Pixação vs. Wildstyle
Glaze Marlboro College Revised: 12 December 2006 Original: 20 November 2006
In the 1970s and early 1980s, on two different continents, two different forms of graffiti marking began making their impact on the world. One, wildstyle tagging in New York City, would take off and become known around the world. The second, pixação in Sao Paulo, Brazil world remain a regional phenomenon. Both styles have gained popularity among disenfranchised youth, as they serve to “assert their existence and self-worth, and to do it loudly” (Manco 29). This paper will look at the historic and artistic similarities and differences, of these two writing styles. Both pixação and wildstyle have permeated the cities from which they originated. Covering the walls of the cities with these writings is a way for the disenfranchised youth of the urban areas to gain the recognition of advertising agencies and news media. As people of power pass their art on a daily basis, the styles and messages have made their way into mainstream media and advertising. Influenced by music and the idea of future fame, the youth have found that through their writing they are noticed by those who oppress them. The advertising firms that market items they can not afford often employ former writers to design their youth-targeted advertising. Writers have also found that writing their names in highly visible places is a way to counteract the advertising which has taken over their streets. In the 1970s and 80s, the youth who began these two very different writing styles came primarily from impoverished parts of their respective cities. São Paulo Brazil is the fifth largest city in the world and the wealthiest city in Brazil – for some. “It’s also a city of extreme poverty, where economic deprivation fuels an ever-soaring crime rate” (CNN). “The city has emerged as perhaps the most grim example of what happens when developing countries—including economic powers such as India and South Africa—are unable to maintain a critical balance between economic growth and social development. Now that lack of balance threatens to strangle arguably the most important goal such countries have embraced over the past decade: the reduction of poverty” (Buckley). With the every increasing divide between rich and poor the youth of the city have taken over the city with their pixação. In New York City the original writers were experiencing a time where the city was facing an ever growing deficit and there were little funds dedicated to urban youth. “Through their paintings, writers indicated that “We are here, we are struggling”” (Miller 45). The subway art prospered, in part, because the city lacked the funds to clean the tags off the cars. Many of the early subway writers used their art to address cultural and political problems. They declared Black and Latino power and addressed the political situation in their city and nation by calling out the injustices of Mayor Ed Koch and President Nixon. They also wrote about what they were doing by tagging names such as “Voice of the Ghetto.” Consciously or unconsciously there actions were political. Pixação, also spelled pichação, started in the 1960s as people wrote political messages on the streets with tar; piche is Portuguese for tar (Manco 26). The writing form waned for the most part through the 1970s, but in the 1980s, kids revived pixação. Instead of writing political messages, they were writing their names, as seen in Image 1 (Manco 26). Pixação has remained political as a “vehicle for the youth of the city to assert their existence and self worth” through writing their names (Manco 29). According to Tristan Maco, author of Graffiti Brasil, “In the early 1980’s articles appeared in São Paulo newspapers about a young fellow who wrote the name ‘Juneca’, and every kid that saw it seemed to grab a roller and go for their own fame as well” (Maco 26-27). These Brazilian kids knew nothing about the similar movement that had begun on the subway trains of New York in the 1970s. In the 1970s, Taki 183, a bike messenger in New York City, started writing his name and street number all over the city, see Image 5. By the 1980s, “tags”, a person’s name written quickly with style, often followed by their street number, were a popular form of communication in New York City. Today these tags cover everything from bus stops and subway cars to walls and bathrooms. The influential New York City style, which evolved in the 1980s, is internationally recognized for its twists and arrows. Tags are probably the most basic of all forms of graffiti and what most people recognize as graffiti. Jason Dax Woodward defines a tag as, “someone’s assumed identity, the coded name” (Woodward). Woodard goes on to explain that, “the tag is the subject matter, the structure of the art is that of graffiti art.” This distinction is true for all other forms of graffiti as well. Ivor Miller, author of Aerosol Kingdom, traces the wild-style to African roots and claims that it recalls traditional African quilt-making. He says, “Like earlier African American forms, wild-style burners are created from a dialogue between African American and European-derived forms, in this case rhythm and the Roman alphabet” (Miller 40). Graff writer PHASE 2 takes this theory further by saying, “I can relate to hieroglyphics as a form, and the form relates back to me in terms of my Alkebu-lan (African) roots. I don’t sit there trying to figure out what it says. It has a poetry of motion just being there” (Miller 41). Pixação and New York tagging were influenced by the music of the 1970s and 80s. Pixação was originally influenced by heavy