Examining the 2009 documentary “PIXO” and how it demonstrates the contrast between Brazilian and American graffiti.
Carlos Ebert
Pixação in São Paulo Carlos Ebert from São Paulo, BrazilGRU, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Graffiti is an illegal and rugged form of urban art. It can be found all over buildings everywhere from Rio de Janeiro to Sacramento. It’s a visual language that tells a story about the places from which it emerges and the individuals who create it. Graffiti speaks a universal language of rebellion and identity, a true personification of the ghetto and those whom society looks down upon, at least that is how it was meant to be.

Pixação covering building in Brazil
LiaC, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

This “purpose” of being a vivid manifestation of protest is brilliantly captured in the documentary “Pixo,” by João Weiner and Roberto Oliveira. “Pixo” not only serves as an introduction to the graffiti culture of São Paulo but also acts as a lens, magnifying the relationship between urban art and the socio-political fabric.

Pixação in São Paulo
Marco Gomes from São Paulo, Brasil, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons (Marco Gomes)

The transition from discussing the broader context of graffiti to focusing on “Pixo” helps us understand a unique perspective on street art, elevating it from just being something cool to look at but instead being something of profound cultural significance.

“Pixo” immerses us in São Paulo’s graffiti culture, where vandalism is both a means of expression and a symbol of resistance. The film which is free to watch on YouTube offers a view of graffiti as the voice of the marginalized.

The name “Pixo” is a nod to the Brazilian word Pixação which is a Brazilian style of graffiti that is very common in São Paulo. Pixação is characterized by cryptic, runic-like letters. 

Pixação all over a building in Brazil
Marco Gomes from São Paulo, Brasil, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons (Marco Gomes)

“Pixo” dives into the lives and motivations of the pixadores (name given to the vandals). Tagging, often in dangerous locations, is something that in many cases results in very bad injuries and sometimes death.

Brazilian graffiti on building
Dornicke, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (Picasa 3.0)

Many in Brazil label Pixação as ugly and as a marginal thing and they are right. The documentary explains that the whole point of their graffiti is for it to be something they understand but that society as a whole does not. They want to intentionally confuse mainstream society, as a way of mirroring the alienation that society makes them feel.

While specific awards for “Pixo” are not widely publicized, it has gained global recognition due to its cultural significance and impact. The film was even included in many international art exhibitions, such as the Berlin Biennale of Art.

Now let’s talk about American graffiti, despite its origins in rebellion, it has been absorbed into mainstream culture. The graffiti we see around us often lacks the raw, unfiltered essence of rebellion found in Brazilian graffiti.

Very tall building tagged top to bottom in Brazil
LiaC, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

American graffiti is often celebrated, finding a place in galleries and public spaces, while Brazilian pixação is vilified, seen as an ugly scar on the urban landscape. This is because American graffiti is usually not that deep; it’s normally pleasant to look at and doesn’t make anyone uncomfortable.

The rawness of pixação is its deliberate complexity and its choice of locations that speak to its nature as a true form of anti-establishment self-expression. It’s a direct challenge to societal norms and expectations, it refuses to be sanitized or co-opted by mainstream culture.

Pixação in São Paulo covering comercial area
Marco Gomes from São Paulo, Brasil, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons (Marco Gomes)

Most middle and upper-class people in Brazil hate pixação and that is the whole point of it. No one will ever take a selfie or post a story with those unreadable black letters, pixação is art by the marginalized for the marginalized.

“Pixo” as a documentary and pixação as an art form challenge us to rethink our notions of art, expression, and societal norms. While American graffiti has found a place within the establishment, pixação remains defiantly outside of it, maintaining its raw, unapologetic voice against societal structures.

American Graffiti is undoubtedly more aesthetically pleasing than pixação will ever be, but art, in its most impactful form, is meant to provoke, challenge, and make the comfortable feel uncomfortable.

Brazilian Police hotline made to report pixadores
Porto Alegre, RS, 23/12/2013
Disque Pichação 153 auxilia Guarda Municipal
Foto: Divulgação/PMPA

The pixadores don’t do it for the Instagram story, their art is a true act of vandalism, a bold statement to ensure they are seen and heard. Pixação was born from a human necessity to be seen; it is a raw and unfiltered message to society, designed not to be understood but to disrupt the status quo. 

Realizing the difference between American and Brazilian graffiti is the start of a conversation about the purpose of art in society – is it merely to beautify, or is it there to challenge, provoke, and incite change?

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  • M

    MollyMar 29, 2024 at 8:17 pm

    I just learned so much from this article. I feel like I really got a sense of the movie, and I’m very inspired to watch it!

    I went to Brazil a year ago and I noticed the graffiti there was so so different and I was super curious to know more about it. Now I know.

    “American Graffiti is undoubtedly more aesthetically pleasing than pixação will ever be, but art, in its most impactful form, is meant to provoke, challenge, and make the comfortable feel uncomfortable.”

    ^beautifully put. Great writing

    • N

      Nathan EspindulaMar 30, 2024 at 2:46 pm

      Thank you for the great feedback! The movie is a really good watch, it’s a very raw grassroots documentary and it gives hardcore molly vibes.