A street artist has got to have a serious bone to pick to keep on working in front of shouting, gun-waving cops. Then again, I guess Alexandre Orion had a bit of an advantage when the police tried to nab him in a São Paulo street tunnel: He wasn't painting city property, he was cleaning it. For over two weeks last year, the Brazilian artist selectively scrubbed soot from the tunnel until the white surface underneath stared through as a cemetery's worth of skulls.
Every night he worked, the reverse graffiti artist says, he had at least five encounters with state police or the city traffic department. They sound less than pleasant.
"The São Paulo state police are usually very forceful, often holding guns trained on my face, and shouting very loudly," he says. "When they had confirmed that I really was cleaning, they eased the authoritarian attitude and lowered their guns, a few smiled hesitantly, made a few remarks among themselves, and there were even a few words of support."
Orion’s explanation of his motivation for the project, called Ossario (ossuary), sounds as heavy as Sao Paulo's air:
"The skulls belong all to us. I wanted to bring a catacomb from the near future to the present, to show people that the tragedy of pollution is happening right now. I try to remind people of things they are trying to forget."
The only way the city could put a stop to this inconvenient spoof was to beat Orion at his own game. Early in the morning of July 26, they washed the skulls away. When he kept working on the rest of the tunnel, they washed the whole thing. Then, for good measure, they washed all the other tunnels in the city.