In São 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
honor the ancestors of this city’s 18 million inhabitants, nearly every
surface is tagged with angular, prosaic, gang-related graffiti.
One neighborhood 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 São Paulo from April 23 to May 4, 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
São 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
Eréndira in the famed tale by Gabriel García Márquez. 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
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 “Frontieras,”
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
Massuda 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
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 photo) is layered with
some of the most compelling graffiti in the bairro.
“A bunch of us foreigners explored this particularly colorful part
of the city and photographed this ephemeral work,” recalled Icograda
board member and 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 Portugese for
“Tem um cara aqui qui pense que é 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 São Paulo
graffiti, Vilela explained the unique straight-letter style called pichação.
Daniel also mentioned The Twins (Os Gemeos), a renowned pair of graffiti-artist brothers.
To us, the words are as important as the visuals. I came to New York from Los Angeles, where I was an art director at UCLA, to assist legendary type master Herb Lubalin.
My firm, Visual Language LLC, was founded more than 30 years ago. We continue to work with clients in every kind of organization to produce effective communications that blend beautiful typography with a strong brand identity and message.
I am also a design writer and blogger. As a longtime contributor to Communication Arts magazine and contributing editor of Print, I cover the design business, personalities, events, exhibitions, and visual culture around the world.
My new book, "The Graphic Designer's Guide to Clients," which features in-depth, illustrated interviews with top designers and their clients, will be released by Allworth Press on April 1.
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