Aug. 25 (Bloomberg) -- Sao Paulo artists Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo obliged London's Tate Gallery by painting their distinctive yellow graffiti on outside walls of the museum. Just a month later, their hometown began rolling gray paint across one of the brothers' murals as part of clean-up efforts.
Officials did an abrupt about-face after the Pandolfos and other artists complained both to the city and in the news media. Now Sao Paulo is creating a registry of street art to be preserved, exempt from Mayor Gilberto Kassab's drive to eliminate "visual pollution.'' The episode is sparking a public discussion of what constitutes art.
"When this happened, we thought, `what a mess,''' said Regina Monteiro, who is director of Projects, Environment and Urban Landscaping and in charge of coordinating the city clean- up. "You have the English pampering our graffiti art, and we're not giving it the least bit of value?''
City officials blamed the paint-over on an overzealous interpretation of the law. The Pandolfos, who are twins, say countless murals and panels already have been lost to misguided efforts under Kassab's Clean City project.
"Outside of Brazil, graffiti art has been much more accepted,'' said Gustavo Pandolfo, speaking by telephone from Barcelona, Spain. "Galleries and museums invite us to do shows. And in Sao Paulo, where we do this mural for free as a present to the people of the city, it's viewed as trash."
The Pandolfos' 680-meter (2,230-foot) mural on retaining walls along the 23 de Maio expressway, south of downtown, was half-covered by gray paint on July 3. The destruction occurred even though the art had been officially sanctioned.
Permission from the city was obtained before the Pandolfos embarked on the project in 2002. The brothers, along with Sao Paulo artist Francisco Rodrigues da Silva, known as Nunca, and Otavio's wife, Nina, spent more than a month decorating the 5- meter-high walls.
On a background of blue, colorful cartoonish faces 3 meters tall look over the eight lanes of traffic. A few of the figures are decked out in traditional regional garb, such as the leather bicorn hat of northeastern Brazilian cowboys.
Some of the city's 800 inspectors "understood the Clean City law to mean paint over anything that's irregular,'' Monteiro said. "Because the law didn't give objective criteria, it was left up to subjective opinion.''
Sao Paulo is developing those criteria, giving priority to cataloguing works of graffiti that were painted with permission from the property owner, Monteiro said. The Clean City law prohibits graffiti that functions as advertising. The city expects the catalog to be ready by November.
"What happened to the mural downtown is a pity,'' said Claudecir Jose Sivieiro, 44, an engineer from Sao Bernardo do Campo. "It was nice, and it wasn't doing anyone any harm.''
Not everyone is a fan. Some residents object to images that contain letters in particular.
"People are ruining the walls scribbling and drawing on them,'' said Armando Alves dos Santos, 74. "It's shameless. You can't have that in neighborhoods; you should paint over all of it.''
The Tate Gallery approached the Pandolfos to participate in its street-art show, which closes today, after they painted Kelburn Castle in Scotland last year at the owners' invitation. In addition to the Pandolfos, known as Os Gemeos, the exhibit shows works by Nunca; Blu of Bologna, Italy; Parisian artist JR; New York collaborative group Faile; and Barcelona's Sixeart.
The artists decorated the Tate's outside walls with paintings 15 meters tall. It is the first major display of street art at a public museum in London, according to museum documents.
Before the crackdown, South America's biggest city had been seen as a place where graffiti artists could go to work without interference from passersby or police, Gustavo Pandolfo said.
"Graffiti would stay up for 10 years, and no one would erase it,'' he said. ``People liked seeing the graffiti.''
Hundreds of the brothers' works have disappeared during the clean-up campaign, he said. That would be a costly loss if measured by the price of their gallery works.
Os Gemeos drawings sell for about $2,000, while paintings sell for about $30,000, said Alexandre Gabriel, 32, artistic director at Galeria Fortes Vilaca, which represents them.
The Tate exhibition is helping change Sao Paulo's perception of its graffiti art, Monteiro said.
"We want to make this part of the city's look,'' she said. ``It's a trademark of the city.''