The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

All Issues
FEB 2021 Issue
Critics Page

Attacking the Biennial

Ler em portugues >>

Cripta Djan, <em>Attack on the Biennial</em>, 2008. Digital photograph documenting the action. Courtesy the artist.
Cripta Djan, Attack on the Biennial, 2008. Digital photograph documenting the action. Courtesy the artist.

Pixação is not like the painting of colorful murals—graffiti—throughout the city. Quite the opposite: we use black ink to challenge the power dynamics in the city and the current social order. The pixador engages in the practice as a response to spatial segregation in the city by writing on any of its surfaces without prior authorization. Just a while back this happened only in Brazil’s largest cities, but now it has spread across the whole country. For now it only happens in Brazil, but it will soon spread across the entire world.

By 2008, I was already a leader in the pixação movement in São Paulo. I started tagging in this movement at 12 years old, and by 16 I was already climbing buildings with 30 floors to tag them. I had already become a legend. At 20, I set out to document the pixação scene. That lent me a lot of prestige inside the movement in the sense that I had the respect of all the people that were involved then, as well as the guys from the previous generation, because I produced two pixação video catalogues that were the only form of media we had. At the time, this gave me a lot of credibility. Rafael Augustaitiz, a brother from the hood, who is also an artist, was the one who helped me to understand that pixação is art and not just vandalism. From there we started to read texts together, and got to know other artists. We began to understand what this field of art was and what could be done with it.

In an edition prior to the 28th São Paulo Biennial in 2008, an artist even called himself a pixador. Hold up, to truly be a pixador, the guy has to have receipts, you feel me? It’s not enough to be a pixador in some school bathroom. You have to have a record in the movement, inside the circuit. It’s not enough for the guy to just go around saying he is one. So it was really cool to bring these questions up through our intervention. On the opening day of the 2008 Biennial, a group of close to 40 people met to engage in an act of civil disobedience, a symbolic vindication of our right to the city, especially places that were not built for us. In this intervention, we vindicated the right to the city for all of us and not just those tending to the interests of private patrimony. We tagged the walls of the second floor of the building of the 28th Biennial that had been left completely empty by the curators. They had told the media that this space was open for dialogue with society, open to urban interventions. We felt we had been invited. Our action lasted only a few minutes before the security team at the event assaulted us, putting the coherence of what the curator was saying in check. After our group’s intervention, the curator tried to repress us. Caroline P. da Motta, a woman pixadora from the group, was put in prison which raised the issue of class in the mainstream media. How can a woman tagging a white wall be locked up 54 days while a banker, Daniel Dantas, stole millions and was locked up only three days? Even the human rights minister, in the parliament, publicly raised this contradiction.

There is a tradition in pixação that shapes our lives. A dude works, has his own responsibilities, and loves pixação. It’s the dude’s secret life. Sometimes, the dude’s boss does not even know that he is giving orders to an idol in the streets, to a legend. For the boss, the guy is just a worker, you feel me? It is important to see this social question. There are dudes who only have pixação as their feeling of privilege in life, understand? In fact, pixação is very connected to our lives, our routine, our interaction. We keep friendships built through it for more than 20 years. We throw parties, barbecues, and have our points, the encounters for exchanges between pixadores, and all these dealings. Pixação is a movement that is much more about interaction than scribbling on walls. All of these things are involved. 

I am happy that, at my age, I am mature enough to have the awareness of having made this intervention with the group Os + Fortes in the way we did, appropriating the proposal of the curator, through the words of the curator himself. He appeared on television inviting society to discuss the question of empty space on the second floor of the pavilion of a building designed by Oscar Niemeyer and Hélio Uchôa, which left the entire floor empty. For this reason, the 28th São Paulo Biennial became known as the “Biennial of Empty Space.”

Free the Vultures!

The 29th São Paulo Biennial was a whole other proposal. This intervention dealt with another question because we were authorized artists taking part in the show. This time the questioning took place from inside the establishment. However, at the time, a group of pixadores were locked up in the city of Belo Horizonte, accused of forming a gang. Meanwhile, we were taking part in the Biennial in São Paulo and being recognized by one of culture’s main institutions. We could not remain indifferent so we held a meeting with the curators of the Biennial, Moacir dos Anjos and Agnaldo Farias. They said, “This Biennial is open to any political discussion.” They were determined. That was when my idea for an intervention inside the Biennial took shape. They had given their endorsement! It was more or less the same as what had occurred in the Biennial in 2008, we clung to the proposal of the curator in making our decisions.

Documentation of <em>Liberate the Vultures</em>, 2010. Crypta Djan Archive.
Documentation of Liberate the Vultures, 2010. Crypta Djan Archive.

There were three vultures captive inside the installation of the artist Nuno Ramos. This was having great repercussions. So I decided to create an analogy between those wild birds that were captive in the installation of Nuno Ramos and my partners in the movement who were captive in Belo Horizonte. And that analogy between the pixadores and the vultures became very powerful, because we discovered that the animals were captive by means of a flaw in authorization, according to the responsible environmental agency. That was when I decided to write “Free the Vultures and the Pixadores from BH” on Nuno Ramos’s installation, but I was unable to finish the phrase.

I wanted to show that even when integrated in the institution as an authorized artist, I had autonomy as a pixador. Since they gave the go-ahead, and the space was open to any political discussion, I took advantage of this. Those animals did not need to be at the Biennial, in a confined building, with three loudspeakers by their ears, can you imagine? The creatures are free, they are wild animals. They are not domesticated animals. This intervention created a bond between us and an animal rights group. We helped their cause, created repercussions, and also gave visibility to the reprisals my friends in Belo Horizonte were suffering. The prosecution accused the pixadores of forming a gang as an excuse to lock them up. A member of Congress got involved and helped to free my friends. But the dudes were in prison for four months. They got out of prison at about the same time that the vultures had to leave the Biennial. This was totally crazy, there were two victories. Politically, the intervention at the Biennial was very successful.

On the other hand, I never feared for my life when I was climbing buildings, tagging at the height of 30 floors like I did that day. I almost died. No lie, it was the day I most feared for my life because the security officers at the Biennial in São Paulo grabbed me in the middle of my act. They had such a strong chokehold on my throat that I could not breathe or speak. They took me into a room near Nuno Ramos’s installation. I was being strangled while another officer was punching me in the stomach. I could not feel anything. This was when the head of security realized that the situation had gotten out of hand. He opened a gate near the room and threw me out of the building of the Biennial. He realized the rest of the officers would have killed me. That man saved my life. You feel me? He saved my life.

Either way, I had a dilemma at all of the biennials. I could keep my relationship with the establishment and be booed in the street. Or wait for them to call the police at the institutions and receive a standing ovation in the streets. We chose the more difficult path, but for us, who knows … it was part of our essence. If I could go back in time, I would do it all again.


Cripta Djan

Cripta Djan (1984) is from the city of São Paulo. He is a pixador (practicing a local form of tagging) and a visual artist. Djan is one of the leaders of the group Os + Fortes (The Strongest), a collective formed around the practice of pixação (“aggressive tagging”) in different Brazilian cities. His political and artistic activities have earned him the attention of documentary filmmakers such as the brothers Roberto T. Oliveira and João Wainer, and Amir Arsanes, as well as invitations to participate in numerous visual arts exhibits, including at the 29th São Paulo Biennial (2010), The Cartier Foundation (2009) and the Berlin Biennial (2012).


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

All Issues