To Be Seen, To Get Heard: Spatial Politics of Visual Art in Urban Public Spaces

Comparative Analysis of São Paulo, Cape Town, and Hanoi in THREE sections

By: Sophie Schultze-Allen

Me taking notes about graffiti in Vila Madalena (photo taken by Amanda Lineberry)

Me taking notes about graffiti in Vila Madalena (photo taken by Amanda Lineberry)

As cities around the world continue to grow, we see how geographic divisions are closely linked to social and political exclusion. To create more equitable cities, urban dwellers have begun to invent alternative modes of expression through the use of visual art in public spaces. My passion for art, social equality, and civic engagement for more sustainable cities inspired the independent research I conducted last fall while studying abroad in Brazil, South Africa, and Vietnam on the IHP Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics. This post is a summary of my findings and how I think they are relevant to current global urban development. Please follow along as I post a section for each city I went to and how art, politics, geography, and social (in)equality are all connected!

I lived in São Paulo, Cape Town, and Hanoi for a total of three months. In each city, I observed different geographic and social dynamics, I met with different artists who have been involved in activating public spaces, I spoke with other residents and professionals about the topic of art in public spaces, and I compared my data with academic sources. In all three cities I observed that single, dominant visions of the city have prevented alternative visions from entering their urban politics. Although I am quite biased with my passion for the arts, I found that visual art in public spaces allows, encourages, and empowers multiple visions of the city to come into dialogue with each other, pushing for social change.

In each city, I saw how spatial geographies are represented by creative public expressions. Setha Low (2011) draws from several French social theorists who have shown “how physical space and spatial relations subjugate or liberate groups and individuals from the state and other sources of power and knowledge” (p. 391). Since the geographic spatial order of a city impacts the social sphere, art in public spaces can be viewed as a commentary on the social dynamics of the city. Some creative visions work on pushing the existing spatial boundaries through direct confrontation of the oppressive dominant vision (what I later refer to as transgressive art), while others propose an alternative vision by using visual arts to directly support neighborhoods and communities that have been both socially and physically excluded from the decision-making processes of urban development. We must be careful that creative visions do not become too insular and thus have trouble entering public dialogue. My research shows that this can be prevented if multiple visions of the city exist and both of these methods (I’ll call them transgressive and supportive creative expression) are used to push against the singular vision of pre-existing institutionalized spatial order.

Through comparing three different urban contexts I have tried to learn more about how the spatial order of a city might influence the ability for individuals (many of whom have previously been excluded from the dominant urban vision) to use visual art as ways to be seen, and to empower each other to get heard. In 1969, Carol Hanisch coined the feminist slogan, “the personal is political” meaning that the personal cannot be separated from the political and that in fact, our personal experiences influence our political positions and expressions (Yu, 2011, p. 873). For a long time artists have been drawing from their personal experiences to make wider political statements. Spatial orders of the city can deeply influence the personal experiences of urban dwellers, even repressing social action at times (Harvey, 2000, p. 243). Thus, the spatial order of a city has an impact on the personal experiences that urban artists use as political driving forces to challenge pre-existing (or in the case of Hanoi, developing) institutionalized spatial boundaries. By attempting to break down the spatial boundaries that have excluded individuals in São Paulo and Cape Town and by influencing the current development of an increasingly exclusive spatial order in Hanoi, personal creative expressions can give voice to individuals who are often excluded from the decision-making processes concerning urban development. At this moment of intense global urban development, art in public spaces is one method for creating new modes of association and civic engagement in order to challenge institutionalized, exclusive boundaries and bring multiple visions into dialogue with one other to build more equitable and sustainable cities.

In São Paulo, walls and buildings in public spaces of the city center are covered with graffiti (which spread to São Paulo from New York City in the 1980’s) and pixações (a personal tag, usually on as many parts of the city as possible, especially in hard-to-get areas). Both forms of expression aim to break down the center-periphery dichotomy, a dynamic that has existed in São Paulo since its beginnings (Caldeira, 2012, 407). People living in the periphery of the city have historically been taken advantage of for their cheap labor. Due to the proliferation of neoliberal policies after the end of the dictatorship in 1988, their low-income status has prevented them from entering spaces of political importance (Moura, 2013). Compared to the blank walls in the periphery, graffiteiros (Portuguese word for those who do graffiti) and pixadores (people who do Pixações) predominantly practice in the center of the city where they can be seen and can directly confront the institutionalized boundaries that oppress them.

The increasing value of the arts along with the historical development of São Paulo’s urban spatial order has allowed for the creation of many different spaces of participation. Holston (2008) argues that it was in fact Brazilian government negligence of the poor peripheral communities that led them to search for new modes of association, which he calls insurgent citizenship (p.235-247). Holston (1999) argues that, “the most urgent problems in planning and architectural theory today is the need to develop a different social imagination” (p.157). Holston thinks that this new social imagination should be investigated in the “spaces of insurgent citizenship”, by which he means finding ethnographic processes for developing a city rather than through utopian visions of planners (who are often white men from the “global north”) (p.158). Holston explains how these ethnographic expressions are in competition with the existing modernist utopian theories for developing the city (p.158). Thus, artists who transgressively push for alternative visions play an important role in demanding political and social space for everyone (not just the social and economic elites).

