SAO PAULO — When completed in 2015, the mayor's office hailed the graffiti panels along Avenida 23 de Maio as Latin America's largest open-air mural — 70 works of street art stretching for more than 3 miles (5 kilometres ) along a boulevard connecting a well-to-do district with the city centre .
Then this January, they were painted over.
It wasn't done by vandals or other graffiti artists, as often happens with street art, but by sanitation workers acting on the orders of Sao Paulo's new mayor, Joao Doria, a millionaire businessman and former host of "The Apprentice Brazil." The mayor even donned a pair of orange coveralls and wielded a spray gun to put a thin layer of grey paint over the murals — angering people who considered the paintings part of the city's cultural heritage and sparking a debate about what is art and what should be protected.
Removal of the murals was among the first acts of Doria's "Pretty City" campaign: a travelling circus of street cleaners and maintenance workers who install new trash cans, plant trees, pick up garbage and cover up graffiti around Sao Paulo every weekend. Doria says the goal is not just to clean up Sao Paulo but to restore Paulistanos' pride in their hometown.
Many in Sao Paulo have cheered the campaign for aiming at a widely despised style of street art known as "pichacao" — a generally monochromatic, rune-like calligraphy covering buildings across the city. Doria's administration has increased fines for pichacao, is installing cameras to catch practitioners, and encourages everyone, especially taxi drivers, to report it.
But most Brazilians make a distinction between pichacao — derived from the Portuguese word for tar — and the colorful and pictorial street paintings they call "graffiti." The latter are largely tolerated, often celebrated and widely seen as linked to Sao Paulo's urban identity.
Many considered the murals on 23 de Maio a showcase for Brazil's vibrant graffiti art, and Doria's decision to paint over all but a few touched a nerve about what can be lost when cities revitalize blighted areas.
Some of Doria's critics tie the cleanup campaign to other parts of his business-oriented agenda: a privatization plan to sell off city stadiums and open bids for concessions in public parks as well as an effort to revitalize the dilapidated downtown, an important canvas for pichacao.
"This is not just about a fight against pichacao," said Marcio Siwi, a doctoral candidate at New York University who studies art, architecture and urbanism in Sao Paulo. "This is bigger than that. This is about bringing revenue into the city in a way that's very controversial."
Other cities have waged similar campaigns. The mayor of Lima, Peru, in 2015 ordered the painting over of murals authorized by his predecessor and was showered with complaints from artists and architects who said the murals had reclaimed a dilapidated area. New York has largely won its war to banish the graffiti that once covered subway cars — an art style several graffiti artists in Brazil have cited as inspiration — but many New Yorkers protested when the owner of a Queens warehouse known as 5Pointz, which had become a shrine to graffiti art, painted over its murals in 2013 ahead of its demolition.
Sao Paulo has tried to clean up pichacao before, but it has also long touted its street art, with even the city's own tourism bureau offering it up as a slice of the "real," gritty city. One law even calls for graffiti to be valued and protected — as long as it is done with permission. Pichacao, though, is always considered illegal.
"Street art in Sao Paulo is a postcard for Sao Paulo," said Eduardo Kobra, an artist who started out in pichacao and is now invited to paint murals in cities worldwide.
The removal of the 23 de Maio murals sparked a protest, and tweets flew with before-and-after pictures. Juca Ferreira, who oversaw the painting of the murals when he was the city's secretary of culture, said in a Facebook post that the new mayor's message is: "Art only for the elite."
Confusing many people, Doria has since said he wants to promote street art. But his office says officials removed the murals because some were covered in picahcao and others had degraded over time.
Juliana Serafim Francisco, a chemical engineer who turned up to check out a recent "Pretty City" outing led by the mayor, said the city was right to remove the murals, noting that graffiti is by its nature temporary.
"The graffiti wasn't well taken care of. It's prettier now," Serafim said as Doria scrubbed a plaza in the city's centre . In general, she thinks the "Pretty City" campaign is getting big results without spending too much.
Doria has now promised a "museum of street art" to showcase authorized, privately funded murals by artists chosen by an independent committee.
Some critics say the mayor's cleanup campaign is a superficial attempt to attract private investment by papering over Sao Paulo's inconvenient realities — a largely abandoned downtown, a big population of poor and homeless, and the co-existence of rich neighbourhoods that equal anything in Manhattan with marginalized areas.
Many "pichadores," typically young people from the city's outskirts, are trying to raise awareness about those kinds of problems, said Djan Ivson, a pichador himself.
"I see picho as a way of taking back the city by a section of the population that is excluded," Ivson said. "It's a natural response to the absence of the state in people's lives."
Many "Pretty City" interventions have focused on areas in Sao Paulo's historic downtown, which began emptying out in the 1970s and '80s after fires burned several fires and another business district was developed. These days, more than 50 per cent of the city's homeless live in the Centro, where many buildings are abandoned or occupied by squatters and several blocks are so full of drug addicts they are called "Cracolandia."
While some critics say cleaning up downtown Sao Paulo is fine, they would rather see the mayor refurbish the city's poor outskirts or improve school and health systems. Doria has promised to tackle some of these problems.
"If people want to make a beautiful city, OK. But it should be for real, not just on the cover of the book," Kobra said. "Let's flip through that book and make sure that inside it's also perfect."
Associated Press writers Franklin Briceno in Lima, Peru, and Deepti Hajela in New York contributed to this report.
Sarah DiLorenzo on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/sdilorenzo .
Sarah Dilorenzo, The Associated Press