Sao Paulo mayor declares war on wall writers

SAO PAULO, April 26 (Reuters) - It took Brazilian artist Iaco one minute to whip out a can of spray paint and write "doria" seven times across a gray wall in Sao Paulo.

It took four minutes for a police officer to arrive, gun drawn, handcuff Iaco and haul him to the nearest precinct - a swift response to a high-profile provocation in Mayor João Doria's war on graffiti.

This was not just any wall.

Weeks before, Doria donned orange overalls and a face mask to help spray gray paint over some 15,000 square meters of street art along that same stretch of Avenida 23 de Maio.

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Sao Paulo's war on graffiti
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Sao Paulo's war on graffiti
A "pichador", a graffiti artist who tags buildings and landmarks with angular, runic fonts, poses for a photograph on the roof of an apartment building before tagging a wall with his personal signature, called "pichacao", in Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 18, 2017.
(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A "pichador", a graffiti artist who tags buildings and landmarks with angular, runic fonts, walks on the roof of a building as he carries an ink roller and a paint bucket before tagging a wall with his personal signature, called "pichacao", in Sao Paulo, Brazil, March 17, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A "pichador", a graffiti artist who tags buildings and landmarks with angular, runic fonts, paints his personal signature, called "pichacao", on top of an apartment building, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, March 17, 2017.

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A "pichador", a graffiti artist who tags buildings and landmarks with angular, runic fonts, climbs over a safety fence before tagging a wall of a building with his personal signature, called "pichacao", in Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 19, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A municipal worker removes the writing "doria" in reference to Sao Paulo's mayor Joao Doria, tagged by a Brazilian artist, known as Iaco, on Avenida 23 de Maio in Sao Paulo, Brazil, March 23, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A "pichador", a graffiti artist who tags buildings and landmarks with angular, runic fonts, paints his personal signature, called "pichacao", on top of an apartment building, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, March 17, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A "pichador", a graffiti artist who tags buildings and landmarks with angular, runic fonts, climbs up the facade of a nine-storey apartment building before tagging its wall with his personal signature, called "pichacao", in Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 19, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A cyclist rides past as "pichadores", graffiti artists who tag buildings and landmarks with angular, runic fonts, paint their personal signatures, called "pichacao", on the facade of a building in Sao Paulo, Brazil, February 14, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A "pichador", a graffiti artist who tags buildings and landmarks with angular, runic fonts, climbs up a house before painting his personal signature, called "pichacao", on the facade, in Sao Paulo, Brazil February 14, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A "pichador", a graffiti artist who tags buildings and landmarks with angular, runic fonts, paints his personal signature, called "pichacao", on the facade of a nine-story apartment building in Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 19, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A police officer gestures towards a Brazilian artist, known as Iaco, after he had written "doria" in reference to Sao Paulo's mayor Joao Doria, on a wall on Avenida 23 de Maio in Sao Paulo, Brazil, March 22, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A Brazilian artist, known as Iaco, sits inside the police car after he was detained for painting on a wall on Avenida 23 de Maio in Sao Paulo, Brazil, March 22, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A "pichador", a graffiti artist who tags buildings and landmarks with angular, runic fonts, paints his personal signature, called "pichacao", on a wall in Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 21, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A "pichador", a graffiti artist who tags buildings, who lost his legs after suffering an accident while hopping trains, paints his personal signature, called "pichacao", on a wall of a house, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 19, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A "pichador", a graffiti artist who tags buildings and landmarks with angular, runic fonts, poses for a photograph in front of a mural of a Brazilian artist "Humanos", on a street in Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 11, 2017. The two faces on the mural are in reference to a "pichador" (L) and a graffiti artist. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A police officer stands next to a wall tagged with graffiti that reads "doria" in reference to Sao Paulo's Mayor Joao Doria, after Brazilian artist, known as Iaco, tagged the wall on Avenida 23 de Maio in Sao Paulo, Brazil, March 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A "pichador", a graffiti artist who tags buildings and landmarks with angular, runic fonts, paints his personal signature, called "pichacao", that reads: "Who is Doria?" in reference to Sao Paulo's Mayor Joao Doria on the facade of an Electoral Register building in Sao Paulo, Brazil, February 10, 2017. The phrase "Pixo Logo Existo" written on another part of the wall means "I tag therefore I am". 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

