Between transgression and art

A research project analyzes how the pixação graffiti movement in São Paulo developed its own language of expression and became a force in art circles

Léo Ramos Chaves Pixos, pichos, and graffiti, authorized or not, can be seen in risky, high-visibility locations around the city of São PauloLéo Ramos Chaves

A graphic representation falling somewhere between letters and symbols, the pixo, short for pixação, is a visual element that permeates the São Paulo landscape. It can be seen on marquees, walls, houses, and buildings, both commercial and residential. In a recently completed research project, anthropologist Alexandre Barbosa Pereira, a professor of social sciences at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP), Guarulhos campus, has analyzed pixações (plural of pixação) made in several regions of the city since the 1980s. Along the way, he observed how young people from the periphery involved in this activity—characterized as a genre of urban art whose essence is to go beyond the rules of the public space—managed to obtain recognition in national and foreign artistic circles, despite a relationship of constant tension with the state and its institutions.

Over the last four years, in a project financed by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), Pereira mapped out the juvenile cultural practices in Santos and São Paulo, in particular the pixação of São Paulo. Some of the results of his project are the subject of a book that will be published at end of this year. In his work, the researcher explains that the members of the movement differentiate the concepts of pixação (with an “x”) from pichação (with a “ch”). While the word when written with “ch” refers to legible phrases and inscriptions, with an “x” it refers to writings that are understood only by the members of the movement. In addition, it involves coordination among groups, mostly from the city’s periphery, that seek to leave their individual or collective marks in highly visible and difficult-to-access locations. In so doing they question the very way the urban landscape is structured. Any type of pichação (or pixação) is considered an environmental crime, in accordance with Federal Law No. 9605/98. In addition to a fine, there is a penalty of three months to one year in prison for authors of pichação and unauthorized graffiti (see glossary). The penalties are higher when they involve buildings considered to have historical heritage.

Urban art characterized by graphic designs produced either legally or illegally. It emerged in the 1970s in New York

Graffiti made with the permission of those responsible for the property. Its purpose is decorative

Brazilian street writings on the urban landscape that include declarations of love and protest phrases

A particularly Brazilian style of street writings that the pixador (painter of pixação or pixo) repeats in various places throughout the city. Spray paint and foam rollers are the tools most often used

A term used primarily in Europe and the United States to designate the signatures that accompany graffiti

SOURCE Gustavo Lassala, Professor At Mackenzie University

A scholar of the subject for more than 15 years, Pereira, who is part of the Luso-Brazilian Research Network for Arts and Urban Interventions, explains that pichação created using random scribbling and phrases has always been found in São Paulo. However, he notes that the practice intensified during the 1970s, along with poetic verses written on walls and demonstrations against the dictatorship. The beginnings of pixação, however, are more recent. It emerged in the 1980s, influenced by movements such as punk, heavy metal, hip-hop, and skate culture. “The lettering style of São Paulo pixação developed based on the rectilinear, jagged style that emerged at the time,” he notes. In Pereira’s view, the practice spread through exchanges between street artists from various regions of the country. “In São Paulo, the pixação images are recurrent, they move from the center to the peripheries, something that is not common in other municipalities, where these markings are usually circumscribed to specific zones, either central or peripheral, according to the city,” he adds. The predilection for increasingly higher locations would also have arisen in the city, and seems to have influenced the graphic design of the letters. In the capital of Minas Gerais, for example, the letters have their own style and reflect the influence of both the São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro pixação styles, the latter known as xarpi (pronounced “sharpie”), observes psychologist Ludmilla Zago Andrade. She holds a PhD in literary studies from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), and has conducted ethnographic research on the pixadores (plural of pixador) of Belo Horizonte.

Initially done on the ground or on walls, in the 1990s the pixação began to be written at increasingly higher locations, like the top of the Itália building and the building next to the Bandeira terminal. Here the graffiti inscriptions of Edmilson Macena de Oliveira (1975–1997), aka “DI,” considered one of the most active pixadores in São Paulo, are still preserved. Moreover, the inscriptions, which were never clearly legible to begin with, became even less comprehensible, acquiring a style of graphic representation understood only by the members of the movement itself. Between 2001 and 2017, Pereira observed that groups of pixadores and their sympathizers were making efforts to preserve the memory of those who had done inscriptions in emblematic locations, preventing their pixos from being erased and saving newspaper reports about the incidents. “Through their pixação painting, these young people impose themselves into the urban space, from which they feel excluded,” Pereira maintains. From that time on, writing over the signature of another individual, especially if deceased, became an offense. “These young people want to be seen and remembered by future generations for the practice of pixação,” notes the researcher, who estimates there were about 5,000 pixadores in the city of São Paulo during the 2000s.

