The Brazilian artist Djan Ivson da Silva, better known as Cripta Djan, creates works that transcend what is often called vandalism to the realm of fine arts by providing a critical narrative on the cultural, socio-economic and artistic value of pixação.
Pixação is an untranslatable Portuguese word that most closely translates to tagging but stands as its own genre. Although it is sometimes aggregated with graffiti, Djan says that these are, “European and American influences, and not what we are doing in Brazil.” Pixação describes the act of making pixo and it is created by pixadores, who are self-taught and often economically-marginalized people. As early as 1999, the government launched a campaign to demarcate the two genres with the slogan: “Não pixe, grafite,” or “Don’t [create pixo], [create] graffiti.” Although Brazil decriminalized street art in 2009, as long as it was done with the consent of the property owner, pixo is still punishable by law.
“There is a prejudice between pixo and graffiti because graffiti is typically more colorful and cartoonish, while pixo is just letters or symbols,” Djan said in a 2013 interview with a Brazilian program called Palavra Ética, or Ethical Word, “But, distinguishing pixo from vandalism or [fine art] is just a matter of taste.”
Djan created his first pixo on the exterior wall of his own home in the outskirts of São Paulo in 1996, when he was twelve-years-old. His pseudonym is affiliated with the Cripta gang of pixadores, which he continues to represent. When the Fondation Cartier in Paris organized a worldwide retrospective on street art in 2009, titled Né dans la Rue, or Born in the Streets, Djan was invited to represent pixo as a new artistic phenomenon. Comprised of photographs of his work that were shown for the first time, it was an “important recognition of the unique pixação from São Paulo,” he says.
A series of exhibitions followed, and his newfound acclaim allowed Djan to achieve a financial stability that he never sought through his work. “The pixador is one of the most legitimate artists because he is not after financial gain – we risk and spend but often gain nothing,” he says. In 2012, Djan and other members of his crew were invited to the 7th Berlin Biennale and asked to conduct a workshop on pixação. According to the proposal presented to them, the gang was to do a live and realistic demonstration of pixação, and they chose the wall of a church as their medium. During the workshop, the curator, Artur Żmijewski, protested that this was an act of vandalism and threw water on Djan. The artist retaliated by throwing yellow paint at Żmijewski (because “we don’t do pixo on people,” he says) and the demonstration continued until the police arrived.
Although no charges were filed by the German police, a myriad of related problems followed them to Brazil. The pixadores were accused of provoking the curator and committing vandalism. They were also asked to pay for the restoration of the church and for their allocated travel expenses. They eventually settled on the grounds that Djan was only explicitly following the proposal presented by the biennale. “A wall with pixo will still perform its function as a wall—it’s not a destruction, it’s not a missile, but it’s a question of aesthetics,” says Djan, “We actually just did the demonstration in a real context, like they asked.”
However, good things also trickled in. Djan concluded filming on a feature-length film in 2012 titled “Pixadores,” which was directed by Amir Arsames Escandari and depicts the events that preceded and followed his gangs’ trip to Berlin. He also gained support from Yale University, who organized a program titled Pixação + Contemporary Art, which comprised a screening of the film and a panel that brought together the art historian Debora Faccion, the director of the film, and João Correia, the artist’s dealer. The mediated panel dealt with how pixação relates to the art world, ethics, performance value, and class and race stratification in Brazil and around the world. Alina Aksiyote Bernardete, the student organizer for the event, which took place on February 7 this year, hopes that the panel “[challenged] notions of who counts as a scholar and an artist—if it was just vandalism or scribbling, then we wouldn’t invite him to Yale,” she said in a press statement.
Djan additionally started to develop new work after the biennale, and showed ten ink-on-paper works for the first time in an exhibition titled “From the Periphery to the Center” at Exhibit C in New York (February 11-17). With its repeating motifs that are made from Djan’s trademark symbols and letters, the works, which now start at $2,200, resemble stylized tribal batik, and do add to the room rather than deface it. “What I want to make clear is that this work is a unique language created for the art world, and it doesn’t compromise what I do in the streets,” says Djan, “It’s a symbolic language that represents pixo in this specific sphere.”
Rather than delinquency in its simplest terms, pixação poignantly reflects the language and philosophy of a group of individuals that are often without a voice. “Pixação is the cry of the invisibles and, through the movement, the youth develop identity and value, and escape their social invisibility,” says Djan, “It draws participation from people who have not had the opportunities to develop their artistic abilities, and can only do so through pixo.”
Pixação is one of the many visual expressions in Brazil that appear superficial but actually reveal the layers of history that formed the societal marginalization that still exists there today. In Brazil, the upper- and middle-classes are relentlessly diverged from the poor, which, without a doubt, has brewed the iconoclastic, activist philosophy that drives the work of Cripta Djan and other pixadores.