Something New Every Day

You learn something new every day.  In particular I love how life often decides to give you a crash course in one subject or another.  I love it even more when the lessons fly hard and fast one after another.

My latest lesson in humility: Over the past weeks I offered up a few of my outside observations on the Belo Horizonte graffiti scene. In retrospect, I think Life wanted to show me that I’m in no way an expert on all this.  When I was wandering Belo Horizonte I was floored in particular by the number of tags, the crazy high-up locations and a new hieroglyphic type of writing that my untrained eyes couldn’t decipher. I was so surprised last week when I logged into Netflix (which came to Brazil last year–yay!) and stumbled across this movie Pixo.  Even if you don’t speak Portuguese, I really recommend watching it for a little bit because the risks those kids take to tag the way they do is absolutely jaw-dropping.

My questions were answered.  It seems that in Brazil “tagging”–and in particular that new (actually just new to me–see? mmm…tasty humble pie; it has actually existed in Brazil since the 1960’s) type of hieroglyphic lettering–is called pixação (tag=pixo).

And more questions grew in their place.  All the resources I read on the internet in Portuguese–and even this movie–insist that  pixação is somehow different from grafite, which in Brazilian Portuguese it seems is the word for the works done by graffiti artists. Even though they say that the two are different, it’s interesting to me that it seems the dynamic and tensions are the same as in the United States.  Taggers/pixadores tend to work in gangs or “crews” and their works are more aggressive and territorial. They seem to have the same motivation: tag as high and as often as possible so that the rich cannot ignore the presence of the poor.  Graffiti artists, many of them once taggers/pixadores themselves, focus more on the aesthetic image and artistic expression.

So what I find fascinating–and a little sad–is that Brazilian graffiti culture itself seems to support this division, even though both forms lend themselves to righteous discussions of identity, fine art, free expression, class politics, and public/private space.  In contrast, I think that most artists and taggers in the United States would tell you that the two expressions and subcultures are part of the same whole.  Wouldn’t it be great if Brazilian artists also joined forces this way?

Why the difference between the two countries? I don’t know.  Is it because the Brazilian government has in many ways sanctioned grafite as an urban art form, providing legal places to do the art and even in some cases commissioning artists?  Is it the intense aggression that seems to be within the pixação culture that causes it to reject its more pacific brother? Or maybe (humble pie) I just haven’t read the right stuff yet and they really are working together?

My mind leaps to comparisons between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960’s.  Two men with the same goals: the elevation and independence of the African-American community in the United States.  One was viewed as intense, violent, and threatening, the other lauded as a prophet and saint.  Two faces of the same coin.  Two ways of fighting to be heard.  Two, equally legitimate reactions to generations of oppression and hardship.  Both were right.



  1. An additional note: I was lucky enough to have a conversation with a graffiti artist who was doing an art installation at a museum in Belo Horizonte (which of the four artists listed was he? my best guess is Wagner Braccini). I put my questions to him, and he reaffirmed my guess–graffiti and pixação is more unified than you’d think. He also said that most Brazilian graffiti started with paint and rollers and shoe polish because that was what they could afford–and this in turn lent itself to the pixação format. He described mixing house paint colors to get the shades that he wanted, and that to this day he can exactly match the color of a spray can paint by mixing paints. He told me the story of how the first time he got a chunk of cash he ran out and bought… aerosol spray cans! To him it was a luxury item and he wanted to be like the American graffiti artists he was seeing on TV. Love it, love him. A great artist.

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