[Update: On January 10, 2013, Jorge Selaron was found lying dead on his famous stairs. “I will only end this mad and singular dream on the last day of my life,” he had written on the wall nearby. And now the dream is done.
Near the bottom of the neighborhood of Santa Teresa in Rio, bordering the Lapa neighborhood, there is a multi-level stone stairway couched between buildings, a stairway that in the past could easily have been overlooked. But not today.
As you approach the stairs today, you see a painting on a wall.
This is your first indication that you’ve arrived at the world-famous Escadaria Selarón (Selarón Stairs). Look to the other side of the street, and you’ll see the ongoing creation, a work in progress, already covered with more than 2,000 tiles collected from some 60 countries in the world.
The Escadaria Selarón is the work of Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón, who claims the decorated 215 stairs as “my tribute to the Brazilian people.” The project began in 1990 when Selarón began renovating the stairs in front of his house, trying to add a little bit of beauty to the area, and continues today.
The story goes that neighbors mocked him for his choice of blue and yellow and green tiles (the colors of the Brazilian flag), but he continued, scrounging tiles from construction sites and dumps around the city. Once the stairs were completed, he began decorating the sides of the stairway. Some 300 tiles on the stairs are hand-painted by Selarón, and most depict his signature image, a pregnant African woman. When asked about the image, all Selarón will apparently answer is, “It’s a problem from my past.”
Selarón is a painter, and uses the money he makes from selling his paintings to buy materials to continue his stairs work of art. His house and art studio are halfway up the flight of stairs on the right, and the studio is open to the public. I didn’t buy any of his art, not being particularly interested in possessing something with the pregnant African woman and him in the image.
The day we visited, Selarón was sitting on the stairs, greeting people and having his photo taken and signing autographs. According to our guide, he believes he is one of the most popular artists in history, mainly because his photo has been taken more times than any artist. He sits on the stairs day by day, happy to see people enjoying his creation.
When you’re in Rio, take the time to visit the stairs. They are, I suspect, unique in the world. They certainly brighten up the neighborhood!