Documenting a politically motivated Brazilian graffiti crew

A conflicted review of Pixadores, screening in a limited run in Montreal this week.


Graffiti art is deeply rooted in the notion of perpetrating an illegal act with the idea of leaving a tangible trace of its author. A practice some prefer to call “visual pollution.”

The golden age of hip hop witnessed subway cars being turned into mobile canvases that provided high visibility for graffiti artists from the Bronx, as captured in Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style and Edo Bertoglio/ Glenn O’Brien’s Downtown 81.

In 2007, Sao Paulo was one of the first cities in the world to ban billboard advertising. As reported by The Guardian, 15,000 billboards and 300,000 oversize storefront signs were removed, in an attempt to get rid of what Mayor Gilberto Kassa himself referred to as “visual pollution.”


With his first feature Pixadores (playing until Wednesday at the Phi Centre), Tehran-born Finnish director Amir Escandari aims to present the contemporary pixação art movement by focusing on the struggle of a quartet of graffiti artists and their ascension from the favelas of Sao Paulo to the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.

Shot over a period of three years, the documentary follows members of a contingent called the Strongest Ones, whose revolutionary ambitions are never really clear aside from “getting their name up there” as a sign of dissatisfaction with the current state of things in their country.

As a result, over the course of 93 minutes, one struggles to understand the political and artistic inclinations of the four protagonists. The recognition sought by Djan, Ricardo, William and Biscoito and its questionable alignment with the director’s project raise the constant issue of form over content. The viewer is continually under the impression that someone is pulling the rug from under his feet as aesthetic shots are favored over historical facts and background information on the movement.

Peter Flinckenberg’s absolutely stunning cinematography cannot help but recall the type of big budget inspirational porn hip young directors are commissioned by sports brands before the World Cup or the Olympics.

That “special touch” eclipses both the subjects and the subject matter to the point of making one wonder if the fallacy of this film resides in the idea of making a larger-than-life museum piece out of a group of denizen’s low budget tags? In other words: does it make sense to pass off these young men’s dangerous way of expressing their discontent as something more artistic than political?


What it boils down to, as far as the film illustrates it, is not the message that contemporary pixação conveys but the level of political repression that’s at stake. “Cripta” Djan Ivson, the band leader claims early on: “We live in a city of walls. Walls serve to separate people, not to bring them together.” However, very little attention is given to the art itself, its value or even the people’s reaction to it.

In that sense, throughout Pixadores, the revolutionaries in question come off more as train-surfing hoodlums who also happen to appreciate writing their crew names and signatures on inaccessible locations. Real insight into their art is left aside in favour of scenes that alternate between the four men’s working lives and their personal relationship with each other.

That lack of insight into the artistic side of their endeavour comes out particularly well when the gang is invited to take part in the 2012 Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art. The shit inevitably hits the fan during a particularly colourful altercation with commissioner Artur Żmijewski, as the boys start to “vandalize” the prohibited walls of a space where they were asked to paint on pre-selected walls. “Why did you invite us then? This is pixação,” the group replies.

A critic at indieWIRE wrote that this scene constitutes an essay-in-motion about First World posturing and Third World defiance. But the fact is that this is much more the result of a well-worked hype gone wrong: it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

However, the crew did not need the art world to shoot itself in the foot. The biggest shortcoming of the film interferes following this altercation, when the action suddenly cuts to the morning after and we learn that a fight broke out between members of the group while they were drunk. All of which took place off camera.

The news makes the headlines in Brazil and the Strongest Ones are forced to return home. But coup de théâtre, the corporate world brings them together as the opportunity to appear in a Puma commercial comes knocking at their door. The protagonists are without a doubt the first to fall into the same trap that led them to Germany.

How ironic is it then to witness Djan get roughed up by the police at the end of the film during Occupy Sao Paulo (some of the rare colour footage in Pixadores) where thousands of protesters gather to show their discontent with the corporate world and its grip on their lives?

Pixadores is an absolute must-see for anyone who wishes to engage in a serious discussion about artistic propriety and the First World’s obsession with turning renegades into cult artists.

Pixadores is screening at the Phi Centre (407 St-Pierre) Nov. 9–11 daily, 7:30 p.m. (8 p.m. on Nov. 10) $11.25/$9.25 for students