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Poor artists survive, thrive in Copacabana sands

By Staff
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RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, Feb 24 (Reuters) On Rio de Janeiro's crowded Copacabana Beach, poor artists carve out a living from Carnival tourists who pay to snap photos of their magical cities and seductive women shaped entirely of sand.

The sand sculptures that dot Rio's beaches have grown in number and sophistication over the years, perfected by artists trying to attract some of the tourist dollars that pour into the city, especially during the Carnival season.

''It opened the door to a better life,'' said Rogean Rodrigues, 24, who left Brazil's impoverished northeast as a boy. After several years sculpting sand, he was able to buy a house for his mother and is saving up for his own.

Copacabana, where hilltop slums rise from rich beachfront apartment complexes, lures tourists from around the world with its exotic cocktail of sun, sea and sex laced with drugs and decadence.

On the beach, multiple turrets rise from shoulder-high sandcastles whose windows are illuminated by candles at night.

Shapes of women in brightly colored ''dental floss'' bikinis and dark sunglasses stretch on their stomachs in the sand, staring out to sea.

''The girls draw the biggest crowd,'' said Ubiritan dos Santos, a 53-year-old slum dweller who was restoring his rain-damaged bikini beauties under the palm trees.

This year, replicas of the rubbery red lips of Mick Jagger pout at passers-by, in tribute to tomorrow night's free Rolling Stones concert on the beach.

''They're a smash hit, Lots of people stop to snap them,'' sculptor Isaac Soldade, 33, said before the show.

The lips earned some sculptors more than 200 reais dollars (100) from tourists who paid 2 reais dollars(1) to take photographs.

Shifting sands have meant shifting fortunes for a number of poor Brazilians, and others, drawn to the Rio sands.

Colombian Alonso Dias, 48, a sandcastle sculptor who left home at 12, tried stints as a trapeze artist and clown before sculpting sandcastles on San Andres beach in Colombia.

People started paying him to take photos of his work. Dias decided to travel in a quest for more money that took him to Aruba, Venezuela and Argentina before he landed in Brazil.

Inevitably, he came to Copacabana, one of the world's most spectacular beaches, and teamed up with shoeshine boy Rodrigues.

Today they teach children how to sculpt palaces, which when coated with Sika, a resin made from papaya juice, can resist the wind and rain for many months.

Packs of young children roam Rio's streets sniffing glue and ether and hassling or robbing tourists for money. Sculpting sand may be one way out for some of them, Dias said.

''I'm a dreamer my dream is to find a sponsor to build a sand theme park with a school for street children,'' he said.

REUTERS SB RN1025

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