On a recent sunny afternoon, Steve Johnson, a tourist from Salt Lake City strolling through Rio’s colorful Santa Teresa neighborhood, stopped in his tracks and whipped out his camera. Across the street was a fanciful mural featuring the Brazilian soccer team. Players fill a street car, as Neymar hoists the World Cup trophy and Argentinian rival Lionel Messi covers a face filled with tears.

“I think it’s one of the best things I’ve seen in all my time here,” said Johnson, 48.

There’s plenty to compare it to. On the walls and buildings and in the hearts of many, the World Cup exists in bright bold colors — a celebration of a game, a team and a nation. For others, though, it’s more crude, angry, dark and even vulgar.

Across Brazil, graffiti and street art is a popular, time-honored and unavoidable form of expression. The controversial and costly World Cup tournament has given street artists ample inspiration. While some murals celebrate Brazil’s passionate love affair with soccer, other buildings are plastered with protest art, often depicting themes of greed and deriding a nation’s misplaced priorities. In one, a favela child stares at a glistening stadium in the distance. In another, a man in a suit and a soccer player kick around a ball-shaped bag of money.

Others are much more succinct: stenciled lettering denouncing the tournament or hand-scrawled alliterative expletives directed at FIFA.

In a meeting of traditional soccer powerhouses, host nation Brazil will face Germany in a World Cup semifinal. The Brazilians have played the Germans only once before in a World Cup: the 2002 final won by Brazil. Here's a look at Tuesday's matchup. (Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)

“I think it has a political attitude,” said artist Paulo Ito, whose recent work has cast a skeptical eye on the World Cup. “It is a political thinking, in a certain way. Not in all the works; others are more poetic than political.”

Ito has done a piece with the tournament mascot, a cartoonish armadillo named Fuleco, standing in front of a stadium and directing a family to scatter. Another features a starving child at a table with only a soccer ball on his plate. The latter went viral on social media sites and drew a lot of attention to the issues that have enraged protesters here in the months and years preceding the Cup.

“The response was very emotional,” said Ito, 36. “When people have emotion, it becomes a subject. Or more.”

‘Not just . . . paint on a wall’

Regardless of the tone, street art is hardly an underground enterprise in Brazil; graffiti is tolerated and even encouraged in some places. In Sao Paulo, local laws prohibit public advertising — likened to visual pollution — so there are no billboards lining the highways or placards on the sides of buses. Graffiti provides the dominant visuals in almost every corner of the city, whether it’s colorful, detailed murals or hastily painted signatures of street gang members.

“The city has promoted [street art] as a way of creating an identity,” said Teresa Caldeira, a professor at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design and author of the book “City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo.” “It’s the opposite of New York from years ago. It’s pretty much accepted that street art is part of the city.”

In Sao Paulo, city officials turned over to 70 street artists a long wall that runs from the Patriarca metro station almost to the Arena de Sao Paulo stadium. The result is a colorful 21 / 2-mile long ribbon of graffiti, all of it celebrating soccer, Brazil and the World Cup, reportedly carrying a price tag of $1.3 million.

It’s a lucrative endeavor for some. The Brazilian artists and identical twins Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo — known by most as Os Gemeos — sell their work for high six figures. Having achieved recognition and plaudits on the international art circuit, they were commissioned to paint the Boeing 737 the Brazilian national team has used during this tournament.

While Brazil’s best street artists have seen their work displayed in galleries around the world, there is another class of painter here that is not as warmly regarded. Pixacao taggings have their roots in the pre-1950 political messages scrawled on buildings. But they’ve evolved into something different now: more competition than expression, seeing who can find the highest, most hard-to-reach place to paint his signature in thick black lettering, illegible to most.

It’s considered a blight by many and especially frowned upon in Sao Paulo’s artsy Vila Madalena neighborhood, where virtually no surface has been left untouched. It’s a bohemian community where the cafes are filled with young artists and intellectuals. At the center is Batman’s Alley, where detailed murals decorate buildings on either side of a brick path, showcasing some of the most impressive spray-paint murals around.

Street art is quite literal here, as artists have chiseled patterns into the asphalt. Parked on one street is a paint-splotched car of uncertain make and model, with plants growing out of the windows and a hole cut in the roof — a four-cylinder roadside planter. But there’s also tile work, glued paper, stencils and tons of spray paint.

“Graffiti art here is not like graffiti all around the world,” said Baixo Ribeiro, waving a hand toward a wall featuring imaginative cartoon characters trapped between fantasy and science fiction. “It is not just putting paint on a wall. There is beauty, maybe political conscience, a message.”

Ribeiro, 50, founded the Choque Cultural gallery in Sao Paulo and is both an activist and well-known proponent of street art. He’s seen the wide-ranging genre evolve over the past 30 years, becoming more artistically relevant, commercially successful and socially accepted. He estimates there are 3,000 serious street artists in Sao Paulo alone.

“The art can humanize the community,” he said, “give it character and give the people pride.”

‘Museum open to everyone’

Ribeiro said the World Cup prompted much-needed dialogue about social ills that have plagued parts of Brazil for years, such as poverty, health care, education, basic infrastructure. The four-year presidential election cycle runs parallel with the World Cup cycle, and there’s a heavy overlap between the two: political candidates eager to find common ground with the masses, and for the masses, a platform to demand change and voice concerns.

Graffiti artists and taggers tend to be young and male, said Caldeira, and many feel degrees of oppression and disenfranchisement. They might have played key roles in the protests that preceded the tournament, even if much of their art work remains politically agnostic.

Capturing that means acknowledging the role soccer plays in the lives of Brazilians. While some murals might address police brutality and political corruption — and much of it remains firmly planted in the realm of fantasy — the World Cup became popular subject matter for many.

Marcos Alexandre Jambeiro, a 44-year-old Rio artist, explained soccer and art can be interchangeable, two endeavors that require skill, creativity and passion. Both are done in open spaces and intended to be enjoyed by many.

“When we do a work on the street, it’s a museum that’s open to everyone,” Jambeiro said. “It’s an open cultural center for everyone to come to.”

Jambeiro painted the popular street car mural in the Santa Teresa neighborhood and has been commissioned by ESPN to do another in Copacabana. He’s been working on it daily since the World Cup began, and when the piece is finished, it will tell the full story of the tournament, from Robin van Persie’s header to Luis Suarez’s teeth to Neymar’s injury.

Painting the World Cup seemed only natural for Jambeiro. Here, street art and soccer are essential components of a nation’s identity.

“This is something specific to Brazilians: the spontaneity of playing football, joy,” he said. “Art is in all of this, not just in the painting, but in the song, the joy of playing football.”

Maese reported in Sao Paulo, and Phillips reported in Rio de Janeiro.