Summer 2005

Pichação [EXTRACT]

The architecture of São Paulo, Brazil, is covered by a unique form of calligraphic graffiti

São Paulo, the economic capital of Brazil, is home to a unique and unprecedented writing movement known as ‘pichação’. This Brazilian word for tag, literally meaning ‘trace’ or ‘stain’, represents an all-encompassing phenomenon that surpasses all known occurrences of graffiti in terms of sheer coverage – you see pichações [the Portuguese plural form of the word] all over the city. 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 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. Pichação is a rare formal innovation that breaks with the conventions of contemporary graffiti established since its origins in 1970s New York. The São Paulo milieu is unique because, unlike most other American, European and even Asian graffiti scenes, which reproduce New York letterforms more or less faithfully, the pichações have developed a totally different imaginary calligraphy (see inside covers).

Stylistically they were originally influenced by heavy metal and hardcore logos of record sleeves of the 1980s (e.g. for bands such as AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Slayer or the Dead Kennedys, whose aesthetic has been adopted by local Brazilian bands such as Sepultura or Ratos de Porão) 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 [as the pichação graffitists are known] 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 sans serif 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. This is what differentiates them from other types of graffiti which lack such homogeneity. New York graffiti transformed the sides of subway trains into mass-media surfaces. In São Paulo, architecture seems to be the preferred target for the writers, from immense office blocks to suburban houses. To get to the tops of the tall buildings, the pichadores must gain access to the interior at night or climb up the outside of the structure. This is highly dangerous, even fatal sometimes.

São Paulo’s high rollers
Such written signs are a product of the capability of the human body and the architectural rhythm of the different façades, giving rise to a singular vernacular calligraphy. The pichadores have developed a ductus or sequence of strokes which is concerned with structure rather than outline. The method is the same whether they use a roller or a spray can. The form is conceived instinctively based on structural and proportional criteria above all else, like a segmented line that has been integrated into a frame. It exploits the potential of a given space to the maximum. Despite their unrestrained baroque forms, pichações are a realisation, in a way, of Adrian Frutiger’s ideas about the sign in three-dimensional space: in the field of signage, the letter can be seen as two-dimensional architecture. An awareness of this means writing can be used as an integrated element in the architectural context and not just an isolated element, applied by chance in space. The genesis of the scriptural forms is the product of a triple encounter: an unforeseeable collision between the structure of gothic with the scale of architecture, the mediating tool being the writer himself, equipped with a simple paint roller.


First published in Eye no. 56 vol. 14 2005

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.