13 November 2006
Ellen Shapiro
Ellen Shapiro

Icograda Design Week attendees discover Sao Paulo's graffiti.

In Sao Paulo, Brazil, the third-largest city on Earth, there is no shortage of graffiti. From its colonial center to centers of international commerce; from hillside dwellings in the poorest favelas to the walls surrounding the graveyards that honour the ancestors of this city's 18 million inhabitants, nearly every surface is tagged with angular, prosaic, gang-related graffiti.

One neighbourhood stands out, though: Vila Madalena Bairro. This working-class enclave of narrow curving streets, not far from elegant shopping and residential boulevards, has become the canvas of a group of street artists who work in airbrush, spray paint, paintbrush, marker, chalk, and collaged magazine pages. The artists' names are Ana, Artur, Eliana, Juliana, Marciano, Mazilla. Layer upon layer, they've created a mixed-media streetscape of rich orange and blue and metallic gold letterforms, images and words that delighted attendees of the Icograda (International Council of Graphic Design Organisations) Design Week held in Sao Paulo from 23-30 April 2004.

It may be no coincidence that three decades ago current Icograda President, graphic designer Mervyn Kurlansky, collaborated with photographer Jon Naar and novelist/essayist Norman Mailer on The Faith of Graffiti, a 1974 book that compared New York's taggers to Giotto and Rauschenberg -- and that a metropolis rich in graffiti was selected for this conference. Kurlansky's sentiments were not shared by most New Yorkers, however, and cans of spray paint are kept in locked cabinets in hardware stores, harder for minors to buy than bottles of whisky. The development of graffiti-proof Teflon subway car coatings nearly put an end to the golden age of this art form, at least in New York City, where the police department is encouraged by the mayor's task force to "arrest individuals who commit graffiti crimes."

But in America Latina, everything is different. Visitors to Sao Paulo soon grasp the true meaning of Latin American magic realism: it's everywhere in the cities and the countryside; you feel it in the people, the music, the food, the drinks (caipirinha!), the art, the air. Magic can happen. You might not dig into a sack of rice, find a string, pull on it and draw out a necklace of genuine pearls, as did Erendira in the famed tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But you do feel different, bewitched. Things don't happen the same way they do at home. Here, graffiti still has connotations of fine art. It's poetry, not vandalism.

Even the conference was different. It wasn't just the modernist venue and multimedia staging, the nonstop events, parties, gallery openings. It was the amazing cross-cultural mix of speakers from around the world. My talk, introducing the conference theme of 'Fronteiras,' took a brief visual look at the frontiers of design, from cave paintings to 'greenwashing' by corporate multinationals. Other speakers included Max Bruinsma of The Netherlands on cross-cultural communication; Fumi Masuda of Japan on sustainability; Kurnal Rawat of India on Mumbai street graphics, including some pretty amazing do-it-yourself license plates and decorated taxicabs. Of aboriginal background herself, Alison Joy Page of Australia spoke about designing community centers for indigenous peoples; Bennett Peji of San Diego on developing the first Filipinotown in the U.S.; Ronald Shakespear of Argentina unlocked urban design codes (using typically Latin, flowery, intellectual language to do so); and Garth Walker of South Africa introduced his remarkable typeface for the Johannesburg Courts, based on vernacular prison and street lettering.

It's not surprising that the speakers and other attendees were enchanted by Vila Madalena and spent an afternoon madly snapping pictures of the walls and of each other. I was especially taken with one little girl, Taise, whose family's house (see top photo) is layered with some of the most compelling graffiti in the bairro.

"A bunch of us foreigners explored this particularly colourful part of the city and photographed this ephemeral work," recalled Icograda Past President Robert L. Peters. Our guide, Marina Chaccur, an energetic young designer who had been in charge of volunteer events that week, translated some of the graffiti from Portuguese for us:

"Tem um cara aqui qui pense que e passaro."

"There's a guy here who thinks he's a bird."

"I want to do whatever idea comes to my mind. You should do it, too."

Added Peters, "Along the way we stopped for a cold beer or three (the hot sun demanded this) and bumped into two more of Marina's friends: Milena Codato and Daniel Vilela. A keen observer of Sao Paulo graffiti, Vilela explained the unique straight-letter style called pichacao. He also offered to share his on-line collections of pictorial images.

Daniel also mentioned The Twins (Os Gemeos), a renowned pair of graffiti-artist brothers.


About this article
This article was originally published 13 July 2004 on the AIGA web site (Cross-Cultural Design Forum

About Ellen Shapiro
Ellen Shapiro is a graphic designer, design educator and writer headquartered in Irvington, New York. She is a contributing editor of Print magazine and her articles appear in many design publications and web sites. A speaker at the Icograda 'Fronteiras' conference in April 2004, she was inspired by the impromptu 'graffiti tour' to Vila Madalena Bairro led by Marina Chaccur. Ellen's work can be seen online