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In São Paulo, a VCU Fulbright scholar examines the debate between a ‘clean city’ and artistic value

Dylan Halpern is studying the effects of a 2006 law that bans advertising signage in the Southern Hemisphere’s largest city.

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Dylan Halpern is examining the effects of São Paulo's 2006 Clean City Law, which banned advertising signage in Brazil's largest city. (Photo by Ian Gottlieb)

Dylan Halpern is in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, where a controversial law has created a setting that quietly hints something is missing: an urban metropolis of 12 million people, with skyscrapers, a booming financial sector, and no billboards.

“The effects are surprisingly subtle, and that is part of why it’s so interesting,” said Halpern, a 2015 School of the Arts alumnus. “If you didn't know about the law you might not notice that there is something particularly different.”

Halpern, one of a university-record 11 Fulbright scholars currently studying overseas, is examining the effects of Lei Cidade Limpa (the Clean City Law), which in 2006 banned advertising signage in the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere. Beginning in 2007, under the direction of Mayor Gilberto Kassab, thousands of billboards, truck signs, posters and taxi ads were removed from the cityscape. Halpern is interested in the effects of the law on people — as consumers and members of the urban community.

“I’m examining how governance affects the creative culture in the city — everything from tourism to shopping and social visibility,” he said. “It’s a nexus of economic, social and cultural questions that coalesce into this very public, controversial issue.”

Halpern is studying at the Visual Lab of the University of São Paulo Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism. He will remain in the city until November. One of his first steps was to catalog sets of before-and-after images, one of ads and one of street art. São Paulo is known locally as a very gray city visually, Halpern said. Among the topics he will explore: How advertisers are working within the law to create visibility for products and services.

“Where do they fill the gaps — is it cell phones or social media, is it all word of mouth?” Halpern said. “One of the major things [in São Paulo] is the handheld paper flyer and circular. The visual culture sort of finds a way. But the questions remain: How does this erasure of large-scale urban elements affect the city?”

The answers to that question involve a deeper examination of the law and its legacy. São Paulo’s new mayor, João Doria, building on the efforts of the Clean City Law, recently launched a public effort to further erase visual elements in the city. Municipal employees have been painting over street art and graffiti as part of Doria’s “Pretty City” campaign. At first, Halpern said, there was very little differentiation between the street art and graffiti. That has created a complex artistic challenge, he said.

The visual culture sort of finds a way. But … how does this erasure of large-scale urban elements affect the city?

“Basically everyone, more or less, is happy with the advertisements being gone, and happy with the graffiti being gone, and everyone is in favor of the street art remaining,” Halpern said.

How São Paulo differentiates among the categories is important, he said. Drawing a line between street art and graffiti is challenging. It’s easy to differentiate between some graffiti, with its heavy metal-influenced characters, and, say, a commissioned mural, Halpern said. But there is much that blurs the line.

“In theory you can put them in separate camps, but when deciding between a blank, gray surface and some graffiti that may have some visual, aesthetic value, it can be a tough decision,” he said.

Halpern has had informal discussions about the law and Doria’s campaign — with friends, Uber drivers and a few creatives in the city. He will be interviewing more Paulistanos in the coming months. 

“It is a unique situation in which the municipal authority has been active and specific in how it has targeted advertising signage and now street art and graffiti,” he said. “I want to interview people from different socioeconomic groups and parts of the city. I want to see what they think and how these things affect their daily lives and what they want their city to be.”

Halpern worked with the National Scholarship Office at VCU to apply for the Fulbright Student Scholarship. The office provides support for VCU alumni, graduate students and undergraduates who wish to compete for prestigious national and international scholarships. Interested students and alumni can contact the office at natlscholar@vcu.edu or 804-828-6868.