Turning point
Pereira’s research indicates that the first decade of this century represents an inflection point for the world of pixação. It is this moment that figures as the backdrop of the documentary Pixo, directed by João Wainer, in 2009. Gustavo Lassala Silva, a professor of advertising and publicity at Mackenzie University, explains that it was during that decade that pixo ceased to be created exclusively in public spaces and began being presented in locations having artistic legitimacy—such as galleries and schools of architecture and the visual arts—and started developing a dialogue with the advertising, design, fashion, art, and cinema markets.

A remarkable event occurred when, in 2008, Rafael Guedes Augustaitiz, then a 24-year-old student in his last year in the visual arts program at the Central University of Fine Arts, invited 40 colleagues to paint their signatures on the walls of the institution as part of his course completion work. The initiative, regarded as vandalism in the press, led the faculty to expel him. “This intervention was the first spectacular act that promoted pixação beyond the limits of writing on walls, and opened the possibility of this practice entering into the visual arts field,” Pereira observes.

Léo Ramos Chaves Cripta Djan’s work on the facade of a gallery in the Barra Funda district of São PauloLéo Ramos Chaves

In that same year another group of pixadores, which also included Augustaitiz, along with 24-year-old Djan Ivson, aka “Cripta Djan,” entered the Bienal Internacional de Artes in São Paulo, and painted pixação on the walls of an empty space without permission. Caught in the act, one of the members of the collective, Caroline Pivetta, 24, was arrested and held for 53 days before being sentenced to four years in a semi-open regime (a type of halfway-house incarceration). Despite the negative repercussions, two years later the group formed by Augustaitiz and Cripta Djan was invited to participate in that year’s Bienal Internacional de Artes, showing videos and lecturing about their works. On that occasion, they also painted pixação on the Nuno Ramos work White Flag, without authorization, with the phrase “release the vultures.” Arrested in the act, the group spent the night at the police station. However, Ramos decided not to press charges and they were all released the next morning.

Breaking barriers
In 2010, in another critical moment marking the entrance of the pixadores into the art world, Djan was invited to participate in the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, offering workshops and presenting videos. With other pixadores, he scrawled paint on the church where he was to lecture, and had a run-in with the curator, Polish artist Artur Zmijewski, at whom he threw yellow paint. Once again the episode mobilized the media, but Djan was not penalized. The events generated discussion about pixação graffiti’s place in the arts. “These young people’s actions ended up creating opportunities for mobility that they would never have had if they weren’t pixadores,” observes Pereira. As an example, he cites the case of Djan, who worked as a wall painter on the outskirts of São Paulo. In 2016, Djan and Augustaitiz had solo exhibitions organized in galleries in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. That same year, DI’s work was the subject of a retrospective in a gallery in São Paulo and incorporated the documentary Pichar é humano, by Bruno Rodrigues. “DI worked as an office boy on the border of São Paulo and Osasco. Killed during a bar fight, he wouldn’t be remembered today if it weren’t for his pixação,” the researcher notes.

Cripta Djan's work on the facade of a gallery in the Barra Funda district of São Paulo Writing on a building on Rua Consolação alludes to the memory of a famous pixador of the 1990sCripta Djan's work on the facade of a gallery in the Barra Funda district of São Paulo

The process of expanding the discussion regarding pixação in artistic and institutional media began a new chapter this year, with the Venice Biennale of Architecture. One of the works designed by the curator of the Brazilian pavilion is the map The Encryption of Power, which graphically represents the history of pixação in a section of the city of São Paulo. The result of a partnership between the curatorial team, Djan Ivson, the Escola da Cidade architecture college, and the companies Mapping-lab and Datazap, the project allows viewers to see the locations of 4,000 pixos over the last 30 years, with the fines given to their authors when caught in the act and various news items on the topic. The map was developed using collections of news articles and approximately 13,000 Instagram posts, which indicated the geographical locations of mentions of “pixo”, “pichação” and “xarpi.” According to architect Marcelo Maia Rosa, one of the curators of the pavilion, the project helps in understanding the scope of pixo in São Paulo, where in his estimation the movement is more prevalent than in other cities. “In the discussions we had with curators from other countries, we noted how pixo is a particular manifestation of Brazil.”

Recognizing transgression as an intrinsic part of the history of urbanism, Carlos Zibel, a retired professor from the School of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of São Paulo (FAU-USP), points out that excavations in the Italian city of Pompeii revealed, on walls buried under the volcanic eruption of 79 AD, graphite and tar pixo graffiti denouncing various senators. “The languages ​​of graffiti and pixo have become part of the repertoire of contemporary art, but this does not eliminate the tensions that inappropriate pixação generates in the urban space. Precisely because of their transgressive character, the pixadores play an important role in the investigation of artistic limits,” he concludes.

PEREIRA. A. B. Um rolê pela cidade de riscos: Leituras da piXação em São Paulo (A Stroll in the city of risks: Readings in piXação in São Paulo). (In press).