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Work in Brazil

Artisanal Work Offers Financial and Cultural Rewards

Brazil has a thriving arts culture and professional artisans here can make a pretty good living. Working an artisan in Brazil can provide not just financial gain but a window into the culture as well.

What It Takes

The first step is to choose your medium. Most artisans here work with natural materials such as seeds, wood, shells, leather, and animal teeth (though nearly any material will suffice, such as metal wire for jewelry or epoxy resin for sculptures or painting on canvas).

Since I’ve always had an affinity for jewelry, I went with beads, buying several bags of cooked and died seeds of the Amazonian fruit açai, also known as “vegetal marble” because of its luster and durability.

A waxed nylon cord will last through bathing in the sea and under the strong equatorial sun. Copper or nickel wire is used to make closures and the earpieces in jewelry. You will also need some basic tools: scissors, pliers (both flat-nosed and the round-tipped). Expect to spend around $150 to get started.

Fortaleza in the Northeast is a great place to pick up beading materials cheap. The Amazon region is excellent for a variety of materials, and quantities of animal teeth can be easily obtained in the Matto Grosso region. Be careful not to pick up any material from plants or animals that could be endangered, such as wild cats.

Now you are ready to sell. Here basic Portuguese comes in handy, as about half of your clients will be upper class Brazilians. (Despite Brazil being a part of the “third world,” there is plenty of wealth in the country—it’s just poorly distributed.)

There are two methods for selling: “mangear” and “espor.” With a small display panel made of fabric and PVC tubing, you can ply the beaches with your wares. This is “mangeando.” Have a smile and some handy lines to approach sunning tourists.

“Espor” is laying out your items on top of a cloth on the ground or on a table, usually on the sidewalk. A combination of both is most effective: hit the beach between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., take a break, then around sunset find a prime spot with foot traffic to locate your spread.

The key to selling is to place the product in the customer’s hand as early as possible. If someone likes what they see, holding it makes a purchase nearly irresistible.

Time and Place

Selling depends on customers, usually tourists, national and foreign. High season in Brazil is January/February, with another peak in July. If you seriously want to try living as an artisan in Brazil, I would recommend coordinating with the high seasons.

Some places such as the “sun city” of Natal receive a year-round trickle of tourism. Try Ponta Negra beach here. This is a sure bet anytime, as well as in Recife (where Bom Viagem is the spot). The entire coastline and much of the interior are prime markets during high season. Areas to avoid include the less prosperous states of Maranhão and Sergipe.

In high season you can earn $100 a day or more. In cities such as Natal you can average $60 a day year-round if working the beach and later on the sidewalk. Not bad, especially considering low living costs in Brazil.

Living the Artisan Life

Being an artisan in Brazil is not just about the money. Non-monetary benefits include meeting new and interesting people, the satisfaction of living off work made by your own hands, the laid-back lifestyle, and an alternative view into Brazilian culture.

Traveling down the coast, I would have a swim in the ocean after my beach tromp, listening to bands weaving among the sun umbrellas playing Brazilian music for tourists. This work puts you on the other side of the tourist dichotomy, which makes for an interesting view into both society and the industry. You will come to recognize peoples’ nationality by their gait alone and determine who are the best customers (Spaniards!), building a kind of community with other vendors through good times and bad.

If you work the sidewalk at night, with so much time on the streets you will also see the dark underbelly of the tourism industry, namely prostitution and drug use (particularly prolific in northeastern cities such as Fortaleza and Natal).

What to Watch Out For

Since you’re in the informal economy, there will be moments when the fiscal branch of the regional government may force you to leave the beach or your sidewalk spot, threatening to confiscate your goods. The best remedy for this is to get in with the other artisans and vendors, exchanging information on when certain places are good or risky. In some areas you may be able to acquire a license or join an association, and thus become an official vendor.

A growing number of people purchase cheap, ready-made jewelry to resell it. “Industrianato” (as opposed to artesanato), since it’s mass-produced, sells cheap and can drive down the value of your hand-made art. Some places such as the city of Salvador da Bahia are so flooded by this kind of junk that it’s difficult to make it as an artisan there, except during the high season.

Theft is not particularly a problem. As always while traveling, you should be aware of your surroundings and try not to carry much money or valuables while you are out and about.

If you like art and are looking for rewarding do-it-yourself work, I recommend becoming an artisan in Brazil. For me it was a positive and memorable experience, one that I would repeat.