Figure 1: Beco de Batman in Vila Madalena (photo taken by author)

Figure 1: Beco de Batman in Vila Madalena (photo taken by author)


Tinho is an ex-pixador turned graffiteiro who grew up in the periphery of São Paulo. He switched to graffiti because he felt like he could communicate his ideas more effectively through images than tags. While growing up, Tinho hated feeling controlled by other people, so graffiti became a space for him to create his own rules (Personal communication, September 12, 2013).Thus, graffiti can be seen as a method for creating new modes of association, an attempt towards insurgent citizenship. Graffiteiros encourage expression through creating clusters of their work in alleyways such as Beco de Batman or Familia Beco both located in Vila Madalena, a hip and artsy neighborhood in São Paulo that gained popularity due to the creative identity initiated by these beautiful alleyways.

Figure 2: Pixações in central São Paulo (photo taken by Natalie Wesberg)

Figure 2: Pixações in central São Paulo (photo taken by Natalie Wesberg)

Unfortunately, some graffiteiros view themselves as superior to pixadores, so their social circles tend to stay separate.For the past decade Pixadores have physically created their own space by gathering in the same street every Thursday evening. They gather in a small street in central São Paulo to share their tag designs, perform rap, breakdance, and hang out with friends. Although located in the center of the city, this street is tucked away from the eyes of the general public. Thus, they have created a space of solidarity where they feel empowered to express themselves, but don’t attempt to assimilate to the dominant society (Caldeira, 2012,385). To many people like my host brother, Adriano, pixações vandalizes the public sphere and pollutes the visual landscape of the city (Adriano, Personal Communication, September 12, 2013). Adrianowas born and raised in São Paulo to a middle class family of Italian, Portuguese, and Indigenous descent. He is 21 years old and currently lives at home with his mother in central São Paulo while studying to become an airplane pilot. His negative response toward pixações is framed by the fact that he subscribes to this aesthetically “clean” vision of the city because being a white identifying man of middle socio-economic background, he does not feel excluded from it. For many graffiteiros and pixadores who have not been included in this dominant vision of the city, their creative expressions have given them a voice to express alternative visions in which they can participate and feel included. However, both Pixadores and Graffiteiros seem to forget about other ways in which their art might be able to directly support the people living on the edges of the city who they are ultimately fighting for.

Figure 3: Fernando Vieira (photo taken by author)

Figure 3: Fernando Vieira (photo taken by author)

I met artist Fernando Vieira at a community event in Cabuçu de Baixo 12 (a peripheral neighborhood in Saõ Paulo where my class was doing a case study for three days). Through his work with Coperativa Cooperaacs, Fernando has dedicated the last few years of his life to making art from re-used materials for social causes. COOPERAACS(see video to learn more) promotes social inclusion (particularly for people with physical disabilities) through his collaborative installation art projects made from recycled bottles (personal communication, September 26, 2013). When he was younger he first did pixações but shied away from it once he heard about his friends getting caught by the police who forced them to strip in public and then continued to paint them with their own paint. Out of fear, he started doing graffiti instead and got the nickname “Captain Murdoc”. He said, the message he tried to convey most through his work is that anyone can overcome difficulties, and his nickname speaks to the fact that he learned early on that he would need to steer the ship of his own life to overcome those difficulties. The event was called Verdejando (from green) and had been sponsored by Globo (one of Brazil’s largest media corporations). Vieira was hired to do a creative activity where he attempted to empower local members of this community by collaboratively making a giant flower out of recycled plastic bottles (Figure 1).Through directly supporting populations in the periphery, Vieira uses his art as an effective method for breaking down the center-periphery dichotomy.

Figure 4: Youth in CdB12 in front of upcycled plastic bottle sculpture (Photo taken by Fernando Vieira)

Figure 4: Youth in CdB12 in front of upcycled plastic bottle sculpture (Photo taken by Fernando Vieira)

While spending time in Cabuçu de Baixo 12, I found that other people in the community are also working to bring arts and cultural events and resources out to the periphery. Pedro helped my case study group communicate with local residents to learn more about how public space is used in the neighborhood and told me about his passion for the arts. Pedro has lived in Cabuçu de Baixo 12 for most of his life and is sick of having to take the bus for two hours to participate in the arts scene that is still geographically focused on the central areas of the city (P. Carvalho, personal communication, September 23, 2013). He has been involved in a project that organizes performance and visual art events in Cabuçu de Baixo 12 to make cultural and creative services more accessible to his neighborhood, something he believes should be available to all people. However, making the arts more accessible to peripheral neighborhoods to support their way of life should be implemented simultaneously alongside the more transgressive art forms, because otherwise those in power can choose not to hear the alternative visions that threaten their control.

