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Public Culture

An interdisciplinary journal of transnational cultural studies

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Imprinting and Moving Around: New Visibilities and Configurations of Public Space in São Paulo

Teresa P. R. Caldeira

São Paulo, Brazil, is a city of amazing graffiti and overwhelming amounts of tagging, huge public gatherings, and intense artistic production. It is striated by the rapid movements of motorcycles darting between lines of stalled traffic, by skateboarding and parkour, by rap and break dancing. The city itself is the site and subject of a diverse range of public practices that end up appropriating and producing it in unexpected ways. These interventions in public spaces are transforming and, at the same time, articulating anew the profound social inequalities that have always marked them. Expressed as both artistic production and urban performance, they not only give the subaltern new visibility in the city but also express new forms of political agency. However, these interventions are contradictory: they affirm rights to the city while fracturing the public; expose discrimination but refuse integration. They test the limits of the democratization process by simultaneously expanding the openness of the democratic public sphere while challenging it with transgressive actions ranging from the mildly illicit to the criminal.

In this essay, I analyze some of the transformations and tensions created in São Paulo by two overlapping modes of intervention: imprinting and moving around. Imprinting refers to the proliferation of graffiti and pixações, the style of tagging characteristic of São Paulo. Moving around alludes to new practices of circulation in the city. They include motorcycling, skateboarding, and parkour but are also much broader, as to move around becomes central to the sociability and leisure of youth groups and is an important component of graffiti and tagging. The agents of both modes of intervention are almost all young men, who as they re-create public space also shape gender hierarchies. These are certainly not all the practices that constitute public space in the city today, and its practitioners represent only a minority of the residents of the metropolis. However, these practices are now embedded in the everyday routines of the city, affect the lives of citizens well beyond the group of practitioners, and provoke paradoxical transformations of public space. These interventions take inequality for granted and thus naturalize it. They choose aggression and transgression as their mode of articulation while simultaneously speaking the language of rights and liberties and affirming a deep pleasure in freely moving around the city. They challenge a certain common ground but do not evoke recognized alternatives, such as those articulated in terms of citizenship and equality. These practices thus require a new conceptualization of democratic public space and of the role of subaltern citizens in producing the city.

Shifting Ground: New Articulations of Inequality and Public Space

Social inequality is probably the most salient characteristic of Brazilian cities. But in the past decades both the marks and the meanings of inequality and the relationships and spaces in which they are manifested and reproduced have changed considerably. There are new and often contradictory configurations of inequality in cities such as São Paulo. It is in relation to them that the new modes of intervention in the city by young groups can be understood.

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I would like to thank the many people who shared with me their passion for graffiti, pixação, parkour, skateboarding, and the city of São Paulo and who helped me with this research, especially Sérgio Miguel Franco and Carlos Augusto Calil. I would also like to acknowledge the support of two faculty research grants from the University of California, Berkeley, Committee on Research (2009 – 10, 2010 – 11), and of the University of California Humanities Research Institute. Thanks also to Antoni Muntadas and Sylvia Masini for permission to reproduce their images and to David Theo Goldberg and Hun Kim for their support in the production of the last version of this essay and its illustrations. Thanks to Gautam Bhan and James Holston for critical readings at a critical moment. Previous versions of this essay were presented in conferences at the University of Chicago and at the American University of Beirut.



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Public Culture is a reviewed interdisciplinary journal of cultural studies, published three times a year in Fall, Winter, and Spring for the Institute for Public Knowledge by Duke University Press. The journal's full archives are available online at

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