It had been a cloudy evening in Rio De Janeiro. And it was already nine pm and yet none of Thiago’s(name changed) friends had showed up. I had canceled a dinner at another friend’s house for this. Hungry and anxious, I was already wondering whether this entire pichadores thing was a mistake.
Thiago himself did not care much. He was happy smoking his weed and playing with his cat. He was without work at that time and spent most of his days at home. The wafting smoke of weed in the house had got me lazy as well.
In those weeks, I was in a limbo unsuccessfully trying to solve some of my own problems. It was on one of those afternoons that Thiago said, ‘You like writing about underground stuff, right? I think you should get to know Pichacao‘. I had never heard the word earlier. My host in Rio De Janeiro then explained to me that Pichacao meant tagging walls with cryptic signatures.
And then it all came back to me.
Walking through the streets of Rio, I had always wondered what those signs on walls were and who made them. It looked like walls had been vandalised with black spray paint and ugly cryptic symbols. Almost none of the walls were spared, especially of high rises. These symbols seemed rebellious. Only that I was not sure if this rebellion had a message. It was then that Thiago promised to take me to a meeting of Pichadores( the ones who paint Pichacao).
You might think what is so special about a meeting of Pichadores. Well, I was about to find out. But by any logic it was going to be an experience worth remembering.
Pichacao is not welcome and is classified as vandalism. So much so that not just property owners and the authorities, even other graffitists consider it crude and egoistic. Pichadores are considered a lot more rebellious, for Brazil generally has a liberal attitude towards street art and even graffiti. However, that attitude does not extend to Pichacao. And most think it is justified since they vandalise buildings and beautiful properties with black paint and in what are considered, unaesthetic signs.
All these factors makes the Pichadores community a bit difficult to access. And everything weird makes for a great experience.
At around 10pm, two of Thiago’s friends arrived with some beers. Thiago packed his barbeque and we were off. The only other things we picked were a couple of spray paint cans, the weapon of choice of Pichadores in Rio De Janeiro. In Sao Paulo they use brushes, latex paints and rollers, the movement originally started in that south eastern Brazilian city.
In less than ten minutes we were at Praca De Bandeira. Thiago’s chubby friend was a tad worried that I had a camera and that I was clicking his pictures.
I was expecting it to be a quiet and secretive affair. But what I saw were about 30-50 young people squatting around the large plaza smoking cigarettes and marijuana. Almost everyone was drinking beer. But then I was in Brazil where you drink beer all of the time.
A lot of meat was waiting and Thiago’s barbeque got into action. There was this one guy who took it upon himself to barbeque all the sausages and meat single-handedly. Others would help him too, but by polishing off the pieces of juicy cooked meat he placed on the chopping board.
Beer and barbeque is a combination that can hardly be beaten. But after a while I was getting anxious. There is only this much passive marijuana one can do. What about the painting? Where were we going? Was everyone going to paint? It seemed to be too big a group to keep any activity silent.
Then a shirtless young guy walked up to me asking me to sign in a notebook.
I was like ‘Wow, you have to register yourself for an underground event.’
I was about to write my name when I realised that one had to sign their picha signatures, and I didn’t have one. So I decided to write my name in devnagari(Hindi) instead.
In fact, over the next one hour few more people came around asking for signatures. It struck me then that people were carrying personal notebooks and collecting signatures as a mark of the date where all of these pichadores gathered. It was a way to mark a collective memory. Not bad, I said to myself.
Though there were many sub groups, almost all people belonged to large group called cinco estrellas or five stars. Thiago introduced me to one of the senior guys in the hope that I would get some answers to my questions. But a couple of minutes into the conversation it was clear that this senior person was too drunk to give me any coherent information. The same guy died in an accident a week or so later. But that has nothing to do with me or this story.
Knee length shorts were the outfit of choice and cerveja or beer was the preferred beverage. But many alternated the beer with shots of vodka or cachaca. And marijuana was a must too.
One particularly interesting guy was the one who had tattoos all over his body. And he wanted me to go visit prostitutes in Villa Marmosa with him.
It was only way past midnight that it finally seemed that it was time to start scribbling rebellion on walls.
The same friends I arrived with plus Mr. Tattoo got back to Rio Comprido, the neighbourhood Thiago lived in. After taking a few swigs from their respective cerveja cans, the boys got down to the job. It was a quiet alley close to a small supermercado. But at 2 in the morning it was quiet as fuck. One of the guys answered nature’s call while looking around. Thiago and tattoo boy climbed up a fence and then on top of the roof of a restaurant. While they walked across the roof it made a rattling sound. I was almost certain that someone would wake up. But no one did.
For all the hatred that Cariocas have for late night pichacao, it seemed they sleep blissfully well.
But not everyone is lucky. I was told that there had been instances when property owners confronted pichadores using guns or pistols. And in a freak case or two, pichadores were also shot. Thiago himself had been in a situation where his friend had fallen through the asbestos or tin roof of an abandoned place and had sustained injuries.
So clearly this was no beach volleyball.
And this is what makes Pichacao so exciting. The edginess and the eccentricity. Almost everyone I met in the following days in Rio De Janeiro mentioned that they hate this vandalism and that it only made their city to look ugly. And it is difficult to disagree with that. Pichacao is no art, at least not in my opinion. Neither is aestheticism the point of this activity.
It is not like Pichadores believe that they are beautifying the city and can’t understand why everyone hates them.
Rebellion is the point of it all. And stamping their identity on the city and society is, as well. Pichacao despite being underground and secretive, finally does give these youngsters some recognition they seek, in a weird way. Hence many don’t think twice before jumping high walls and taking the risk of confronting cops and property owners.
By now, the first set of pichas were completed. I could hardly take any pictures due to the darkness.
Back in the car, it was time to look for a new site. And that seemed like the most time consuming activity of the process. Unlike graffiti which takes planning and time, pichadores can tag tens of properties on a single night because all it takes is a 30 second spray to tag a property and to move on to the next one. It is the searching and climbing that takes some time.
At the second site, these pichadores had to climb a higher fence and despite a few extra pounds, I thought one of them managed to do it well. The rest were athletic enough.
For some reason Thiago no longer seemed welcoming. ‘This is not carnival, stop clicking pictures’ he said. May be the fact that this could end up in an article with his face on it dawned upon him. And pichacao wasn’t the thing that he had imagined to be famous about may be.
In another 15 minutes we were done. And after that we walked around in the cobbled streets of the ciudad maravilhossa which seemed so far away from the ugly reality of the favelas. In many ways, pichacao brings that ugliness to the better off parts of the city. Though there is no way for me to ascertain what percentages of pichadores actually hail from the favelas, it would be safe to say that a large number of them do come from impoverished areas.
We were again back in the car when an argument broke out. Two of the four members of the group wanted to head home. So at the low score of tagging two properties, the night came to an end.
So, what was the point of the night? I do not know. Unlike the original beginning of tagging in Sao Paulo in the 50s where youngsters were writing political messages, pichadores of today only seem to compete for visibility.
I guess sometimes people just want to be heard, even if they don’t have anything to say.