A Picture Speaks A Thousand Tweets

On May 10th, 2014, Sao Paulo-based street artist Paulo Ito participated in a graffiti festival in his Vila Pompeia neighborhood. 

Street artist Paulo Ito stands in front of his mural that became a viral sensation and a symbol of protest against the upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup tournament (Photo by Flora Charner)

Street artist Paulo Ito stands in front of his mural that became a viral sensation and a symbol of protest against the upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup tournament (Photo by Flora Charner)

He and dozens of others spray painted the walls around a local elementary school, which went around a block. Ito chose the institution's metal garage door as his canvas.  

"Since I've participated in the festival before, they usually reserve the door for me," Ito said. "I still have to get here early though to guarantee my spot."

Frame grab from Paulo Ito's Facebook page shows his original May 12th post was shared 2,016 times and liked by 1,064 people. 

Frame grab from Paulo Ito's Facebook page shows his original May 12th post was shared 2,016 times and liked by 1,064 people. 

Two days later, Ito posted a photograph of his latest creation to his Facebook page: a mural of a young boy crying, sitting at a table with a fork and knife in his hand and a soccer ball on his plate.

Within a few hours, Ito's Facebook followers began to share his picture on their personal walls, as well as Instagram and Twitter where it was retweeted and commented on. 

The mural later appeared in an article published on May 19th on the website Partizaning, which focuses on street art and activism. Author Shriya Malhotra had written a general profile on Ito, where the painting was shown but not highlighted amongst his body of work. 

Within a week, the picture was written about in Slate, Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post and several other publications from all over the world. 

Headlines like, the Washington Post's "What effect will Paulo Ito's painting have on the World Cup?" only increased the buzz surrounding the viral image.

As we spoke across the street from his now famous mural, the 34-year-old artist said he never expected the image to get such a massive reaction.

"I don't think this image is only relevant for right now," Ito said. "But it never would have gotten the attention it did if we weren't living this moment now, right before the World Cup." 

The truth is, it's not an easy painting to spot. On the day I went to see it, there was a silver van parked in front of it for the better part of the morning and early afternoon.  The branches of a nearby tree and its purple flowers also obstruct the image's top right corner. Most people who walked by or drove passed it on the busy intersection didn't even notice it. The only person who stopped and analyzed Ito's work was a three-year-old boy, who was walking by the wall with his father.  

"Look dad, there is a ball on his plate," the boy said, as he let go of the man's hand and touched the painted black and white circle. "He can't eat that! is that why he's sad?"

"Need Food Not Football" painting by French artist Goin in Athens (Photo source: GlobalStreetArt)

"Need Food Not Football" painting by French artist Goin in Athens (Photo source: GlobalStreetArt)

Ito said his inspiration came from a large installation made by French artist Goin last year in Athens. It shows a starving African child with his arms above his head and furled brow and a football at his feet.  

"The theme of the two is very similar. His painting also has a kid and a ball, except he wrote 'need food, not football' on it," Ito said. "I chose to be a bit more direct with the image."

The soft-spoken Ito has been a street artist for nearly half his life. He began painting murals in college. According to the Partizaning article, he tried working the gallery circuit but refused to compromise his style for money. 

"Now, I avoid painting on cloth canvas because I don't like to sell things or to paint while having to think about selling," Partizaning quoted. "The paintings I do are the kind of thing that people aren't interested in buying."

His discomfort with capitalism and commercialism also influence his opinions about FIFA. 

"I think the way in which FIFA operates is very aggressive," Ito said. "They make everyone subservient. It is an entity that only exists to make money."

Despite his recent popularity (both positive and negative according to him), Ito is already moving on to his next project. When I spoke to him earlier this week, Ito said he was planning on traveling to the northeastern city Fortaleza Friday to begin working on a mural against underage prostitution and child exploitation. 

"I always try to be critical with my work and provoke reactions and reflections in people," Ito said. "I'm not attacking any specific person, I am exposing a situation using artistic language that is open to anyone's interpretation."