São Paulo is painted with black marks, almost cult-like symbols. A style of graffiti that is so prevalent that it has almost become the city’s unofficial façade. Steeped in history and unique to São Paulo, pichação is more than just graffiti style.
In ‘The City of Walls’, thick, black lines cover virtually every street, tunnel, overpass and bus stop of São Paulo. From the pavement, reaching to the city heights, pichação is king. Working together in small crews or pairs, the pichadores go to great lengths to make their mark. While some tag at street level, standing on each other’s shoulders to gain height, others would scale buildings, mostly condemned or vacant, to leave their cryptic markings. In order to access these tall high-rise buildings, artists would use techniques such as free climbing or abseiling. Using window ledges and external surge cables to reach their blank canvas. Dangling themselves over skyscraper rooftops, with their partner clutching onto their ankles, attaching paint rollers to broomsticks in order to tag those awkward corners. The taller the building, the more dangerous or noteworthy the location, the greater the challenge. But it’s all worth it for the prestige and respect that comes with tagging the upper levels.
Pichadores not only target large, disused buildings but in recent years have taken to tagging São Paulo’s famous buildings and historic monuments, including the Ramos de Azevedo fountain in the city’s downtown area.
One famous example is when the group, ‘Os Diferentes’, tagged Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Although they were caught and thrown into prison, they bragged about their success. The more famous the site, the greater the triumph.
Pichação is more than just verification of intrepidness, it’s all about getting your name out there. According to an article written by Marcio Siwi in the Guardian in January 2016, “At its most basic level, pichação is about vanity, fame and self-promotion, which is why the vast majority of pixos are either personal monikers or the names of particular griffes (collectives). Fame in the world of pixação is primarily a numbers game – so much so that seasoned pixadores boast about having left their mark on nearly every wall of the city. Currently, one of São Paulo’s most famous and prolific pixadores goes by the moniker RAPDOS, a variation on the word rápido.”
What’s the distinction between pichação and other styles of street art?
When looking at pichação beside traditional graffiti work, pichação, initially it’s a struggle to tell the two styles apart. However, looking closely, traditional graffiti have more rounded lettering and are stylised with techniques such as blending and shading. Injecting colour into a tag is almost essential in traditional graffiti, whether it be tagging or murals.
Pichação, however, is the exact opposite of the traditional graffiti tag, or ‘detonate’ in the language of pichação. It’s rare to come across murals or elaborate visuals in the style of pichação, only letters. Composed of straight lines and sharp edges. An almost cryptic style monochromatic calligraphy using black paint, or tar (‘Piche’ being the portuguese word for ‘tar’. ‘Pichar’, the verb meaning ‘to cover in tar’).
The roots of Pichação
Pichação is not without its own socio-cultural history. Brazil’s very own style of street graffiti was developed in the1940’s and 1950’s as political statements. Students used the streets as a canvas to voice their opinion about the military government of that time. Common phrases such as ‘abaixo a ditatura’ (‘down with the dictatorship’) plastered the streets and public buildings.
The distinct style that we recognise as Pichação emerged in São Paulo during the 1980’s with a backdrop of political progression as the country transitioned to democracy and more importantly, during the country’s introduction to heavy metal.
Emerging from the UK and the US, heavy metal gained a huge following in Brazil, particularly in São Paulo. Siwi goes on to say that, “In addition to the brute force of bands such as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, AC/DC and Metallica, Paulistano youths were also attracted to their album covers – in particular, the runic-inspired typeface these bands used to brand themselves.”
So, does the pichação symbols hold any meaning anymore? In an interview with photographer Choque Photos in João Wainer and Robert T. Oliveira’s documentary, ‘Pixo’, Choque Photos says that although pichação is less focused on the political and social statement, it is a system of ‘closed communication’. A language spoken only by the pichação artists themselves and which ‘doesn’t communicate with the rest of society.’
In saying that, translating the language of pichação, there is an air of hostility. Avoiding terms such as ‘paint’ or ‘spray’, the chosen vocabulary for the act of creating pichação is words such as ‘smash, blow-up’ or ‘destroy’. Siwi points out that “Some typical pixador monikers translate as ‘shock’, ‘neurosis’, ‘death’, ‘scare’, ‘nightmare’, ‘danger’ and ‘nocturnal attack’. This anger towards the city is much more than teenage bravado or youthful rage. It is rooted in a sense of social injustice that is intrinsically connected with the pattern of uneven urbanisation that began in the 1940s and continues today.”
Art stemmed from Pichação
Pichação hasn’t seemed to slow down since the 1980’s, but rather inspired graffiti artists in São Paulo, Brazil and worldwide.
Hailing from São Paulo, street artist Oliveiros Junior AKA Utopia, took inspiration for his artwork from pichação, as well as hip hop and graffiti SP. From the age of 13, Utopia has been practising street art and in 2008 he gained worldwide recognition for painting colourful frescoes, filled with poetry and love.
Currently residing in Lisbon, Utopia continues to produce his art, often painting portraits of beautiful women and decorating Lisbon’s city walls with colourful murals.