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Pichação: A History of Art and Rebellion

Though the origin of Pichação is still a debated topic, with the earliest accounts dating back to the 1930’s, what is clear is São Paulo’s distinctive street writing is rooted in a desire to protest against inequality in Brazil’s largest city.

Pichação, like most other art forms, has undergone several changes in style, presentation and meaning. The style we now identify with pichação first emerged in São Paulo, Brazil in the 1980s.

At the intersection of art and activism Pichação seems like the perfect topic for us to delve into. Though we ask that you keep in mind, though we reference 1970s New York graffiti as likely being a main inspiration for most contemporary graffiti world wide, we by no means believe or advocate any one particular origin for all contemporary graffiti art inspiration.

Pichação is a writing movement based in Brazil named after the Brazilian word for tag, literally meaning ‘trace’ or ‘stain’, and represents an all-encompassing phenomenon that surpasses all known occurrences of graffiti in terms of sheer coverage – you see pichações (the plural form of the word) all over major cities in Brazil, most notably São Paulo.

Pichação first appeared in its current form in the streets during the mid-1980s, and since 1990 has gradually colonised the façades and tops of a variety of buildings in the capital reaching a climax in the second half of the 1990s.

Tags can be defined as a ‘parallel prestige economy’ organised by writing, where the act of writing one’s name and performing one’s signature in a public space is more about seeing than reading. In other words the more visible the tags, the more respected the art.

Pichação is a rare formal innovation that breaks with the conventions of contemporary graffiti that many contend to have originated in 1970s New York. The São Paulo art form is unique because, unlike most other graffiti scenes found throughout the world, the pichações have developed a totally different imaginary calligraphy.

Stylistically, it appears, the Pichadores were originally influenced by heavy metal and hardcore logos of record sleeves of the 1980s that were characterised by the use of hybrid blackletter and historic letterforms such as runes.

A key feature is the integration of the letter’s structure into the overall urban landscape. Pichadores adopted blackletter to distinguish their signatures from the anti-dictatorship slogans and poetic messages that were prevalent in the streets of São Paulo in the early 1980s. These were generally capitals applied with brushes and rollers. The Portuguese language has always been principally used to create the names and pseudonyms. While stylistic variations are observable in each signature, pichações share an aesthetic unity and visual sensibility with one another.

Aside from fame, visibility and adrenaline, the most important motivation for pichadores is anger – primarily directed against the city it’s found in. Unlike graffiti (which many pichadores reject as being “too commercial” and a “beautification scheme”), pichação seeks to positively degrade the urban environment. As one pichador put it, pichação is “an assault on the city”.

This hostile relationship is ingrained in the very language of pichação. For instance, pichadores never use the term “paint” or “spray”. Instead, they prefer “arrebentar”, “detonar” or “escancarar” (“smash”, “blow-up” and “destroy”). Some typical pichador monikers translate as “shock”, “neurosis”, “death”, “scare”, “nightmare”, “danger” and “nocturnal attack”.

This anger towards the city is rooted in a sense of social injustice that is intrinsically connected with the pattern of uneven wealth distribution that began in the 1940s and continues today.

It is this common messaging and relative uniformity in structure is what differentiates pichação from other types of graffiti which lack such uniformity.

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