Tuesday, March 14th, 2006

On São Paolo Graf and Writing About Hip-Hop

The Real-Time Buff: Alexandre Orion goes meta with his pichação.

Interesting piece on São Paolo graf writer Alexandre Orion in today’s SF Chronicle. He has a show up at 111 Minna here in the city.

While it’s very well written, what is frustrating about the piece is its utter inability to contextualize Orion’s artistry. The piece focuses on the kinds of things anyone trained in capital-W Western capital-A capital-H Art History would recognize–the post-modernist artist-viewing-the-artist stuff, the surrealist visual puns, for example.

This is partly why we’re working so hard on Total Chaos. With the (possible) exception of rap, so much current writing on hip-hop and hip-hop-inspired arts, especially in mainstream media, is written from outside the culture, that even pretty good pieces like this one end up separating the art and the artist from the culture it emerges from.

To be fair, I don’t suspect it was conscious in this particular case, but the result is the same. The reader is left believing that this artist is an exception, and the rest of what he represents is “bad art”. The marginalized culture is left on the margins.


Nowhere in the piece is there any context on São Paolo’s unique graf style, a wholly indigenous visual language called pichação.

When I first got wind of this movement, the pictures blew my wig back, and it’s because what I think is happening on the buildings and in the streets of this Brazilian city constitute a massive break from graf history, maybe the first in two or three decades, and the signal of something brand new. In these days of Scion and Sony PSP colonizing graf writers in the First World, that’s not something small at all. I’ve been yapping about how the next popular cultural explosion isn’t coming from the US. This is the kind of stuff that gives me palpitations.

If you want to know why I’m so sprung, check out this cat Caleb Neelon’s website, and a book he’s taken pictures for and written in. It’s co-written by Tristen Manco and Lost Art and it’s called Graffiti Brasil. The book is a revelation.

Anyway, back to the point: in a sense, Orion is like a Basquiat or Futura of pichação. That is to say, he’s interested in advancing abstractions and changing the codes of the style. This makes him more easily available to Capital W Western Capital A Art critics, but it negates the fact that he comes out of a particular tradition.

So much of arts writing seeks to separate artist from context; it’s the long-standing myth of the artist as auteur. Artists themselves tend to advance this narrative–most artists want their work to be seen as unique, not as lumped together into some homogenized “folk arts” category. And to be clear, the closer one’s history is to someone like, oh let’s say, Jeff Koons, the less of a danger one faces in being categorized as “folk” or “outsider” artist.

(To me, one of the most interesting themes of the massive Basquiat exhibition last year was his pushback against the mainstream art world’s efforts to box him, his own ambivalence about being crowned “the exception”.)

But the problem with this approach is it never allows the arts of marginalized people their proper space in the discussion, and ironically, it never allows the great artists, like Orion, to really be given their proper due.

posted by @ 10:50 am | 2 Comments

2 Responses to “On São Paolo Graf and Writing About Hip-Hop”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I thought this article showed respect and sensitivity toward the subject matter (Orion and graf art in general). The intersection of graf and traditional art is very much relevant. In a world where corporate art/design encroaches on public and personal spaces, the graf artist serves as a vital counterpoint. The article shows very clearly that Orion is reaching out to the broader public with his art.


  2. erin says:

    have you seen “next: a primer on urban painting”? there’s a lot of info re: pichacao…check it out if you haven’t already.

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