metal record covers that were imported from the United States. François Chastanet explains that, “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 characterized by the use of hybrid blackletter and historic letterforms such as runes” (Chastanet, Eye Magazine). Looking at the style of the pixação letters in Image 2 one can see the similarities with the lettering of the early Iron Maiden “Killers” cover seen in Image 6. A notable similarity is the drop on the letter edges and the triangular shapes. In Image 2 the “S” (first line last letter on the right) has both drop corners, like the Iron Maiden “M”, and a triangular base, like the top of the Iron Maiden “O”. It is interesting to note that pixação did not originate as part of the hip-hop movement, and stylistically has not been influenced by the hip-hop influence. Most graffiti writing in the world can be linked directly to the New York wildstyle movement which began at the same time as hip-hop and was one of the three facets of hip-hop – break dancing and music being the other two. The music of hip-hop involves spoken word and beat. This musical influence is seen in the twists of the wildstyle lettering. In Image 3 one can see the twists of the letters in the middle tag which begins with the letter T. The letter T curves around on itself like a break-dancer spinning on her/his head to the music of a MC speaking out words. The spoken word influence is seen in the tightness of the letter juxtaposition. In hip-hop music the words often mesh together as the letters of a tag mesh together. In both hip-hop music and wildstyle writing the words and letters are still distinguishable to the trained eye or ear. The New York style is rhythmic. Ivor Miller, author of Aerosol Kingdom says, “Many writers designed letters embodying visual rhythms to spell their names and statements. Reshaping the Roman alphabet to project urban African American ideals of rhythmic style” (Miller 39). Wildstyle artist Lee says of the wildstyle look, “The letters are movements. They are actually images of people. The way some R’s are styled, they look like they are dancing” (Miller 39). This rhythmic style is part of the hip-hop cultural movement. As the music and dance flows so does the art. These rhythmic letterings are often difficult to read and the viewer is then forced to look at the writing as a stylistic work more than a literal work, as seen in some of the writings in Image 4. In the 1980s, as the kids of São Paulo began to experience American heavy metal music Pixação moved away from its tar origins. They began writing with latex paint and 3-inch paint rollers. Os Gemeos describes the method by saying, “We believe that there is simply a need to occupy space in the urban environment. With his name, a boy creates a new style of writing characteristics, using foam rollers and latex to write on buildings. It is more popular in São Paulo to use latex to bomb, to use pichação and throw-ups with latex paint, and to do outlines with both short rollers and spray. São Paulo has all these degrees of artistic manifestation” (Os Gemeos). With the advent of the 3 inch rollers, pichadores (pichação writers) have taken their writing all over the city of São Paulo. In Image 1, we see a building from Pinheiros, a borough of the city of São Paulo, covered with pixação. This all-over covering is a common sight throughout São Paulo. One sees that the writing is focused mostly on the top portion of the building (look at the sides where only the top is painted). The tops of buildings are part of the competition between different writing crews (groups of writers) so; the top portion of buildings has become prime real-estate for pichadores. The letters are formed in an upright fashion, and use a two-thirds model. The two-thirds model means that the breaks and bends in the letter should be two-thirds of the way to the top of the letter (Maco 27-28). According to Tristan Manco, author of Graffiti Brasil, “The letters should be uniformly tall and wide, meeting an invisible and straight guideline at the top and bottom of the name” (Manco 27). Looking at Image 2, we can see this model at its finest. The bottom left letters are OS then a symbol and GS. These letterings are seen in many photographs published online and in the book Graffiti Brasil. I see them as nearly perfect pixação letters. They are simple yet stylized, note the indent in the letters ‘s’ and ‘g’ and the extra line on the lower portion of the letter ‘g’. They are separated and legible. They also do not go over any other writer’s work. This is an interesting point about pixação; the writers rarely go over another writer’s work out of respect. This level of respect has also contributed to the all-over effect of the writing and its impact on the city of São Paulo. Brazil does have its share of wildstyle graffiti as well as the pixação. Looking at the two different styles, pixação and wildstyle one will notice the main difference being letter style. Boleta, author of TTsss… Pixação, the Vastest Art points out, in an interview, the differences between graffiti (in Brasil “graffiti” refers to New York influenced wildstyle) and pixação, “Pixo is something you do very fast and the style is always vertical. On the other hand graffiti spreads out the letters and drawings” (Boleta). Over the years, there have been many changes and improvements to wildstyle but a few rules remain constant. Often the letters overlap and it is common to use a lot of curves, even in letters not traditionally curved in the English language, such as the letter ‘t’ in Image 3 (middle tag, right angling down). Wildstyle also uses