The View from São Paulo: exploring the city through Andrés Sandoval’s evocative maps

In her first column, Elaine Ramos dissects how the illustrator so aptly conveys the dense textures, graffiti and bustle of her hometown.

The View From... is a new column on It’s Nice That written by a team of international correspondents in major creative cities around the world. Every two weeks we’ll report on the design scene in these cities, exploring the topics that are making an impact on the local creative community there. This week, Elaine Ramos is reporting from São Paulo.

When invited to write this column, the most challenging part was to decide on a starting point. How can one open a window into a city as vast and complex as São Paulo? I realised that perhaps a way to approach this would be to map out the terrain. For this daunting task, I turned to the work of the São Paulo-based artist, illustrator and designer Andrés Sandoval, who has made many fruitful attempts in this direction.

Readers are likely to know São Paulo as one of the world’s largest megacities (over 20 million inhabitants in the metropolitan area) and as the embodiment of extreme sophistication and extreme precariousness alike, due to its brutal levels of social inequality.

Lacking any structured long-term plan, São Paulo grew rapidly from the 1920s until the end of the last century. Governed almost exclusively by economic interests and real estate speculation, it became a monument to chaos. The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, upon visiting the city in 1935, remarked that “the growth of São Paulo is so rapid that it is impossible to obtain a map of the city: every week it would require a new edition”. He was intrigued by a city where everything is still under construction but already appears to be in ruins.

But the city’s vitality comes precisely from the very cosmopolitanism that is fundamentally entwined with the aforementioned problems. In addition to the large chunk of the population which came originally from Portugal (during the colonial era and shortly after) and Africa (enslaved people mainly from Angola, Senegal, and Nigeria), São Paulo has been a destination for subsequent waves of immigration: Italians, Japanese, Syrians, Lebanese, Jewish Eastern Europeans, Chinese, Koreans, Bolivians, etc, as well as internal migration, especially from the northeast of the country. São Paulo’s allure undoubtedly lies in this blend of cultures.


Andrés Sandoval: AGI São Paulo guide (Copyright © Andrés Sandoval)


Andrés Sandoval: AGI São Paulo guide (Copyright © Andrés Sandoval)

In this first series of drawings, made with stamps and coloured pencils for a city guide published for the AGI Open in 2014, Andrés Sandoval represents the density of the landscape through a pattern of stamps that fill up the entire canvas. The stamps make up a texture that mimics the city, where the (im)possible beauty lies in the accumulation and excess, features which in the drawing are rendered as rhythm. Amidst this, two downtown landmarks stand out: Estação Júlio Prestes (now a refined concert hall) and the Estação da Luz, with its mid-19th century British steel and glass architecture, flanked by the Parque da Luz, a rare green space in the central region.


Andrés Sandoval: AGI São Paulo guide (Copyright © Andrés Sandoval)

In the next drawing of the same series, the hallmark of São Paulo that fascinates graphic designers: a specific type of graffiti called “pixo”. Encrypted alphabets overlay the cityscape in polyphony, an unusual and original graphic language created mainly by marginalised youth who risk their lives to leave their tags on buildings and overpasses in the most visible, improbable, and challenging places.


Andrés Sandoval: Periferia (Copyright © Andrés Sandoval)

In Periferia, published by Tower Block Books in London in 2018, Andrés continues his research with stamps, this time by portraying São Paulo’s horizontal sprawl toward the outskirts of the city in a more abstract design. Here, the sense of accumulation is exacerbated. On his website, the author comments that the stamp’s “repeated gesture reveals an imperfect side, the result of chance, misalignments, and overlaps. A single stamp, explored in different ways, can construct a complete scenario: a person alone forms a protest, a car becomes an endless traffic jam."


Andrés Sandoval: Desestrutura (Copyright © Andrés Sandoval)

In the 2021 series Desestrutura, Andrés moves to the opposite pole of graphic language and explores the fluidity of the line, explaining the city’s logic through its urban layout, unveiling a topography usually obscured by the dense mass of buildings, rivers hidden under the avenues, and also by its history, entangled in the unending process of destruction and construction. Architect by training, resident of the downtown area, avid walker, and astute observer, the artist skillfully and intimately charts his map, condensing so much information with such simplicity that the city becomes almost manageable.


Andrés Sandoval: 12 vistas de São Paulo (Copyright © Andrés Sandoval)

Prior to this exercise in synthesis in the Desestrutura series, Andrés had already faced the ambitious task of drawing a map of the “entire” city in 2018, producing the publication 12 vistas de São Paulo [12 viewpoints of São Paulo], published in Lisbon by Pato Lógico.

Expanding the outlook, this work reveals each neighbourhood’s personality, the city’s horizontal spread at its edges, the serpentine avenues built over the riverbeds, and the absence of boundaries. The names of the main landmarks are handwritten, and cleverly integrated into the drawing’s weave.

