Caroline Pivetta da Mota and others tagging at the São Paulo Bienal. Photo: Choque Photos.

Pichação at the São Paulo Bienal:
Art or Crime?


by Christina Roiter

As I reported in the issue of The Art Section for February 2008, the curators of the 28th edition of the São Paulo Bienal, Brazil’s major biennial art exhibition, decided to leave the 2nd floor of the pavilion empty, partly because of a lack of financial support for the exhibition and partly to serve as a manifesto on the emptiness of art at this moment. On opening day, a group of “Pichadores” invaded the building and covered the walls of the second floor with the distinctive style of Brazilian graffiti known in Portuguese as “Pichação” (or “staining”) as an act of protest.

São Paulo, Brazil’s financial capital, is completely covered in “pichações.” They are displayed all over the city, with stains on the façades of buildings, houses, walls, etc. As in other cities throughout the world, there are many who revile this form of graffiti. and others who defend it as a form of popular art.

According to François Chastanet, writing in Eye Magazine,

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. [In Pichação] the act of writing one’s name and performing one’s signature in a public space is more about seeing than reading. . . . 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. . . .

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. . . . [P]ichações 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. . . .

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. . . . 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.

Only one of the 40 pichadores who invaded the Bienal to make pichações in a space purposely left empty by the curatorial group was arrested. Caroline Pivetta da Mota, 23, was locked up in a prison cell in the Penitenciária Feminina de Sant´Anna, in São Paulo, together with dangerous women prisoners, and has been there for more than 40 days as of this writing. She could be sentenced to as many as three years in prison, if convicted of destruction of public space.

Pichação at the São Paulo Bienal. Photo: Choque Photos.

But was this a crime, or an art action? 

The group’s provocative attempt to inscribe a manifesto on the so-called empty walls of the 2008 São Paulo Bienal, and the harsh response of the curators and law enforcement, created a feeling of déjà vu that brought back reminiscences of the military dictatorship of the 1960s and 70´s, when censorship scissors were sharp, and jail and torture were the punishments for any cultural manifestation at odds the political status quo. Is censorship back again in Brazil, in our most important visual arts event?

Pivetta da Mota wasn’t the leader of the action. It was organized by Rafael Guedes, known as Pixobomb, who sought out the local media to assume “authorship.” Guedes had organized two similar actions in São Paulo earlier in 2008, one as his thesis project at the Belas Artes University, and the other at the Choque Cultural Gallery. The latter action involved the defacement of works by British artists showing at the gallery. Pivetta da Mota, who claimed just to be watching the graffitists in action at the Bienal, ended up being carried away by the action, and was the only one arrested. According to Rafael Camargo Martins, a friend of Caroline who was jailed for 5 days because he brought her some clothes in prison and was recognized, “There is a certain pressure from the organizers of the Bienal to keep her in prison. They classified the act as crime and invasion, but it wasn’t.”

Defense lawyer Cristiane Souza de Carvalho says, “The curators had said in previous interviews that they would like the people to interact with the emptiness of the space. And that was what the group did. There is also a discussion in the lawsuit relating to the case if Pichação is art or crime. For many youngsters, the only way to manifest themselves is with a tin of paint in their hands.” 

The Bienal argues it has no responsibility for the arrest or release of the young girl—that the disposition of the case is up to the courts. The curators of the show, Ivo Mesquita and Ana Paula Cohen, refused requests for interviews. Before the opening of the Bienal, Cohen said she was informed that Pixobomb was organizing a group to do pichação on the empty 2nd floor of the Pavilion, and some have suggested that the curators wanted the attack to happen. The type of graffiti done by the pichadores inspired the artists Eli Sudbrack and Christophe Pierson, of the collective Assume Vivid Astro Focus, to create an installation in which colored neon lamps cover the walls with traces of spray paint. This work can be seen in Casa Triângulo, in São Paulo. The two participated in the Bienal with a series of actions on the closing day.

“The curators could have left the pichações on the walls, thus embracing the action. The questions the pichadores tried to raise relate to the theme of the Bienal, which intended to discuss the status quo and the elitism of art,” says Sudbrack.

The artists Dora Longo Bahia and Mabe Bethonico, also participants in the Bienal, disagree. They condemned what they called a violent action by the group. Bethonico, who was a witness to the pichação, said that the youngsters attacked the public and security guards when trying to escape, and broke a window. Longo Bahia questions the action, because it was claimed to be “a terrorist act.“

The action on the second floor of the building was considered “poetical terrorism” and “artistic intervention” by its defenders and “vandalism” displaying an “authoritarian attitude” by an official declaration of a Bienal that had “In Live Contact” as its theme and promised to reflect on the situation of contemporary art and art practice. “This is an absurd hypocrisy,” said the artist José Roberto Aguila. “The organizers should be the ones to be arrested. The empty floor was an invitation for manifestations, to contraventions. The least the Bienal can do is send their lawyer to release the girl.”

“Pichação” is a non-elitist form of art, one of the few true urban arts we have. The action of the pichadores confirmed the emptied walls and the emptied spirit of art in this Bienal and should have been recognized as the art action it was, a valid expression of angry feeling towards an icon of elitism in Brazil. The organizers of the event failed to see this and annulled it by immediately repainting the walls on the 2nd floor of the Bienal Pavilion in white and sending 23 year-old Caroline Pivetta da Mota to prison. [She has been released since.--Ed.]

What does it say that all this took place in the heart of the most important contemporary art event in Brazil, the 28th São Paulo Bienal?

Christina Roiter is an artist and writer based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Photos courtesy of Choque Photos: www.flickr.com/choquephotos