The Selarón Steps
The 215 colourful and vibrant steps that connect the Santa Teresa Convent to Lapa are no longer just a way to go up and down the hill. They have become one of the most visited spots in Rio de Janeiro. They are also a symbol of the passion and dedication of their creator, the Chilean artist Jorge Selarón who found not only a home in Rio but also a canvas to express himself with the utmost authenticity.
The story starts in the 1990s when Selarón started renovating the steps in front of his house. With a bucket of cement in hand, money from his own pocket and some colourful tiles, the Chilean set about the project with the aim of bringing about transformation and restoring the dignity of the area that was in a dreadful state of disrepair. Over time, his work evolved from simple renovation work into an exuberant on-going artistic intervention, as different people began to donate tiles.
One of the elements that makes the steps unique is the use of over 2 thousand coloured tiles from a number of different origins, with pieces donated from over 60 countries, as well as the ones the artist himself hand painted. This variety of patterns and colours, predominantly green and yellow, creates a striking mosaic that symbolises cultural diversity in Brazil and around the world. The red background provides a frame and each step is a work of art, with a different story to tell, be it tiles with national flags or messages left by visitors from elsewhere. You can spend hours looking at every detail on each of the steps.
The staircase has evolved into a symbol of Rio, thanks to its artistic character, and ranks third among the most visited spots in the city. This location, drawing locals and tourists alike, enhances the vibrant atmosphere of Lapa—one of Rio’s most bohemian and democratic neighbourhoods. Festivals, cultural events, international music videos, and even films have been set on this backdrop, establishing the steps as both a meeting place and one of Rio de Janeiro’s iconic postcard locations.
The steps play an immensely important role in the preservation of identities and of popular culture. There are representations of the indigenous peoples of America, Africans and people from the east, on the steps, reviving and presenting stories that need to be told, retold and echoed. The steps demonstrate that art can and must be public, accessible and representative for all people. It is also indicative of transformative power.
According to its creator, ‘the steps […] will never be finished. They will be completed on the day of my death when I myself become the steps. That way, I will become eternal’. In 2013, Selarón was found dead near his residence, on the steps themselves, under circumstances surrounded by speculation—his charred body strongly suggested foul play. This tragic event adds a somewhat intriguing layer to the story and reinforces the mystical atmosphere of the place.
Nowadays, the Selarón Steps are, above all, a meeting place, surrounded by numerous restaurants, bars, and artistic spaces, making the area even more attractive. Its presence in the heart of Rio de Janeiro continues to inspire, connect, and enchant, perpetuating the memory and artistic legacy of Jorge Selarón.