Jorge Selarón and his Magical Life Project

No more than 40 years ago, the steps leading up to the Santa Teresa neighbourhood from Lapa were just like any other rugged staircase in Rio…until Jorge Selarón moved into town.

Today the world-famous candy-coloured steps now known as The Selarón Stairs (or Escadaria Selarón) have become one of the most popular places to visit in Rio; but in order to truly appreciate them, one most know the story (and the man) behind them.

Jorge Selarón, the brains behind the stairs, was a relatively poor man when he moved from Chile to Rio during the 1980s in the hopes of making a living as a painter. But what started off as a side-project for the poor painter ended up becoming a massive evolving art project, and ultimately one of the most distinctive (and noticeable) landmarks in Rio. As a matter of fact, the stairs have become so famous, they have even been featured in music videos by Snoop Dogg and U2, as well as in a video used for Brazil’s 2016 Olympic bid!

Who was Jorge Selarón?

Today his name is known all around the world, but when he first arrived in Rio nobody knew who he was. After Selarón found himself a humble little home in Rio’s Lapa neighbourhood during the 1980s, he slowly started a “small-scale renovation” on the steep steps which ran just outside his house and up into the Santa Teresa district.

It was originally meant to be a side project, but soon nearby residents started taking notice – and eventually, people from all over the world as well. As the years went on, passerbys (or even purposeful visitors), would often have a chat with Jorge about his staircase and fascinating life, as he was regularly spotted sporting a bright red hat as he worked on his precious staircase; (he did declare it as a constantly evolving, changing and never-ending piece of art, after all).

As a matter of fact, Selarón even stated shortly before he died that “this crazy and unique dream will only end on the day of my death,” and sadly…that was the case. On January 10th, 2013, Selarón’s body was found on the exact staircase which made him famous; and although some believe he was murdered due to a conflict with a former business partner which resulted in death threats, evidence points to him setting himself on fire. (Close friends of the ceramic street artist even stated that Selarón had fallen into th depths of depression in the weeks leading up to his death).

The story behind the staircase

When Selarón first started his project in 1990, he would often use pieces of broken mirrors and porcelain bath tubs he found in the trash to decorate the ugly, urine-stained staircase outside his home. He would even start scavenging around different construction sites and piles of urban waste just to find the perfect piece to place along the staircase.

Eventually neighbours started giving him tiles to add to the staircase after they returned from their travels, and as the years went on (and more and more people started hearing about Selarón’s fascinating project) fans would send Selarón tiles from all over the world. It’s currently estimated that the 2,000 different tiles along the 125-metre staircase have come from nearly 60 different countries around the world, and contain a variety of unique images like the map of London, a Georgia peach, Princess Diana, and even a Playboy bunny.

Out of the thousands of tiles lining the staircase, around 300 of them were hand-painted by Selarón himself – all of which depict a massively pregnant African woman. To this day the story behind this image is still unknown (Selarón only said in interviews that it represented a “personal problem” from his past) – yet another mystery to add to the allure of the magnificent Selarón staircase.

Want to learn more about Jorge Selarón and the world-famous Escadaria Selarón?Join us on our Free Historical Centre Tour of Rio de Janeiro (which includes a stop at the staircase) daily at 10 a.m.; (more info here).