Os Gemeos: Brothers In Art
By RJ Rushmore
When they’re painting together—and when they paint it is always together—Os Gemeos are practically silent. It’s like they are communicating with each other by painting together rather than by having a conversation with words. The Brazilian identical twins Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo have been artistic collaborators under the single identity of Os Gemeos for most of their lives. With all that time together, they seem to have achieved an almost seamless mind-meld through their art. Yes, the finished product is often a stunning painting of a surreal dream world that would be interesting enough on its own, but what really amazes those close to them is the collaboration that Os Gemeos have perfected. Darryl Smith, co-founder of The Luggage Store in San Francisco and a longtime friend of the twins, says, “It’s amazing watching how they work, they way that once they commit to doing something, they go about it without having to talk. There is a seamless integration of the two as one.”
That connection goes beyond their process of painting too. Os Gemeos talk about sharing dreams and having a telepathic connection with one another. As out there as that may sound, that intimate relationship plays a significant role in why they do what they do. Pedro Alonzo, a curator who has worked with Os Gemeos on several occasions, says, “I was skeptical of their telepathy until I saw it happen… They share their inner world, and they want to share parts of it with the rest of us.”
Smith describes their work as “folkloric and at times mythological,” and greatly admires “their attention to the dignity and grace of the common person.” Os Gemeos are best known for their use of spraypaint to make mostly yellow-skinned people of all ages, shapes and sizes. Sometimes the characters are outside on a street corner about the size of a person, other times they are 5 stories tall. Sometimes they are painted on canvas or sculpted out of wood. Some are funny, like the man in on a mural in Wynwood, Miami who floats naked on an ocean with his large belly and just the hint of his penis popping out from beneath the waves. Others are serious, like the protesters spraypainting political messages onto walls with a trompe l'oeil effect. On a rooftop overlooking Smith’s gallery The Luggage Store, there’s a mural that Os Gemeos painted back in 2003 of a character holding a lit match, a particularly poignant piece for that location since any major protests in the area will pass by the mural. Their characters exist both in a world quite similar to ours and also in a much more surreal series of dreamscapes loaded with bright colors strange creatures like fish with more characters popping out from their mouths. Today, the world of Os Gemeos is large and complex, in fact they hope you get lost in their installations, but it began with a couple of brothers discovering hip-hop.
Os Gemeos were introduced to art at a young age through their mother, brother, father, and uncles who all made art, but they really got their start in the late ’80s when films like Beat Street introduced hip-hop in Brazil. The twins experimented with every element of hip-hop, rapping and breaking right outside of the cinema whenever Beat Street was shown, but it was in street art that they came to truly excel. When a friend first showed the twins the seminal graffiti book Subway Art, they were so amazed the work that they photocopied every page of the book in black and white and used a pen to label the colors on each piece.
By the time the infamous graf writer and contemporary artist Barry McGee came to Sao Paulo from San Francisco in 1993, Os Gemeos were some of most impressive and prolific writers in town. They were painting their letters with a combination of latex paint for the fill-in and spraypaint for the outlines. McGee took notice their work on the street and eventually met them by calling their phone number, which Os Gemeos would sometimes write next to their pieces so that people would hire them to paint. It was the start of an ongoing cultural exchange between three artists that has spanned continents and decades. Right from the start, McGee introduced Os Gemeos to modern spraypaint caps that allowed for a lot more versatility with cans and showed them the historic documentary Style Wars for the first time. “We used to stay up all night for hours and hours just drawing together, making throw ups... We learned a lot from Barry,” say Os Gemeos.
McGee also functioned as a major advocate for the twins, spreading the word about them back in the states. He introduced Caleb Neelon and Allen Benedikt of 12ozProphet Magazine to Os Gemeos’ work, which led to Neelon and Benedikt making a trip to Sao Paolo themselves for a cover story on the twins, their first piece of press outside of Brazil. They became known around the world for their aerosol art. Most writers are either good at letter or characters, but Os Gemeos prove that writers can do both. But they didn’t stop there. In the last decade they have become at least as well known for their paintings, sculptures, video art and massive murals. They have also expanded their reach far beyond the graf community, with fans like musician Roger Waters and Nike CEO Mark Parker, and shown at museums around the world, from the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles to the TATE Modern in London.
