Estenio “Estenismo” Naum grew up in São Paulo, a metropolis long famous for its vibrant street art scene. His formative years were spent in a place and among a people, where art is a natural part of public life and the artist is an expected participant in public debate.
In the early years of Brazilian street art, you were an artist in Brazil, if you were “mad at the government and wrote something on the wall”. Street art was as much a socio-political movement as a cultural phenomenon. It came from the people and reflected their values, and it returned to them to beautify their communities.
As a younger man, Estenio worked in the Brazilian graphic design and fashion industries, and as a tattoo artist in the world-famous neighbourhood of Vila Madalena, with its galleries, bars, and bohemia; and bursting with street art at every turn. So immersed, it was only a matter of time before he took his talents to the streets.
Drawing the eye is the first art lesson, Estenio says, and a single eye is a familiar and recurring motif in his work. For Estenio, the eye speaks to the uniqueness of the beholder. More philosophically, it speaks to human subjectivity. The eye in his work is Every Eye, including the viewer’s eye. Estenio believes that each person has their own unique encounter with and understanding of his art: “In the tunnel of the iris, I see a moment of hypnosis”, he says.
Although Estenio describes his art as free-style, there’s a balance (or a tension) in his work between artifice and nature, symmetry and asymmetry, meditation and spontaneity. For Estenio, there is preparing to paint and then there is painting: thought and planning go into every piece, but there’s also the moment, the situation: “I like to enjoy the wall”, he says.
Here, Estenio discusses growing up in São Paulo and his Brazilian influences, street art as activism, and bringing colour to forgotten places.
How did you get started as a street artist?
I can’t remember exactly, but my first contact with spray paint was when I was just a kid, about 12 or 13 years old. After that, I think I really wanted to paint on a large scale, so I started looking for some references in graffiti magazines, looking through bus windows at the graffiti being born in some city center spots in São Paulo, Brazil. So, I started to paint slowly.
I remember the first time I had some MTN cans was about 2002, and at this time, I started to paint a little more, indoors and sometimes outdoors, and learned some new techniques, tracing and filling, shading… and familiarized myself with new caps [nozzles]. Then, I started to paint with a little bit more frequency.
How does your personal background influence your work?
I like to paint compositions with aleatory elements. I started to draw some studies: eyes and leaves; and naturally they appeared on my walls. Since 2016, we have seen Australia burning, the forests of Brazil burning, the United States burning, and the fire came to my artwork. And that’s funny because some people look at my artwork and ask me if that’s good fire or a bad fire.
Who are your influences, who do you like?
I like too many artists in different styles in graffiti: the wild style, 3D style, the throw-up. But I really like Osgemeos and Speto, because these guys created another conception of graffiti, inserting regional culture, wearing the hip hop scene, creating a new atmosphere. Their artworks have lots of personality.
What is your “message”?
I think the most important message of any artwork actually is that it’s an invitation to people to think about an unexpected thing, what do you think when you see it?
I’m aiming to make art that breaks the monotony of some walls, brings some colour to forgotten places. When you are walking and find a wall filled with colours, you think: “that’s beautiful” or “that’s ugly”. So, it works: people are thinking and looking at graffiti. So, I’ve decided to leave the interpretation to the people looking through my paintings.
Looking at my artwork, what does it mean to you? What do you feel? The fire is something good? Transformation, reaction, human evolution, or something like pollution, devastation? It can be both, it depends who’s watching. Does the eye seem to be looking at you with love, admiration, or seduction, hate? To protect you? Can it save you? Is it the soul’s window?
Plants are always looking to grow, in silence. Is it good or bad? Silence: it’s an expensive good today, a luxury good, just think about it… I do love to hear people telling me their interpretations. These elements came to my repertory automatically, so I feel some appropriation or identification with the artwork. I think it works great this way.
The sense of art is to make people think.
“We look to forms and shadows, not only to colours”
What is the significance of the motifs in your work?