"Pichadores", graffiti artists who tag buildings and landmarks with angular, runic fonts, paint their personal signatures, called "pichacao", on a paper during the "Dia do Point" (Meeting Point Day) in Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 20, 2017. R

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A homeless man (L) sleeps as "pichadores", graffiti artists who tag buildings and landmarks with angular, runic fonts, walk along the facade of a building before painting their personal signatures, called "pichacao", in Sao Paulo, Brazil, March 26, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A "pichador", a graffiti artist who tags buildings and landmarks with angular, runic fonts, paints his personal signature, called "pichacao", on a wall on the roof of an apartment building, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, March 17, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A "pichador", a graffiti artist who tags building, who lost his legs after suffering an accident while hopping trains, poses for a photograph on a street after tagging a wall with his personal signature, called "pichacao", in Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 19, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A man looks out of a door of his shop tagged by "pichadores", graffiti artists who tag buildings and landmarks with angular, runic fonts, with their personal signatures, called "pichacao", on a street in Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 20, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A man stands in front of a building tagged by "pichadores", graffiti artists who tag buildings and landmarks with angular, runic fonts, with their personal signatures, called "pichacao", on a street in Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 20, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A building tagged by "pichadores", graffiti artists who tag buildings and landmarks with angular, runic fonts, with their personal signatures, called "pichacao", stands on a street in Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 20, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

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The fate of those murals, commissioned by the prior mayor, has sparked a debate over the world-famous graffiti scene in South America's biggest city and its place in the cleaner landscape imagined by Doria's "Pretty City" program.

The mayor has since called the move to repaint that busy avenue too hasty and now insists that his fight is not with the city's colorful street art but with a style of aggressive tagging known as "pichação."

The angular, runic font has conquered swaths of Sao Paulo's landscape as unseen street artists scale buildings and landmarks with paint rollers and spray cans in hand, drawing the ire of many who embrace other forms of graffiti.

"A muralist is an artist and has our respect," Doria said in an interview this month, highlighting his plans to commission new works of street art.

Doria says police have caught more than 100 people writing on walls illegally in Sao Paulo since he took office in January.

He has established a fine for pichação of up to $3,200, or 10 times Brazil's monthly minimum wage. But practitioners, known as 'pichadores', say that will do little to dissuade them from climbing high-rises and highway overpasses to leave their mark.

"What other artist puts their safety at risk for what they do?" said the pichador known as Du.

"All art involves freedom of expression, but pichação is the expression of freedom. You're telling the world, 'Here I am. You can't ignore me.'"

Most pichadores write little more than their street name or the name of their crew, and spare social commentary in rare instances. "Who is Doria?" one scrawled in a tag.

Pichadores often compete for the highest or most audacious tags, but few would deface another's work. Although it is synonymous with urban decay, those who take part say pichação has no ties to gangs in Sao Paulo.

Some in the graffiti world question the distinction between other street art and pichação, which has been featured in the Berlin Biennale, at the Cartier Foundation in Paris and at Sao Paulo Fashion Week.

Originally inspired by heavy metal album covers of the 1980s, the cryptic calligraphy has won admirers in the global graffiti scene, including photographer Martha Cooper, who has documented the New York subculture for four decades.

"I'm a big fan of what they're doing in Sao Paulo. They've invented their own alphabet," said Cooper, who was introduced to the old guard pichadores on a recent visit to Brazil.

"It's not acts of random vandalism at all," she said. "It's a way of making your environment your own."

(Writing by Brad Haynes; editing by Diane Craft)

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