Photographing Brazil's Teenage Fire Balloon Gangs


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Photographing Brazil's Teenage Fire Balloon Gangs

In the early 1990s, Zilton Coelho followed eight balloon-obsessed teenagers through the slums of São Paulo.

This article originally appeared on VICE Brazil

Vale Noturno, or Night Valley, was a gang of eight fire balloon-obsessed teenagers from Capão Redondo – a favela just south of São Paulo. After one of their dads showed them how easy it was to put together a homemade hot-air balloon, the group began building them and – like many others – launching them from an alley in Jardim do Colégio.

"It really was a golden age – there were so many balloons in the Brazilian sky back then. Sometimes we wouldn't sleep, we'd just light a campfire and stare at the stars and the balloons," Gilmar Oliveira, a member of the group, recalled.


Launching these makeshift sky lanterns was illegal back then, but the very worst it could get you was two months in jail — and that was only if you were really unlucky. In 1998, the year the gang called it quits, that very law was changed and launching balloons suddenly became an environmental offence punishable with up to three years in jail or a fine. Sometimes both. Who knows whether this was why Vale Noturno decided to pack it in, but it's highly unlikely that it did anything to encourage them to keep going.

Luckily for us, photographer Zilton Coelho was around to capture the boys' six-year run with his analog camera. Not only did he manage to document the gang's impressive balloons, but he was also able to provide a unique insight into a teenage hobby that would later inexplicably become a serious crime.