How Brazilian graffiti writers fought back against the city that turned on them
Graffiti writers fill space. In LA, Philly, and NY, writing predominated in public spaces abdicated by the state. Around the same time that de-facto states were claiming parts of Los Angeles and writers in New York were turning the public transit system into a mobile gallery, a unique graffiti culture was emerging down in São Paulo, Brazil. There, writers pushed back against encroachment on space and displacement of population. They called their writing pichação.
Why pichação developed in São Paulo
São Paulo’s most iconic building is easy to pick out in the city’s crowded skyline. Edifício Copan slithers through an endless forest of high-rises, notable more for its breadth than its height, unmistakable in its letter-adjacent shape: ~.
Construction on the Oscar Niemeyer-designed tower began in 1952; it was not completed until 1966. This construction period straddled a tumultuous era for Brazil’s cities—one that saw intense urban development and ended in a military coup that would institute a dictatorship that would last over two decades.
First elected president of Brazil in 1956, Juscelino Kubitschek promised fifty years of progress in five. Brazil was already rapidly developing—as evidenced by the beginning of work on the ambitious Edifício Copan—but standing on still-unsteady legs as a young democracy. Kubitschek’s plan kicked that development into overdrive, calling in a flood of foreign investment in industry, energy, and infrastructure.
This plan was so ambitious it included the construction of an entirely new capital city. Brasilia would be not only a seat of political power, but a linchpin in national infrastructure, connecting the north and south of the country with new highways, and opening the Amazon for development. And this was just a part of a greater plan for aggressive urbanization, which would pour millions of people into Brazil’s largest cities.
Kubitscheck’s plan worked—by and large, similar policy would deliver growth in Brazil for the next two decades—but at a steep cost. The sheer volume of investment was expensive, driving up inflation and income inequality, further exacerbating the problems faced by the poor displaced by urban development. In 1964, a military coup ended Brazil’s democracy and ossified policies of urban displacement.
In São Paulo, this meant runaway development of private spaces, driven by aggressive development of urban roadways. The centre of São Paulo boomed with new construction. The poor had no choice but to move further and further away, taking up residence in suburban slums far from the economic opportunities in the city.
Denied the voice to address this politically, they turned to letters, written in pitch on the walls of the tall new buildings festooning their city—pichação.
What is pichação?
Pichação lettering was deliberately and aggressively ugly. Writing pichação wasn’t about reputation and prestige, this was about striking back at a city that had turned on the writer—parks turned into luxury housing, streets turned into viaducts, open spaces turned vertical walls. It all but begged for pichação writers to voice their discontent. And they did.
If pichação’s overarching quality is brashness, this comes through in its placement. Pichação writers pride themselves on feats of bravery, reaching seemingly impossible places on building facades. They may scale balconies; they may rappel down from roofs.
Stylistically, pichação drew from the heavy-metal music popular at the time. This aggressive soundtrack for rebellion often featured album titles with runic inspiration. The resulting pichação, therefore, was angular, sharp, visually aggressive, with the style to match its in-your-face placement.
São Paulo and pichação today
Today, Brazil’s democracy has been restored; the country has enjoyed 30 years of political stability. Yet cities like São Paulo still grapple with the legacy of mid-century policies. The city is crowded, with inadequate public space, and poorly served by public transit. The poor, still living in far-flung districts, face Sisyphean commutes. Ironically, the central city has suffered as a result of the race to the bottom that rammed it with buildings and cars. In some places, the people have been able to occupy abandoned buildings. Pichação remains their lettering.
Pichação-styled graffiti in Berlin
As a voice for the voiceless, for those displaced and pushed aside, pichação reveals another facet in the complex tesseract of public and private urban spaces upon which graffiti writers write. This complexity would reveal its whole by the end of the 1980s. That's when a European city divided for decades into two Petri dishes for ideological experimentation came crashing back together. Letters would mark who would—or even could—own what.