Rio de Janeiro ― Nestled between the bohemian Lapa and Santa Teresa neighborhoods sits the vibrant, impressive Escadaria Selarón, a staircase covered in thousands of colorful tiles, mirrors, and ceramics.
Jorge Selarón was born in Chile in 1947. He traveled, lived, and worked as a painter and sculptor in over 50 countries around the world before arriving and deciding to settle in Rio de Janeiro in 1983.
In 1990, Selarón began renovating a dilapidated step that ran along the front of his house. It started out as a side-project to his main passion, painting, but soon became an obsession. At first, neighbors mocked him for his choice of colors as he covered the steps in fragments of blue, green, and yellow tiles, the colors of the Brazilian flag.
Selarón had no resources and no support from the city. The neighbors helped bring him tiles from their trips as they traveled. And, as it grew, people began to contribute, send him tiles, and get them to Rio when they came to visit.
Selarón eventually covered the entire set of steps in tiles, ceramics, and mirrors. The hundreds of tiles depict subjects from a woman in a traditional Portuguese dress, a seated Buddha, Indian deities, Bob Marley, antique French tiles, and others with Arabic calligraphy.
It was a long and exhaustive labor of love for the artist who resided in the same house by the steps he lived in when he started the work. He was mainly unfazed by the attention of curious onlookers and tourists alike. He was constantly spotted at the steps working by day and treating drunken revelers to fascinating anecdotes by night.
He was also constantly out of money: his phone was often cut out, and he was threatened to be evicted from his house due to being unable to afford the living costs. So Selarón sold paintings to fund his work. He sold many pictures and accepted donations from locals and travelers to continue his work.
Since 1977, Selarón claimed to have sold over 25,000 portraits – all featuring the same pregnant woman – which primarily funded his work.
Selarón wanted his staircase to last a lifetime. “I will only end this mad and singular dream on the last day of my life”, he wrote on the wall nearby.
Tragically, in 2013 the artist was found dead. He was murdered – possibly by someone who worked in his workshop – in front of his house on the steps he spent 20 years working on. He was 65.
Immediately after his death, Lapa, Santa Teresa, and beyond residents came to pay homage, covering the bright steps with white flowers and candles. Neighborseighbours, tourists, and well-wishers braved heavy rain to pay tribute to Selaron, who turned the staircase leading up to St. Teresa Convent from a dank and dreary scene to a multi-colored tribute to the Brazilian people.
He was the face of this bohemian, artistic neighborhood. He was a simple man who loved this life, sitting here, watching the kids play, chatting people up. Visitors could expect to see the eccentric artist with his big handlebar mustache resting or working on the steps, always willing to have a chat.
The staircase completely transformed the neighborhood. What was once a poor, run-down district is now a creative hub, with many restaurants and bars brimming with visitors and even a setting for Rio de Janeiro’s 2016 Olympic bid. And all this happened only thanks to Selarón’s dream.