Mindfully Reviving the Past
Words by Alexa Bouhelier-Ruelle
Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra has become one of the most recognizable and prominent muralists of our time. Kobra is known for using bold kaleidoscopic colours and bold geometric compositions to complete large-scale portraits. Protesting such topics as the mistreatment of animals, war, and poverty, it is important to him that each work of art communicates a message of peace. Historical figures and musical masterminds continue to be Eduardo Kobra’s favourite subjects. He has done portraits of Tupac Shakur, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Notorious B.I.G., Ray Charles, Kurt Cobain, and Jim Morrison. Albert Einstein, Basquiat, Abraham Lincoln, the Dalai Lama, Andy Warhol, and Anne Frank are just a few of the others who Kobra has honoured in his murals. From the outskirts of São Paulo to the world, Here & There met with this unique artist to talk about everything from his historical research to his hyper-realistic images and his legacy.
"...the streets represent my atelier, my studio, and the possibility of bringing art to many people."
How did you start murals?
Everything started in 1987. I was just a kid, 12 years old. Everything I learned and developed was done intuitively, being self-taught, on the outskirts of São Paulo. When I was 8 years old, I started with drawings in a notebook, and later when tagging illegally on the streets. Following that, in 1990, I started to do my first graffiti artworks, also done illegally. And after that, in sequence, the murals which I’ve been doing until today. But I also like to use other mediums and materials; to me, the streets represent my atelier, my studio, and the possibility of bringing art to many people.
Was it obvious for you to pursue a career as an artist?
I could say that I haven’t chosen to be an artist, it wasn’t a decision, it was an intuition, a perception, it was a matter of feelings, too. So, it wasn’t something obvious, quite the opposite. I simply followed my heart. It was something I went for because painting has always motivated me, it has always touched me; and, coming from a very humble background as I do, from a third world country, the outskirts, without any support, without any incentive, it really was the hardest path to follow.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
My inspiration is in everything that I see, all the places I’ve visited. I can find it in all situations that I observe in life, whether they are positive or negative. It’s in things like social inequality, questions concerning humanity’s imbalance towards using natural resources, respect for others, and tolerance. Now that I’ve been to all 5 continents, every culture, people, tradition, and religion, all these things have become a source of inspiration for my work. Most importantly: people from humble origins, who have important things to teach us, people who dedicated their lives to social causes and so many other things that I’ve found out in my research, during my travels.
Which artists inspired you throughout your career?
At the beginning of my journey, I was inspired by other artists. Especially graffiti artists, like Martha Cooper’s books. But at some point, I started to paint with my own brush, to follow my own path. My artworks, my murals, are connected to what I live, what I am, and my inspirations happen as I find things that motivate me, inspire me, move me, something I’m against, something I want to raise some awareness of. That’s how I end up tackling nature maintenance, Amazonia, indigenous folk, racism issues, violence, tolerance, and union between peoples. I reckon that my work, just like me as a person, is in a process of growth. As I learn more things with time, my work also reflects that progress.
What is your process of creation before your work appears on a large-scale mural?
Everything starts from my conscience, from things I absorb, from the things that inspire me. I’m always aware and observant of everything around me. I can be watching a movie or a series, be in a bookstore, in a library, in a museum, in a gallery, in my day-to-day, walking around, I can wake up one morning and have insight and inspiration. My process starts like this and then builds up to me taking notes on my phone. I have around 2 thousand notes right now. Later I will move to the research step, to a first draft, and only later will I transfer my idea to a canvas, which most times ends up becoming the original version of the murals that are spread around the world. All of them will have a single canvas of the artwork, which is the canvas where I test out my ideas. Finally, I will paint the mural of some of those pieces. So basically, for any mural painted there are 10, 20, and 30 artworks that were created until I came up with the final version.
"...for me, the themes and subjects I address are my main priority."
How much time does it take from your original idea to the actual finished mural?
Most times I spend more time in the creation process than in painting the mural. For example, some murals take 10 days to be painted, but more than a month for me to come up with the idea and fully develop it.
How would you define your style?
My work is called muralism. My style is artworks with realistic images, so I liked to portray the questions of daily life with drama, be it in the Greenpincel project, where I talk about protecting animals, nature, be it in the Walls of Memory project, where I don’t employ many colours, they are black and white or sepia artworks; or, be it the very colourful artworks I make, that are the most widespread and known pieces out of the things I paint. My artworks are always filled with concepts of perspective, anatomy, shadow and light, realistic images, and the messages they carry. In fact, the argument and the reason why that work was done is always more important than the final result, which would be the finished artwork. So, for me, the themes and subjects I address are my main priority.
You work with very specific and bright/bold colours; can you tell us a little bit more about this stylistic choice?
It’s not really a choice, it’s a matter of the whole process. I like to enjoy the creative steps, how I seek the idea and also how it comes organically. I am 46 years old and I started to paint when I was 12, uninterruptedly. I use this term because I’ve worked on Saturdays, Sundays, holidays, restlessly, while I’m searching for something that would fulfil my need to convey messages through my artwork. Maybe even a need to communicate with people, since I am a bit of an introvert. So, I like to use my murals to give voice to my ideas. If you look closely at my artwork, you can see that my work isn’t merely about colours, as I said previously. It is intimately connected with the context, the contents, and the place the artwork is inserted. And the whole bright colour aspect of my artworks was also something that came with time, along my process of evolution as an artist. I didn’t take it from any other artist’s style, it was something that came about spontaneously because I painted many black and white and sepia murals in the past, historical scenes, famous personalities from the past, that are museum images that were usually monochromatic and I wanted to retell those images and that’s how I started to colour them, bringing a new view to those scenes that people had only known in that way.
You work on political subjects and your pieces highlight burning issues, but you still manage to keep this pop art vision to it. How do you choose your subject?
The subjects are something very pertinent, very consistent, very coherent with what I live and the values I hold, and, because of it, I have a compass to guide me. I evolve within the path I’ve traced for myself, along with the things that make sense to me in my day-to-day life. The messages of my artworks are intimately connected with what I am as a person, what I want to transform in the world, what I want to see change, and what I want to bring to the world. I think art has the power to transform lives, and it has indeed transformed my life, and I believe it can happen to many other people through these messages. I believe I have planted the seed of awareness as I talk about scenes that I have witnessed and what really bothers me such as racism, wars, violence, and intolerance. I talk about peace and this is the message that I will always bring in my artworks.
You work on such a large scale. Do you find there are challenges with adjusting your smaller sketches to these larger sizes? How do you choose those specific locations? Are you commissioned by cities?
I have always painted on the streets, and with time I learned how to make even bigger artworks until I reached the size of the two murals that granted me a Guinness book award as the largest murals in the world, along with a 100m tall building that I have painted. This was not something I was looking for, it happened organically, spontaneously. It’s very complex and even risky work that I need proper safety equipment to perform my artwork. There is also the bureaucratic part of being able to paint on the street. As for the invitations, most times I am commissioned, but sometimes I can also go to a place and decide that I want to paint it so I’ll go and ask for permission and follow the necessary processes. Besides those permits and works, there are many murals that I paint in impoverished communities and social works that I carry out. I have my own institute (Instituto Kobra) to help people through art. And anytime I receive an invitation, be it from a city, a gallery or from a private establishment, I find it interesting and important, as long as the context and the content, the messages of my work won’t be altered or interfered upon. ■