By Nathan M. Walters, Senior Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Pixação, the spray-painted graffiti “signatures” that cover many of Brazil’s cities, including São Paulo and Rio, has become a hot topic in recent weeks. In his new documentary Lights, Camera, PICHAÇÃO, filmmaker Gustavo Coelho turns his camera on the pixação community of Rio in an attempt to document the movement’s antics, beliefs, and work.

Pixadores risk life and limb to paint in inaccessible places, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil News
Pixadores risk life and limb to paint in inaccessible places, photo by Gustavo Coelho.

The film, made over two years with Coelho living and working with pixadores, is a captivating account of Carioca youth, idealism, and the vandal spirit.

Last month a group of from São Paulo participating by invitation in the Berlin Biennial decided to paint on an early 19th Century church in spite of protests by the public and the event’s curator (who ultimately ended up covered in paint thrown on him by a member of the group).

The group had been brought to Berlin to paint on a wall that had been set up for that purpose.  With little regard for the pleas of the public or organizers, the members of the visiting group scaled the church and affixed their signatures.

This latest scandal comes almost two years after a group of Carioca pixadores managed to ascend the Christ the Redeemer statue and leave their mark on the shoulder of the iconic Art Deco statue.

Webster defines vandalism as the “willful or malicious destruction or defacement of public or private property.”  For many, pixação is vandalism, plain and simple.  For perhaps a increasingly lesser many, graffiti is also vandalism.

The initial argument would seem to hinge on how, or who, defines “destruction or damage”. For Gustavo Coelho, the Carioca documentary filmmaker, the result is comical: “In Rio and São Paulo the police become the curators of the city’s public art collection.”

buildings in Rio are covered with pixacao, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil News
Many buildings in Rio are covered with pixacao, photo by Gustavo Coelho.

In the case of graffiti and its offshoots (street art, muralism) the line gets blurred on what work is destructive and what work enhances property.  Often, especially with the talent in Rio, it is easy for people to overlook illegality if a piece is considered beautiful.

It is perhaps more difficult for the popular public to appreciate the aesthetics of pixação, even if it provides a voice to the disenfranchised communities in Brazil’s urban core.

Airá Ocrespo, local graffiti artist, says, “Pixação is a form of identity in certain communities in Rio. Pixação, football supporters groups, and funk are parts of the same culture cosmos in Carioca’s youth.”

“Attempts to ascribe a structured belief system behind pixação is the work of those outside the community.  For many it is a type of youthful egotism, to have your signature all over the city.  There is a growing minority that is doing pixação with a purpose, a message,” Ocrespo explains.

In Coelho’s documentary, and his master’s thesis on the same subject, the academic dissects the motivation that drives pixadores. His conclusions, after two years living and working in the community of Carioca pixadores, focuses more on the dadaist impulses, the thing for the thing’s sake, that drive the communities.

The debate is ongoing, as is anti-pixação enforcement (including rumors of “pixação-proof” paint is now being used extensively in São Paulo).  Neither the discussion or the deterring efforts seem to dissuade pixadores, who, without too much concern for the ideas of others, are drawn to the street to affix their signatures on the city.


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