old has created in Brazil, the Netherlands, and Sweden, the one in Frankfurt is reminiscent of the brightly colored papier-mâché figures the Mexican artist Pedro Linares made in the 1930s. In the meantime, his friendly monsters, so-called “alebrijes,” have become part of Mexican folk art. In Talavera’s work, the scales of these mythical creatures consist of letters. As good spray paint used to be hard to come by in Brazil, she cut out letters from old advertising posters and used them to compose her figures. Since advertising was banned in the São Paulo city limits, Talavera has printed her letters herself. She brought a selection to Frankfurt in giant cases. “I’m very interested in typography. A single sign can have so many different meanings. I find that fascinating.” Her faith in symbols is reflected on her body. She has a symbol of one of her character traits tattooed on each finger of her right hand. The sun stands for her cheerful nature, the gypsy heart for her wild side, the moon for propensity to stay up late at night, and the third eye for her spirituality.

There is a reason why the wings of her Deutsche Bank monster consist of the four letters of her first name: FEFE. She wants to become freer and opener, and she also wishes this for the people who work in the bank towers. On the forecourt, Talavera has already created a warm atmosphere. She calls every stranger she is introduced to by their first name and looks them in the eyes amicably. She greets the curator of the exhibition as though she were an old friend. Then Talavera and her assistant climb onto the crane again and the artist makes the dragon’s neck. With their masks, which protect them from the odor of the spray adhesive, the two look almost like small friendly monsters themselves – like insects that have landed on the scales of a letter monster. At some point, the wind blows an A out of Talavera’s hand. It flutters around a little in front of the glass façade, before landing in the rain gutter. The dragon has spit fire.   

Catty-corner to the towers the next street artist is already at work. From afar, it looks as though Alexandre Orion is painting with a broom. But he has simply mounted a wide paintbrush on a telescopic rod to be able to get at every area he intends to paint from the crane. After all, the painting on the façade of the empty savings and loan building is to be 400 square meters large. A passerby stops and takes a long look at the figure. He seems to see Dagobert Duck sitting cross-legged. “He’s got gold nuggets in his hand,” he says. But the background to the work is different. For his project Ossario (Sepulcher), Alexandre Orion wiped soot off of a tunnel in São Paulo in such a way as to create skulls over a length of 300 meters. Although he didn’t commit a crime by doing so, as the walls remained completely undamaged, the picture was removed by the municipal authorities. He brought soot from São Paulo to Frankfurt, where he mixed it with white paint to create different gray shades. What the passerby thought was a beak is in reality a facemask protecting the figure from the pollution on Junghofstrasse, a street with a lot of traffic. And the gold nuggets are merely grey stones.

Things are similarly gray and creepy on at the Hauptwache, where Herbert Baglione is working on a mobile construction site in the middle of the square. Behind the barriers you can see long ghostly figures intertwined with one another. Yesterday, this looked like a black-and-white version of Munch’s scream, but today two light-blue spirits have been added, and one of them now sports a white skeleton. Passersby stop and photograph the figures with their cell phones. They know that this is something more than the naïve chalk drawings below at the entrance to the subway. This is art. And so with the Brazilian street artists the Schirn is achieving what urban researchers long for: residents walking through their city with open eyes, perceiving the space in which they move in every day oblivious to their surroundings in an alert, critical way. At the same time, the wide range of techniques and styles used in the exhibition project illustrate why the Brazilian street art scene is one of the most exciting in the world.

A few days later, in a subway depot in north Frankfurt. Next to track-grinding engines and old tramcars is a train whose windows are covered with taped plastic foil. Two young guys wearing earplugs are wielding spray cans. No one intervenes here either – the transport authority invited them to paint this train. During the three-month exhibition, it will operate on the U5 subway line. “This is a dream come true for me,” says Onesto, one of the two artists the Schirn selected for the subway action. “My work will drive through the city. Which means a lot more people will see it than if I had painted it on a stationary wall.” Onesto’s work is inspired by everyday scenes he observes on the street. In Frankfurt, he noticed that people are always in a hurry. “They race to work, and race home. And they’re always stressed,” he says, This prompted him to paint gray figures with neckties and empty faces on one side of the subway train.

Tinho, who is working on the other side of the train, has just finished a figure at the back. A squatting girl with her back turned to the viewer. Next to her is a small boy who seems to have lied down right under the train door. Everyone who gets on has to step over his body. With this work, Tinho recalls the countless kidnappings of children that shook Brazil in the 1990s. The fate of these children has stayed with him. The artist is a pensive type who is very soft spoken. He loves to read. Apart from novels, he has read German philosophers, including Kant, Nietzsche, and Walter Benjamin. Among the French philosophers, he likes Sartre and Baudrillard. He has always wanted to make a work with books, he says, and now that Brazil is the guest country of the Frankfurt Book Fair, it is the perfect time. As his second contribution to Street Art Brazil, Tinho sprayed colorful book towers on the façade of the old police station in the Friedrich-Ebert-Anlage. He is now placing his disturbing children figures above and around them. No one can ignore them here, halfway between Frankfurt’s central station and the tradeshow grounds. During the Book Fair, hundreds of people will walk past them.

In the meantime, Fefe Talavera has finished her dragon on the Deutsche Bank Towers. The work went faster than she had expected, in spite of the fact that it rained on one weekend. Tired and exhausted, she takes a few final photographs and then steps down from the crane. The artist has adhesive residue on her hands. She had taken off the protective gloves she was wearing after a few minutes because she couldn’t feel the letters properly. “I’m very pleased with the result,” she says, “It brings so much color and life to this place.” Indeed, the dragon between the glass towers seems to almost glow – a vibrant mix of pink and blue and yellow. The symbol above the monster’s head glitters the most. It is a golden circle with a silver semicircle beneath it. “This is the dharma sign,” explains the artist. In Buddhism and Hinduism, it stands for cleansing and moral transformation. It is supposed to preserve the stability and harmony of the universe. For .Feve Talavera, that means: “We should think more before we act, and feel more. That’s not a bad idea for a bank either.”


Street Art Brazil
On the facades of the Schirn Kunsthalle and in the city of Frankfurt am Main
Until October 27, 2013.




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