Os Gêmeos delight and provoke

Brazilian surprises
By GREG COOK  |  August 10, 2012

os gemeos
TAGGED The giant mural by Os Gêmeos at Dewey Square has provoked wonder — as well as an uproar. 

Fox 25 viewers are in a tizzy about Brazilian graffiti stars Os Gêmeos's seven-story mural depicting a giant masked guy in Boston's Dewey Square after Fox Boston asked on Facebook Saturday: "What does it look like to you?" Responders called it "the wife of a terrorist," "towel head," "gay ninja," "Taliban fighter" and "a tribute to [President Barack] Obama's birthday."

>> SLIDESHOW: Os Gêmeos exhibit at the ICA Boston <<

Racism, sexism, homophobia. ACLU of Massachusetts executive director Carol Rose judged Fox folks' reactions "troubling." But the connotations of the mural are more nuanced and complicated than either side — the Fox bigots or the ACLU — may recognize.

When identical twins Gustavo and Otavio Pandolfo, known as Os Gêmeos (Portuguese for "the twins"), began painting the mural on the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway ventilation building two weeks ago, Institute of Contemporary Art adjunct curator Pedro Alonzo described the amazing giant cartoon figure — with a shirt wrapped around its head as a mask, plus eye-popping checkerboard pants and a stenciled flower-patterned shirt — as a graffiti artist.

So the official line was: an innocuous tagger. But the masked giant could easily spark memories of the Occupy protestors who encamped there last fall. In the past, Os Gêmeos have used similar masked figures to represent taggers as well as crooks, rioters, rock-throwers, activists and — in tone-deaf attempts at satire — terrorists. The 2005 book Graffiti Brasil includes a photo of their painting of a masked figure under the slogan (in their native Portuguese): "Viva terrorism."

Two weeks back, Gustavo told me it was just a coincidence that they ended up in Dewey Square. "We don't really want to explain the meaning of this," he said. "We let people imagine things."

The mural, which could be up for as long as 18 months, was miraculously done with approval from the Greenway, the State Department of Transportation, and the city. This awesomeness is part of Os Gêmeos's self-titled show at the ICA (100 Northern Avenue, Boston, through November 25). Part of the cost of graffiti outlaws going legit is doing more and more stuff that's super safe cuteness. Or pretends to be so.

In the 1980s, when hip-hop arrived in the twins' native São Paulo, they took up break dancing, then graffiti. Their lettering was inspired by dribs of news from New York as well as local pichação tagging, but developed mainly in creative isolation. Part of its uniqueness was that spray paint either sucked or was too pricey in Brazil, so in 1986 they adopted house paint and rollers. Then Barry "Twist" McGee, a San Franciscan with feet in both the graffiti and fine-art worlds, met the twins while on a fellowship to Brazil in 1993 and inspired them to add characters. Now their signature yellow-skinned cartoon guys have placed them among the top-10 most celebrated street artists in the world.

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