On the reverse side, a selection of highlights is ironically reinterpreted by the artist's imagination: flames burst from Teatro Oficina – a symbol of Brazilian experimental theatre and home to the god Bacchus – and waterfalls flow from the belvedere of MASP, an art museum designed by Lina Bo Bardi and an icon of São Paulo’s brutalist architecture.


Andrés Sandoval: 12 vistas para São Paulo (Copyright © Andrés Sandoval)


Andrés Sandoval: Minhocão view with blind walls highlighted (Copyright © Andrés Sandoval)

Another of São Paulo’s landmarks is an elevated highway that cuts across a large section of the central part of the city (quite revealing of the city’s oddness!), nicknamed Minhocão (big worm). Built in the 1970s as the ultimate symbol of the military dictatorship’s project of prioritising cars over pedestrians and public transportation, the Minhocão tore through what was once a noble part of the city, acting as a violent vector of urban degradation.

Blind walls (windowless façades) are another standout feature of buildings in downtown São Paulo. Bordering houses, vacant lots, and parking areas, these “blind” buildings are the result of erratic zoning regulations and urban occupation ruled only by money power. These walls used to display large advertising panels until the Lei Cidade Limpa (Clean City Law) came into effect in 2007, banning large advertisements and billboards, and limiting the dimensions of signs, which radically impacted the cityscape. Since then, where there used to be 30m-high semi-nude women in lingerie ads, there are now windowless walls, chosen as the unlikely protagonists of an artist’s book published by Andrés in 2013.


Andrés Sandoval: Empenas (Copyright © Andrés Sandoval)


Andrés Sandoval: Empenas (Copyright © Andrés Sandoval)

In this publication in two volumes, seemingly abstract shapes came to actually catalogue the blind walls as seen from Minhocão, respecting the angles and scale relationships between them, with one volume covering the east-west direction and the other west-east. “Together, the 141 shapes make up an alphabet where one can notice size variations, clandestine windows, parapets, and cornices, as well as the outlines formed by roofs and buildings that overlay part of the façades. Each shape is presented with the address and name of the building it belongs to,” Andrés explains on his website.

With his architect’s discerning eye, Andrés turns these previously invisible silhouettes into protagonists, revealing a negative cityscape. The shapes have a purposefully stained texture, resulting from risograph printing in four colours (gold, yellow, blue, and orange) on rice paper, an effect resembling the worn-out and faded appearance of the blind walls.

In this body of work, we see that Andrés never settles, but rather establishes a unique and surprising approach to each project by resorting to a wide range of techniques, closely connected with his theme. We also note his ability to move fluidly and coherently between abstraction and figuration, excess, and radical synthesis. Perhaps Andrés’ sagacity is that he never tries to tame what is intangible about the city, but understands that this intangibility is intrinsic to it. This special quality is what enables him to present this heterogeneous, opaque, and prismatic city to us in all its complexity. Welcome to São Paulo!

Elaine shares some must-visit cultural hotspots for when you’re in São Paulo, and an online project to enjoy from anywhere in the world.

  • Copan is a massive wave-shaped building designed by Oscar Niemeyer, a symbol of Brazilian modernist architecture. With 32 floors, 1160 apartments and a commercial gallery on the ground floor, it has recently become one of the city’s liveliest spots. Andrés Sandoval himself lives there, and you might meet him on his bike on the way to his studio.

  • On the ground floor of Copan, next to nice bars and restaurants, you’ll find Pivô, one of the most interesting art spaces in the city, always with cutting-edge exhibitions that are worth a visit not only for the art but also for the architecture. Next door is the most charming bookshop, Megafauna (for which I designed the identity and signage). There you can see a panorama of the vibrant Brazilian editorial market, which is sure to be the subject of this column in future.

  • Nowadays, at weekends, the Minhocão (big worm) is closed to traffic and transformed into an urban park. Despite the dryness, it offers an interesting view of the city, and you can see the blind walls that Andrés depicted. Most of them are now covered with huge graffiti panels, turning the Minhocão into an open-air gallery, especially nice at sunset. If you want to experience the more sophisticated and slightly arrogant side of the city, Cora is a contemporary cuisine restaurant on a rooftop terrace overlooking the Minhocão (and Copan); be prepared for small plates accompanied by a lot of storytelling, but the food is very good.

  • In 2014, I curated an exhibition with two colleagues, Daniel Trench and Celso Longo, on the relationship between graphic design and cities, called Cidade Gráfica (Graphic City).The entire content can still be viewed online on a special Itau Cultural website, and features many interesting approaches to the subject, including vernacular typography, photography and videos about São Paulo and other Brazilian cities.

Share Article

About the Author

Elaine Ramos

Elaine Ramos is a graphic designer based in São Paulo, Brazil. She runs a design studio primarily focused on the cultural market and is a founding partner of Ubu, a publishing house created in 2016. She is It’s Nice That’s São Paulo correspondent.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.