Identical twin brothers Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo, better known by the moniker Os Gemeos (which translates as ‘The Twins’ in Portuguese) are among the most prominent figures working in the world of street art today. Key to this success has been their intensely close personal and professional bond, with the duo sharing artistic ambitions, inspiration, and sometimes, they’ve claimed, even dreams.
Born in 1974 in São Paulo, Brazil, this collaborative art duo once said in an interview with Deutsche Bank’s ArtMag that they began working together “even in [their] mother’s womb.” Though the brothers started out as break dancers, they soon found their niche in the late 1980’s as neighborhood graffiti writers. A chance meeting with artist Barry McGee in the early 1990’s led them to improvise and experiment with different materials, which ultimately inspired them to develop their own unique style. They’ve since become known for their massive public art murals, displaying their work in cities across the world, including Berlin, Lisbon, New York, and Moscow.
As the public started to learn about Os Gemeos’ work, the brothers began to see themselves less as graffiti writers and more as goodwill ambassadors, sharing their optimism and joy with the world through their art. Street art, in turn, became primarily a tool for communication, a means to an end: “Every city needs art,” they once said, “and art has to be in the middle of the people.”
As such, Os Gemeos have strived to astound and delight with such jaw-dropping works as the appropriately-titled Giants, painted for the Vancouver Biennale. This project saw the brothers converting six enormous concrete silos on Granville Island into a row of cylindrical figures, each 70 feet tall, their painted surfaces occupying a total area of 23,500 square feet.
Os Gemeos’ interest in scale and visibility reached new heights in 2014, when they were commissioned to paint a mural wrapping around the fuselage of the airplane that would transport the Brazilian national soccer team from city to city during the FIFA World Cup. Os Gemeos used this project as an opportunity to celebrate inclusion and community, depicting a crowded scene composed of both male and female characters with a wide variety skin colors, a tribute to Brazil’s diverse population.
Giants and Children
Os Gemeos’ art is perhaps most striking for its eclectic mix of styles and subject matter, ranging from the outlandish and surreal to more pared-down pieces grounded in politics, history, and social realism. The brothers’ world is populated by cartoonish figures with yellow skin, large heads, wide-set eyes and flat, pear-like noses, and they often don outfits which recall the carefree joy of childhood dress-up games, looks a boy has thrown together on his way out the door: polka dots and plaid, pajama pants and improvised sweater balaclavas.
Many pieces blend this whimsy with political and social awareness. The duo’s figures are often giant, rebellious pranksters who’ve burst through walls wielding slingshots or cans of spray paint, their bodies half-hidden, as they’ve slipped through only to take a quick pot-shot or a tag a wall before they disappear once more into the brick. Other works skew more toward social commentary and feature portraits of working-class families, mothers in thin floral print housedresses and nude or half-clothed children, camera-shy, missing a shoe. Os Gemeos’ most iconic pieces combine these interests in remarkable ways, such as a masked youth clinging to the end of a speeding subway car, or a tower of figures painted on the side of a parking garage, each standing on another’s shoulders to scrawl a message at the top, the words at once heartfelt, juvenile, and profound: “Don’t believe the hype!”
This theme of the political at play is exemplified by the giant Os Gemeos’ mural displayed from 2012 to 2013 in Boston, the result of a partnership between the Institute of Contemporary Art and The Rose F. Kennedy Greenway. One of the duo’s best-known works, the mural measures a stunning 70-by-76 feet and was painted on the side of a massive air intake structure in Dewey Square Park. It features a narrow-eyed boy in Os Gemeos’ trademark patterned pajamas and makeshift balaclava, pulling in his arms and legs as if hiding in a closet or crammed into a box fort. Prior to the temporary mural’s removal, this figure – half-vandal, half-dreamer – inspired Jon Garelick of the Boston Globe to argue that the Greenway Conservancy should “Keep the kid” as a permanent piece of public art. Garelick encouraged Bostonians to see Os Gemeos’ art as a “symbol of the city’s edginess and joy,” adding: “It’s not simply that you can’t miss it: You must look at it.”
Dreaming in Hong Kong: New Works by Os Gemeos
Os Gemeos’ 2018 show, aptly titled Déjà Vu – which opened last week at the Lehmann Maupin gallery in Hong Kong – features recent paintings and installations that feel at once familiar and wholly novel. This series of new works by Os Gemeos – part of their first major gallery opening in Asia – retains many of the now-classic motifs prominent in their mural art, while expanding upon the surrealist elements that have come to dominate the duo’s recent projects.
Still present are the thin, mostly yellow-skinned figures, clad in a hodge-podge of wild patterns and vibrant colors; but these subjects are increasingly disconnected from reality, as Os Gemeos seem intent on immersing visitors in a larger multi-sensory experience, with the artists and their subjects each exploring new territory, taking on new forms.
One prominent mixed media sound installation, White Carnival (2016), features a collage of vintage wood speakers reimagined as a choir of oblong block heads, most sporting the familiar yellow skin, a few others covered in ski masks or coated in multicolor face paint reminiscent of Ziggy Stardust’s. The majority feature a gaping subwoofer driver mouth, poised to erupt into joyous song. Likewise, the show’s paintings are steeped in a dreamlike mix of nostalgia and fantasy, the smallest details seemingly drawn from the mind of a visionary child: images half-imagined, half-remembered, one painting depicting the moon itself wearing a futuristic visor that recalls characters from Star Trek and the X-Men.
Other figures are set against kaleidoscopic patterned backdrops and are seemingly in the midst of cosmic journeys. One man explores the universe from the comfort of his bed, another paddles over water on a crescent moon boat, a mermaid hanging onto his orange afro. Some figures wear bizarre headgear made from bubbles or miniature houses, the artists seeming to ask simply: What if?
Such daring compositions attest to what the brothers described in ArtMag as the “freedom and power of graffiti,” and to their resistance to being told “how, where, or why” something should be done.
Os Gemeos Déjà Vu will be on view in Hong Kong through May 12, 2018.