arrows or extra flourishes on the ends of letters pointing to another tag, piece, or off to an empty space are also common, see Image 4. Wildstyle tags should be judged as one would judge calligraphy, according to Jason Dax Woodward. The tag is traditionally only one colour and it is common for a writer to stick with one name for quite sometime, or at least until their tag becomes recognizable (Woodward). Tags need to be distinct so that the writer stands out in a crowd. This was determined early on as the subway system became crowded with graffiti and the one colour tags began to mold together. The website at149st.com claims that probably the most famous tag was that of STAY HIGH 149, a tagging pioneer, see Image 7. “STAY HIGH 149 used a smoking joint as the cross bar for his “H” and a stick figure from the television series The Saint” (at149st.com). MARE 139 says that, “What distinguishes wild-style letters from anything else is the arrow. Arrows always give direction. The arrow is the movement; it is the definitive mark of wild-style” (Miller 78). He also explains that, “The correlation between the spoken word and wild-style is unique because just as everyone has their own style, they have their own language to describe it” (Miller 77). The arrow and curved shapes stand out in the urban landscape dominated by right angels. While wildstyle strives for harmony with its environment, pixação bends into the structure of the architecture of São Paulo. François Chastanet, an architect and graphic designer in Bordeaux, France lectures about the connections between pixação and the architecture of São Paulo. Chastanet sees the pixação phenomenon as being directly linked to the urban “architectural environments which are devoid of quality” (Chastanet St. Bride Library). Daniel Medeiros says that “‘Pixographics’ defines the chaotic mood of the city yet allowing us to see through the chaos, where beauty lays […] all over the city” (Medeiros). Chastanet sees the rhythm of pixação being linked to the architecture of the city. He says, “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” (Chastanet Eye Magazine) In pixação, the architecture of São Paulo plays an important role. In Image 1 you will see that the image itself incorporates the entire building. This is because the entire building works with the individual lettering. Pixação is part of the architecture it is meant to go between the levels of the building and to fill the entirety of the space with which it occupies, as seen in Image 1. The rhythm and strokes are concerned with the structure. The original writers of wildstyle used the New York City subway trains as their canvas and as a tool of communication. The movement of the trains has had a profound impact on wildstyle. The curve of the letters and movement shown with arrows reminds its viewers of the moving structure it was originally placed on. It has also impacted the placement of tags of more stable substrates like walls. In the days of subway painting writers often painted either from the train windows down or from the top of the train, also known as whole car painting. Today tags are traditionally placed in similar heights and the emphasis is the quantity of tags versus the height of placement as seen in São Paulo. In the quest to be most visable, both pichadores and taggers encounter a lack of prime urban space. Though both groups of writers face a similar challenge they handle the challenge differently. In São Paulo one sees all street art co-existing in space. “Whether it originates out of respect for the high cost of materials or out of a better and more friendly society, there is a great deal of care taken in Brazil not to paint over the work of others – far greater than in the graffiti scenes in the rest of the world” (Manco 33). In New York there appears to be little respect for another writer’s work. Writers write over each other’s work all of the time. It is part of the competition between writers for space and prime locations. Unlike the pichadores in Brazil, New York writers seem to only have respect for their crew (a group of writers) and there is a definite hierarchy in style, with taggers holding the bottom spot. This means that a throw-up (bubble style lettering) will traditionally be written over a tag and a piece (large colourful image, piece is short for masterpiece) would be written over tags and throw-ups. In today’s globalized world, why are both styles gaining adherents? As the internet spreads pixação and wildstyle, people who never would have seen either style are introduced to and influenced by this work. I doubt pixação will remain a regional style, and I look forward to seeing it, like wildstyle, in places never imagined around the world.
Works CitedBuckley, Stephen. Sao Paulo: Prosperity, Poverty and Corruption, Washington Post, Tuesday 4 July 2000; A13.Chastanet, François. Eye Magazine, Issue 56, summer 2005. http://www.eyemagazine.com/feature.php?id=123&fid=540.Chastanet, François. St. Bride Library Conference. Abstract for lecture, Signature, Body and Architecture. http://stbride.org/friends/conference/temporytype/signaturebodyandarchitecture.CNN, http://archives.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/americas/08/10/saopaulo.mayor/index.html.Os Gemeos. Interview on Art Crimes. http://www.graffiti.org/osgemeos/osgemeos_2.html. 2000.Manco, Tristan; Lost Art; Neelon, Caleb. Graffiti Brasil. Thames and Hudson, New York, New York, 2005.Miller, Ivor. Aerosol Kingdom. University of Mississippi Press, Jackson, MI. 2002.Woodward, Jason Dax. “How to Read Graffiti”. http://www.team183.com/html/kasinomasterpaper/paper.htm 1999.