I worked in some elements that bring some influence or inspiration. Like I said before, it came in a totally natural way, because I work with organic shapes and forms. I was just grabbing organic beauties and composing with them – plants, ornaments; but in my point of view, all these ornaments together take on another meaning than if they’re single: they act like a band playing together.
How would you describe your style?
I think I’m freestyle. Since I paint variations of my compositions, I’m always changing the disposition of these elements: sometimes, the way of colouring; sometimes, almost without sketches. So, I think we can say I’m a freestyle.
What’s the difference between the Dublin street art scene and the scene in São Paulo?
I think that there are only minor differences. The culture of graffiti can join different people from different ways of life, but with graffiti as a common point. When we go to paint, it’s just to meet friends or do new ones. I think that’s the spirit of graffiti: to make a visual impact, to bring some colour to a forgotten place.
At some point, I think the major difference in the world at this time is about the past and present of street art. Before, it was criminalized and erased, and today we see people cutting a wall with graffiti to put inside a gallery.
How do you choose a specific place to work?
Friends can indicate where you can paint or not paint. There are amazing spots around the city where you can paint, bringing some colour to the grey sky, inviting people to walk through forgotten lanes. But we must consider that graffiti starts on paper or in a sketchbook. So, I used to study and sketch with black pens with the nearest piece of paper – literally, pizza boxes, receipts, napkins…
Where’s the best place in Dublin to see your work?
Grand Canal Dock. It’s an amazing new spot that painters took some years before. I like to paint there because every time you can see another artist’s painting.
Which Irish street artists do you follow?
I’m discovering some people painting, artists in different styles in Dublin. I’m impressed with the quality and frequency of good graffiti, and all the people making new murals every time. Actually, I don’t know if all of them are Irish. People from different places, different ways of life, but with one common point: the culture of street art. My last discovery was Aches, when I was out walking and saw him in action, with a new series of friends’ portraits – that’s massive.
Is street art political?
The first manifestations of graffiti? They told me, but I wasn’t born. Yes, it was political in the ‘60s, with phrases about the “insatisfaction” of people in France. Today, it’s not only political – I have to repeat this: not only political – but has other manifestations, including hip hop culture, since hip hop took and fed the graffiti into the society.
So, to answer you a little bit more accurately, street art is political, since it’s a popular manifestation. Painting alone or with some friends, it’s a human manifestation, and art is for sharing with all people. Sometimes, we can see phrases at graffiti spots, sometimes figures, landscapes; and it doesn’t matter, because the graffiti is like an authorization to stop walking, appreciate an artwork, and take some instants of reflection and self-knowledge. The places that have graffiti bring people to walk in, to see, to take photos, to see colours, to improve some city spots.
How have the lockdowns affected Irish street art?
This is my first time in Dublin. I don’t know how it was before the lockdown but the scene is positive. There are a lot of people painting. It’s a cultural manifestation.
In general, what role (if any) do street artists have to play in the national discussion?
Street artists have their own philosophy of life that’s more dynamic or creative. Music, theatre, dance, the visual arts – all these elements are going in the same direction. That’s a cultural box filled with the artistic gems of decades from around the world. It would be a good idea to share all this culture with people in general; children, adolescents, aged persons. I believe graffiti can save lives.
Where can people follow your work?
I’m not a hard user of social media, but I keep some of my latest artworks on www.instagram.com/estenismo
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In September of last year, Estenio Naum arrived in Ireland, an outsider looking in and painting what he saw. He says that street art today is more international in outlook, less political, and more inclusive. There are many more women involved than before (he name checks local heroes, Vanessa Power and Holly Pereira). The methods of making street art are also more varied and inclusive: even twenty years ago, he says, using a paint brush and calling it “street art” would have been impossible. Above all, art is a vocation and the making of art is an act of social dedication. Now, Estenio Estenismo is poised to start fires in the Irish street art scene, perhaps literally.
Photos courtesy of Estenio Naum and Niall Coen
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