Graffiti is a term that comes from the Greek word graphein, to write, and the Italian word graffito, meaning to draw or scribble on a flat surface. Graffiti is done everywhere in Latin America (LA), because any defacement of private property is considered to be a form of graffiti, but it is most prominent in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. Brazil is widely regarded as the place to go for artistic inspiration when it comes to graffiti art and its graffiti artists are considered the best in the world.
The spirit and expression of human kind is to be found in graffiti plastered on the cave walls of Aurignac, Lascaux and Altamira approximately thirty thousand years ago. Pompeii has also been associated with the origin of graffiti; in Pompeii, words, poetry and pictures have been discovered scratched or painted onto the walls of palaces and other buildings. With the destruction of Pompeii, graffiti as an art form disappeared and it did not resurface until centuries later.
Graffiti’s modern-day popularity has been attributed to the hip-hop movement in Philadelphia and New York City, which globalized the rediscovered art form. In the 1970s it was being produced in Latin America in a distinctive manner. While North American graffiti leans more towards tagging, which is associated with narcissism in the literature, in Latin America graffiti have a political edge that is meaningful and thought provoking. Some say North American graffiti has lost its street credibility because it is overrun by capitalism and the fashion world has accepted it as a clothing trend. Legitimate graffiti is done for the artist’s own communication objective.
There are many diverse types of graffiti, with different meanings, but all are progressing towards the same goal, to get their message out to the public. There is graffiti, which is associated with letters and spray cans; a tag, which is the graffiti artist’s stylized signature; street art, which is essentially stencils and stickers; stencil graffiti, which has its origins in Latin America as a technique used in protests during the 1970s; throw-ups, which are just simple letters that have only an outline; pixacao, is a cryptic and elongated style made on the tops of buildings and is the most dangerous; pintada, a political wall painting that takes up an entire wall and is done in the colours of the political party the artist supports; pichação, a political message meant to contest and punish the wealthy; and grapixo, which is a hybrid between pichação and graffiti writing.
All graffiti artists learn through observation and practice. There are numerous reasons for making graffiti art but there are three main motivations: to record one’s identity and become famous, because it falls outside the law it gives the artist an adrenaline rush that is comparable to extreme sports, and to protest against the system. The inspiration for Argentine graffiti artists is unique in that it relates to historical memory. The injustice the people suffered by their own military and police –thirty thousand people “disappeared” between 1976 and 1983– is represented in Argentina’s graffiti.
Brazil is the current leader in terms of graffiti style. There is a certain respect for graffiti art in Brazil that is not present in any other country, it is represented by the fact that artists take a great deal of care not to paint over other artist’s work. In Brazil, where artists use graffiti messages using of their national language and simple aesthetic styles, graffiti artists must remain anonymous for their own safety. They use street names for the tags and images. Some of the most prominent artists in Brazil are known by fictitious names only. For example, Os Gêmeos, Portuguese for “twins,” notable artists from Brazil and their innovative style has influenced the way contemporary graffiti is made. Argentina can thank these traveling twins for bringing them the art graffiti in the early 1990’s.
Hugo Martinez, an academic, once tried to get the artists to the engage in canvas-based works with the intent on making graffiti a type of “high-art”, however, it was largely unsuccessful. There is a general consensus, between the artists, that graffiti belongs in the public sphere where it can reach a with a broad audience. Graffiti is associated with freedom of expression in Latin America. Freedom of expression involves challenging the system and society. Graffiti artists feel that their work will never die as long as there are walls in the city to be their canvas and the enemies of graffiti know this.
Graffiti is the first art that is not male dominated; female artists have been just as active since its creation. Artists can keep their gender a secret, which some take advantage of and others accentuate their femininity. Women have the disadvantage of facing more risk when creating their graffiti by the possibility of rape in the nighttime.
Public opinion surrounding graffiti varies considerably. The American public turned against graffiti in the nineteenth century when the relationship between the working classes, the artists, and the elite came to the brink. Latin Americans also perceive graffiti as a criminal activity, but not to the same extent. They respect most pieces and stencil graffiti particularly because it is perceived as a legitimate, creative activity; it is tagging that is considered destructive to public property.
The legendary Alex Vallauri was the first graffiti artist to express himself through spray painted stencils. His death date, March 27, is now celebrated as National Day of Graffiti in Brazil.
Edited by Susan Douglas
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