Street Painting and Social Inequality in São Paulo

As I’ve discussed before, while Brazil has witnessed unprecedented economic growth and stability, the benefits of such growth are far from reaching all of Brazilian society, and there are ongoing reminders daily of those inequalities. One sign of the ongoing socio-economic inequalities is evident in Brazil’s Northeast, where thousands of rural poor citizens suffer serious health issues and a loss of their agricultural livelihood, thanks to the pollution from local pig iron refineries in the region. There, the physical evidence of inequalities is visible in the air, in the water, and in the medical reports of those directly affected by the industrial giant Vale’s production.

Urban centers certainly are not immune to these physical markers of inequality. In São Paulo, even while the city tries to “clean up” its public space by cracking down on the visual pollution of billboards, those who feel economically and socially disenfranchised use street painting to simultaneously protest and remind Brazilians of the ongoing gross inequalities in Brazil’s cities. And while street painting in the United States is often categorized as “graffiti” and seen as a criminal defacing of private property, in Sao Paulo, it takes on a much greater social significance.

Taking action against the establishment, young people arm themselves with black paint, rollers, spray cans and no shortage of personal daring. Their target: the landscape that society cares so much to recover.

“We practice class warfare, and there are casualties in war,” said Rafael Guedes Augustaitiz, 27. “They compare us to barbarians, and there may be a little truth in that.”


“It’s positive to see others reacting with indignation against our elite,” said Djan Ivson Silva, 27, a pichação gang leader. “We take our risks to remind society that this city is a visual aggression to begin with, and hostile to anyone who is not rich.”

Unlike the more commonly-accepted colorful paintings that line the streets of Rio de Janeiro, pichação (literally, “covering with tar”) has few supporters in Brazil. Even as some forms of street art gain legitimacy and approval in places like Rio de Janeiropichação (which is stylistically very different from the more accepted street art) continues to antagonize many paulistanos (those from the city of São Paulo) and residents of other urban centers.

Many Brazilians are increasingly accepting street paintings like the one above, from Rio de Janeiro, as “art”….

…even as pichação continues to be seen as something criminal and lacking “legitimacy” as art.

Many people, like the secretary mentioned in the article, find pichação to be “grotesque” and “disgusting,” as she puts it, thereby exacerbating the division between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” street painting and in turn perhaps unintentionally adding to the politicized claims of pichação artists. Indeed, this attitude, which many in São Paulo and other urban centers share, only reinforces the politically- and culturally-subversive nature of pichação; through these criticisms, the painting gains value as a statement not only against Brazilian classism (reclaiming buildings by leaving one’s mark), but on the acceptance and elitization of certain types of street painting over others. Thus, pichação becomes a statement against the elitization of art and of city space more generally. This iconoclasm, this direct affront to traditional understandings of “art” and this direct attack on the exclusion of the poor from some urban spaces, combined with the willingness to risk one’s life (as many painters do, climbing to absurd heights to paint spaces) for painting, in many ways makes pichação a rather revolutionary act, though one can argue over its merits or the sanity of such an act (and as somebody who’s terrified of heights, I certainly can’t help but question the sanity myself).

While many citizens see pichação as simply an eyesore, it is remarkably political, even if the individual messages painted in those pseudo-runic letters are not directly political. Indeed, I’m not sure the actual paintings need to be directly explicit in their messages; rather, the explicit political claims appeal to social inequality, and are explicit because of where they are located. The paintings are a reminder to paulistanos of the ongoing inequalities and the existence of the urban poor who are often marginalized in neighborhoods that surround the periphery of São Paulo (unlike in Rio de Janeiro, where the existence of the urban poor is quite visible in the favelas that dot the city’s mountainsides, often within view of some of the city’s richest neighborhoods). It’s not that the painting itself is the explicit political message; rather, it’s the painting’s location, on buildings and spaces that are economically and politically out of reach for virtually all of Brazil’s urban poor, that makes the statement political.

Due to the different physical geographies and historical development, favelas in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro differ in their locations. In São Paulo, favelas like the ironically-named Paraisópolis (literally, “Paradise City”) generally surround the outer peripheries of the city…

…while in Rio de Janeiro, favelas like Rocinha (Brazil’s largest favela) are located along the mountainsides of the city, in direct view of some of the city’s richest neighborhoods.

One of the more curious aspects of the rise of pichação in the 1970s and 1980s is its unlikely influences. As the article points out, scholarly analysis of pichação argues that the runic-style font drew inspiration from” the record sleeves of foreign bands like Iron Maiden and AC/DC, themselves influenced by gothic lettering and Viking runes.” In one way, this influence is not as surprising; certainly, in its early years, “metal” bands like Iron Maiden and AC/DC were culturally marginalized as heavy metal was first coming into existence, just as pichacao is culturally marginalized. On the other hand, you also have something that is very clearly marketed for consumer culture (the record-industry in general) influencing a group that ultimately uses its painting to protest socio-economic inequalities and (in part) their accompanying lack of access to that same consumer culture today.

One can argue the aesthetic merits of pichação (and indeed, many do) or whether it can effect any real change in Brazilian culture and society. It does directly impact and make more difficult the lives of others who are not necessarily “elite,” as with the car washer who had to remove the pichação regularly. Regardless of what one thinks of it, though, it is yet another physical and visible reminder of the fact that the economic growth in Brazil has failed to reach many of the poor in both urban and rural settings.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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