What is it about Os Gemeos that is so universally appealing? For photographer and co-author of Subway Art Martha Cooper, it’s simple. She says, “The artwork is perfectly charming and there’s just a lot to look at. I think they have amazing imaginations, and it translates on to whatever they’re painting.” You don’t need to read an essay to enjoy their art. Most of the time, Os Gemeos are either having fun with street art or inviting you into their vision of reality. Otavio says that everyone lives in a different world, and Os Gemeos don’t want to manipulate those worlds. They just give everyone the option of including Os Gemeos in their own unique understanding of the world. Maybe people will even ignore the work, and that’s okay too. Otavio says, “It’s like music. You play it, and if you want to listen, you can listen. If you want to dance, you can dance. If you want to not listen, you can turn off your radio.”
Unfortunately it seems that Fernando Haddad, the new mayor of Sao Paulo, does not see things that way. Os Gemeos still try to go out on Sunday afternoons to paint, a Brazilian tradition dating back to when writers painted on Sunday to avoid the authorities. Noticing that Haddad has been aggressively buffing their work, they found a wall under an overpass and painted a character that was writing a note to the mayor. The note reminded the mayor that the city has far more significant problems than a bit of graffiti, and that removing it was a waste of money that could be spent on more important things. That piece was, naturally, painted over as well. So Os Gemeos repainted the wall with another note, questioning the mayor’s commitment to culture: "Mr mayor to erase art is to erase culture and to erase culture is disrespecting the people." That piece was painted over in less than 24 hours, so Os Gemeos struck back with a character emerging from the wall. That too has been removed.
Os Gemeos say that they will keep fighting back, repainting the wall whenever they can. They see the mayor as going after street art to distract from his lack of progress in fixing the more serious problems of Sao Paulo, but Os Gemeos want the new generation of graf writers to have the same opportunities for free public expression that they have had. Gustavo says, “Sunday has become the day of graffiti [in Sao Paulo].” It’s become a part of the fabric of the city, a way for participants and observers to find joy in a difficult place, and Os Gemeos won’t let the mayor stamp that out.
But while Os Gemeos are not afraid to take on City Hall or be political, it’s not really what they are about. They are driven by love and the bonds of family. Paintings by their mother and father have pride of place in their office, and they have so much love for everything they make that they speak of missing their old artworks that have been sold or destroyed by the elements.
Gustavo says that they pick projects based on whether or not the opportunity offers them the right tools to bring about their vision. This may be why, even when collaborating with major brands like Hennessy and Nike, Os Gemeos never seem like they are selling out. Rather, their collaborations with brands stay true to the twins’ artistic vision. Their new bottle for Hennessy doesn’t look like something they had an assistant put together from existing imagery. It looks like a bottle that’s come straight from their universe and might be found in one of their gallery installations.
Os Gemeos are busy preparing for a major installation and solo show at Galeria Fortes Vilaça in Sao Paulo, which will open in March of 2014. Indoors, the twins are at their best when they are making their immersive installations, which can transform white-walled galleries into manifestations of their surreal reality. An Os Gemeos installation can include elements of live and recorded video, audio recordings, sculpture, painting, live musical performances and anything else they want as long as it helps bring their world, they way they see reality, to the rest of us.
Even with seemingly endless opportunities before them, Os Gemeos remain remarkably down-to-earth and connected to their roots. Their niece, older brother, and sister-in-law all work at their studio. When they travel to New York City and visit with Martha Cooper, they bring her gifts like religious charms from Brazil to add to her collection. Their love of hip-hop has stayed with them into adulthood. Os Gemeos still regularly spend their days flipping through books of 1980s subway art and watching classic movies like Style Wars.
When they had their first North American solo show in 2003 at The Luggage Store, they lived for over a month with co-founders Darryl Smith and Laurie Lazer and their son Yarrow Lazer-Smith. Smith and Lazer had been waiting years to show Os Gemeos, after being introduced to their work through McGee. There’s still a small painting by Os Gemeos in adjacent to their house, painted for their son Yarrow during that visit. Later this summer, Os Gemeos’ are headed to San Francisco to repaint their decade-old mural above The Luggage Store. The rooftop mural overlooking Market Street is not in great shape, so the twins have made a new design for the spot. But their reasons for repainting the wall aren’t about ego or concern that the mural has started to fade. It all goes back to love. They are excited to see their friend Barry McGee in San Francisco and both brothers cite their love of the gallery and the way that Darryl, Laurie and Yarrow are a part of their family.
Gustavo explains his reasoning for trip, “It’s very simple. There’s no money. There’s no brand. There’s nothing involved. It’s just being close to friends that we like. We’ll spend some time on the roof of The Luggage Store with friends and have a great time.”
Look at just about anything Os Gemeos makes, and that love and enthusiasm shines through. Os Gemeos aren’t all that complicated. There’s a lot there, yes, but really they just want to have a great time—and take us all along for the ride.