Street Runes from São Paulo

About a year ago I spent about a week in São Paulo. I didn’t have much money (and São Paulo is expensive!) so I spent quite a lot of time wandering around and getting a feel for the city. Before going I had read this article on the BBC website, which tells of some of the strong culture of creativity in Brazil’s largest city. 

I was particularly intrigued by mention of Beco do Batman (Batman’s alley), a 100m stretch of alleyway, covered in all kinds of awesome looking street art. Somewhat typically of me, I never got round to going to this place (I’m saving it for my next visit), but while strolling around the streets I did see loads of amazing street art. 

But as well as loads of nice images, I noticed a lot of strange rune-like symbols all over the place.

Most of the text was completely unintelligible to me but occasionally I could make something out. 

I snapped this example because there was some text I could actually read (top right – this was above a clothes shop). But most of it was completely alien to me. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but what I was looking at is called Pixação (also spelt Pichação). This is a form of graffiti native to São Paulo and generally involves writing in this weird lettering on inaccessible buildings. 

It has interested roots, having originally been about making political statements when it started back in the 1940s. “Piche” is Portuguese for tar, and this was the original ‘ink’ used. By the 80s it had fallen into decline, but was revived. However, now the pichadores (people who do the pixação) were just writing their names. 

The Wikipedia entry is short but interesting, with this quotation from a book clearly stating one point of view:

“Pixação is a vehicle for the youth of the city to assert their existence and self-worth, and to do it loudly. As a social protest, Pixação is brutal, effective and pulls no punches. There is no country on earth with a worse distribution of wealth than Brazil. For the rich, there are nice buildings. For the poor, there are shanty towns. Pixação exists on the very surface of the constested wealth, and promises to keep on punishing the fortunate until they produce a world less punishing to begin with.”

The same book goes on to say of Pixação:

“It is at times a tough sell even to graffiti aficionados, but anyone painting in the streets of Brazil must give it a tip of the hat, for it certainly makes other street artwork … appear a generous community service in comparison.”

It strikes me as a strange and sad line of reasoning. Purposefully setting out to make your city look ugly as a protest against inequality. Not even the practitioners themselves thinks it looks good! Surely there are better ways to achieve fairer distribution of wealth? 

OK, so this is probably just plain old tagging rather then pixação specifically. But seriously, what is this for? At best this is just meaningless territory marking or showing off.

Pichadores hit the headlines back in 2008 when they stormed an art gallery in São Paulo which was displaying pieces by street artists. As a protest against the “marketing, institutionalization and domestication of street art”. So which is it? Distribution of wealth? Or domestication of street art? Or just whatever makes them stamp their feet this week? Here is an article in English describing the events. 

A month later pichadores were in the news again, this time attacking the Biennial International Arts Festival in São Paulo. And just last year a couple of guys climbed scaffolding to tag the side of the Cristo’s head.

Crown of tags – apparently this was to raise awareness of missing persons…

As you can probably tell, I’m not convinced by all this – with no coherent message or cause it just sounds like pseudo wannabe radicals looking for motives post-hoc and puerile one-upmanship. And if you are trying to make a political point, why write it in a form of text that most people can’t read? It’s like writing a letter of complaint in Sanskrit!

Having said all that, as a typeface it is kinda cool! Check out this pixação-inspired alphabet put together by Bristol-based artist Thomas Heaphy:

Check out Thomas’ site – he’s does some really interesting stuff.

I know I’ve mentioned graffiti several times recently and I don’t meant to labour this whole “is it art?” point. But I do think there are interesting issues raised as art, socio-political comment and freedom of expression all come together in a slightly murky mix. I’ll leave you with another piece of bona fide art from the streets of São Paulo.

Making some pun related to ‘being coy’ would be too easy. Like shooting fish in a barrel…
5 replies
  1. Alex
    Alex says:

    I've always seen the awesome photos of Street Art in SP, very distinctive for sure and you can always tell it's in SP when you see it.

    As for the pixacao (pardon my lack of accents!), I wanted to personally kill the person who did it to Cristo. Not that I'm a religious person or anything, but it just seems so damn wrong to do that to one of the wonders of the world, viu?


  2. Tom Le Mesurier
    Tom Le Mesurier says:

    Hey Alex – yep, the good stuff is great, the bad stuff is oh so bad. Seeing that house covered in tags (it's in Botafogo, not far from where I work) really depressed me.

    As for the Cristo thing – I would help dispose of the body. Seems like a tedious childish competition, dressed up as activism. Grrrr! 😉

  3. The Gritty Poet
    The Gritty Poet says:

    "Making some pun related to 'being coy' would be too easy. Like shooting fish in a barrel…"

    Now where did I put that cyanide capsule? 🙂

    Heaphy's letter O looks like a "No Cow Parking" sign, don't ya think?

    It Would have been useful below.

  4. Brae
    Brae says:

    Just read your post re. Pixacao. Nice. And ahead of the New York Times in its reporting… VERY nice! I agree with you though, it seems to me their are more constructive ways to make a point. That said, these folks are getting attention hence the post by both you and the NY Times. Good on them.

    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Ah, thanks! Maybe I should become Rio correspondent for the NYT 😉

      It’s a divisive issue isn’t it? As an ugly protest against ugly conditions, it certainly gets attention. But I’d still like to see them take that attention and try to drive it in a constructive direction.


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