Ten years ago, the government of Sao Paulo outlawed billboards within the city limits. It was a way of eliminating “visual pollution,” and I, for one, am thankful that they did so. Just outside of the city limits, the horizon is chockful of billboards. An immediate contrast. So much nicer in the city just to see buildings and sky, without the interruption of constant billboards.

But another element of “visual pollution” is still rampant: black-tag graffiti. According to a New York Times article in January (the text in green is excerpted text; the photos are mine).

“But the battle to clean up the sprawling cityscape has become intertwined with a deeper social conflict between Brazil’s haves and have-nots, where the angry and disenfranchised lash out in a form of expression unrivaled in other cities.

“Taking action against the establishment, young people arm themselves with black paint, rollers, spray cans and no shortage of personal daring. Their target: the landscape that society cares so much to recover.

“‘We practice class warfare, and there are casualties in war,’ said Rafael Guedes Augustaitiz, 27. ‘They compare us to barbarians, and there may be a little truth in that.’

“Mr. Augustaitiz is part of a subculture that executes a form of graffiti described by one scholar as an ‘alphabet designed for urban invasion.’ It nearly envelops some of São Paulo’s government buildings, residential high-rises, even public monuments, with lettering eerily reminiscent of Scandinavia’s ancient runic writing.

“The most daring practitioners risk their lives, scaling building facades at night to paint their script at the crests of smog-darkened skyscrapers. Some have fallen to their death from terrifying heights.

“Their graffiti, called pichação (pronounced pee-shah-SAO), from the Portuguese verb pichar, or cover with tar, reflects the urban decay and deep class divisions that still define much of São Paulo.

“Even as São Paulo’s other forms of graffiti acquire some respectability as street art, shown in galleries here and abroad, pichação remains defiantly outside such conventions, inviting visceral reactions from those weary of its relentless scrawl across the cityscape.

“’They make buildings look grotesque and walls look disgusting,’ said Telma Sabino, 45, a secretary, echoing the anti-pichação sentiment of many other Paulistanos, as residents of this city are called.

“Pichação does, however, fascinate scholars of urban culture, who have studied it since it emerged here in the 1980s. They say that it differs remarkably from other forms of urban graffiti around the world inspired by New York’s colorful lettering from the 1970s.

“Pichação gangs do not consider themselves graffitists at all, since colorful graffiti — in their view at least — is a lesser form of expression, easy to do on street level and often co-opted by the commercial art scene.”

From an outsider’s point of view, I see Pichação as a blight. I understand their motives, but I see the cost to the city and I abhor it. The tagging creates a sense of decay and throws a shadow of threat over the city. It is estimated that there are 5,000 pixadores (as they’re called) in the city. And they all have something to say. I’m no sociologist, so I don’t value what they have to say; to me, it is simply marring a city that is struggling to find itself. I understand that in that struggle, millions are being routed from their homes (typically, favelas) and are being further marginalized. And this is their voice. I accept that. But, I fail to see how, during an attempt to rebuild the city and raise the people above their current economic levels, defacing the city can be of value.

I don’t mind the “artistic” graffiti. The artistic graffiti is colorful and fun. It might also be a form of protest, but I find it amusing.

 

But the Pichação is angry. And intimidating.

There is an excellent blog on “Tattoo-ing” the streets of Brazil here. It can be translated using Google Translator, but just look at the art. Amazing. I haven’t seen this art yet, but will be out and about looking for it from now on.