You may be familiar with the work of Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón and not even know it. The colorful staircase that he created in the Lapa neighborhood of Rio has gained worldwide fame, having been featured in commercials, music videos, and an episode of The Amazing Race.
Lapa isn't the nicest area. If you go on TripAdvisor, there are numerous stories of tourists being pick-pocketed, or even mugged and assaulted in broad daylight. That said, it's also one of the hottest nightlife spots in Rio, so your mileage may vary.
When Selarón began his work in the early 90s, he was a starving artist who lived in a little house on the stairs that connect the neighborhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa. As is the case with many starving artists, the neighbors thought he was crazy. But as this massive ceramic project grew, it began to receive outside attention. Tourists would bring Selarón tiles from all over the world, giving the already bohemian project an international flavor.
Selarón was as colorful as his work. He had an impressive mustache and could often be found working in a bright red hat. To fund this labor of love, he would sell paintings of his signature figure - a busty, pregnant black woman, sometimes with a self-portrait of Selarón as its head.
Selarón promised that as long as he lived, his project would remain unfinished. Sadly, he was found dead on his own stairs in January of 2013. At first police did not rule out homicide (he had received death threats regarding the rights to his work), but more recently, they have come to believe it was suicide.
Like so many brilliant but struggling artists throughout history, Selarón's story has a sad end. But it's hard to feel anything but joy when you look at the beautiful, colorful stairs he created, bringing the world to Brazil in more ways than one.