One of the first things I noticed about Sao Paulo was the graffiti. It’s everywhere, and it’s stylistically very striking – angular, highly stylized letters on walls, buildings, overpasses. It’s clear that it’s writing, not just glyphs, yet it’s difficult to parse the characters. When I try to decipher it, I feel as lost as I do trying to understand spoken Portuguese: it’s clear someone is communicating with me, and while I’m on the verge of understanding, I clearly don’t understand.
It took less than 15 seconds with Google to learn that this style of writing is called “pixação“, that it takes its name from the Portuguese verb “to paint with tar” and that it’s distinctive to southern Brazil, especially São Paulo. A few more links and I discovered that my curiosity about pixação is about five years too late if I wanted a new job as a “coolhunter”, as the phenomenon has been thoroughly explored – and leveraged – by designers and marketers around the world.
The video above, by Joao Wainer for coolhunting.com, did the best job of answering my questions about the writing style: what are people saying, and why are they choosing to say it this way. Pixação has its roots in the 1980s, a moment when Brazil overthrew a military dictatorship and emerged into an inspiringly participatory democracy and a depressingly unequal society. The original artists wrote political slogans, while current practitioners are tagging – they’re writing the names of the crews they write with as well as personal tags, which are often a non-alphabetic symbol.
What most sources make clear is that pixação doesn’t really take place at street level – it’s all about heights. The most ambitious crews scale the outside of multistory buildings so they can tag the highest floors, and there’s evidently fierce competition between crews to place tags in as visible and inaccessible places as possible.
A documentary from Amir Escandari for Helsinki-Filmi focuses on the dangers of being a pixador, the coordination of the crews, and the politics of the art form. Simon Romero, writing for the New York Times, follows the political thread, interviewing writers who see their work as a form of class warfare, a way that marginalized classes can inscribe themselves on an economically divided city.
Other documentaries celebrate the politics as part of a romanticization of the practice and the lifestyle. “Os Pixadores” by Ben Newman looks like a sneaker ad, which is appropriate as it’s sponsored by Puma’s streetstyle brand. A band of attractive, multiracial kids do shockingly dangerous things while talking about the need to be heard. It’s not hard to imagine this message selling shoes in any economy.
Others have clearly fallen in love with pixação as typography. Gustavo Lassala has created a font – Adrenalina – that is based on his masters thesis studying pixação. He extrapolates from 800 photos taken in São Paulo to create a typeface that’s visibly related to pixação, but immediately readable, an impressive achievement. (His name for the font suggests that he, too, understands that graffiti can sell sneakers. Or perhaps a really badass guarana-based energy drink.) François Chastanet, a professor of graphic design, has written a lengthy tome on pixação, whose endpages feature dozens of different versions of each letter.
What I love about pixação is that it reminds me of death metal album covers, which inevitably feature the band’s name written in a jagged, angular script that’s incomprehensible on first glance. This, it turns out, is no accident. Metal, particularly the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal”, was the music of choice for early pixação writers. (Of course, anyone who’s ever banged their head rhythmically knows that Iron Maiden continues to exist primarily so they can tour Brazil annually.) Commentators trace the letterforms of pixação to album covers by Maiden, Slayer and others. I can’t really see it, myself – Maiden used a blocky letterstyle I associate with early 1980s videogames, and while Slayer and Motörhead both are somewhat angular, Napalm Death and especially Morbid Angel look like the most obvious precursor to the lettering style, though both bands postdate the emergence of pixação… which means there’s a band that had traction in Brazil and helped popularize the death metal style of writing, which I could probably find if I were only willing to crawl down another internet rabbit hole.
For the meantime, I am consoled that this dark and beautiful form of writing has a name and that I know it, even if I can’t really pronounce it. And that I’ve learned another tiny detail about this fascinating and overwhelming country.