In recent years we’ve seen how these “new” spaces created by graffiti can become coopted and made exclusive. Graffiteiros must be careful that these spaces remain accessible to a wide range of audiences – not just for an exclusive audience because it would prevent their visions from interacting with other spaces in the city. Part of this cooption happens in the form of corporate sponsorship, which has the potential to support urban art but rather seems to threaten graffiteiros’ freedom of expression. Amanda, the second female graffiteira in São Paulo, explained to me some of the challenges with trying to preserve her own freedom of expression but also support herself with her art. Like many other graffiteiros and graffiterias, she grew up in São Paulo in a lower-middle class family and found art as a source of expression and community. She is currently doing post-graduate work where she is writing her master dissertation on whether graffiti is still transgressive and to what extent it is a performance. While touring different murals around the city, Amanda told us that a mural has been sponsored by a corporation if it’s been signed by the artist. For this reason, she disagrees with corporate sponsorship and believes that graffiti must maintain its transgressive nature (Personal communication, September 12, 2013). Yet, Amanda also recently began making designs for Sony headphones, so she too is trying to find a balance to preserve her freedom of expression while also make art to earn a living and become more well-known.With the new corporate interest in graffiti, like Amanda expressed, it’s hard for many graffiteiros to remain separate from the dominant and exclusive vision of the city perpetuated by private corporations.

In contrast to graffiti, pixadores have not allowed corporate sponsorship from entering their movement, preserving their transgressive vision. The vision of pixações is not to paint available spaces, but to use their writing to take up space previously unattainable to them (Dijan, personal communication September 12, 2013). In particular, they try to take up spaces that are especially hard to reach (Figure 2). Dijan (an active and well-known pixador from São Paulo) shared with my IHP class that pixações has helped youth (including himself when he was younger) express themselves because they felt excluded from being able to make impactful decisions. He says they use pixações to transform the city, which has given him a voice with which he can enter the dialogue of the city. He told us a story about his encounter at the Berlin Bienniale where he and his crew were provided a blank canvas on a wall to “perform their art form” (personal communication, September 12, 2013). Since pixações is not about filling empty spaces but about taking more space, he and his crew decided to imprint their tags on the wall of an old German church behind the provided canvas. The curator attempted to give Dijan a taste of his own medicine by pouring a bucket of dirty water on Dijan. Dijan responded by spray-painting the curator who sprayed him back. At that point the police came, and took Dijan and his crew, for which the pixadores thanked them because it only proved their claims (“Polizei gegen Pixação-Attacke!” 2012). Although it may be a different kind of conversation, this interaction between the curator and Dijan presents the ability of pixações to create dialogue between different actors in the city and how successful they are in getting heard and will therefore continue to operate in similar ways.

Figure 5: Pixaçaos on top of graffiti in Vila Madalena (photo taken by author)

Figure 5: Pixaçaos on top of graffiti in Vila Madalena (photo taken by author)

Some might argue that the pixações movement is contradictory to its own vision of pushing for an alternative, because their actions can also be interpreted as preventing other expressions from being heard. Tinho, the ex-pixador turned graffiteiro said he switched to graffiti because is in dialogue with the system rather than against it, that having a dialogue through pixações was challenging for him because of its confrontational strategy (Tinho, personal communication, September 12, 2013). As shown in Figure 5, they will even write over graffiti, escalating the tension between the two movements (Amanda, personal communication, September 12, 2013). In Caldeira’s (2011) commentary of the movement, she claims that, “pixações became one of the types of signs most homogenously distributed throughout the city, making uniform the most diverse spaces, in whatever direction one moves” (p.175). Therefore, the pixadores can be viewed as successfully preventing multiple visions of the city from appearing while the secluded nature of their gatherings potentially perpetuates their isolation. I would argue that they are indeed homogenizing the city (by dramatizing the affects of the single dominant vision from which they feel excluded) to make a statement about the desperate need for multiple voices to be heard. Drawing from my experience at their Thursday gathering, I saw that they promote an important balance between individual and collective needs by valuing each other’s individual designs while empowering each other through their solidarity. This social structure results in a unified aesthetic that some may interpret as homogenized, but is really very socially layered and inclusive of people from a diverse range of backgrounds.

In the São Paulo context, these forms of expression give many graffiteiros and pixadores a sense of personal empowerment. This freedom of expression finally allows their ideas and thoughts to be seen by others as they push to be heard. As we heard from Amanda, the normalization of graffiti in the city has caused it to be threatened by the influence of corporate sponsorship, a phenomenon that pixaçaos has not allowed (Amanda: Personal communication, September 12, 2013). Thus, we see how artists throughout the city are negotiating their personal freedom expression, political situation, and ability to survive as an artist in a rapidly growing urban context. Stay tuned to hear how this context compares to the social, political, and economic dynamics of Cape Town and Hanoi as I ask how art in public spaces correlates to these dimensions of the city and what role it plays in sustainable urban development.




Caldeira, T. (2012). Imprinting and moving around: New visibilities and configurations of public space in Sao Paulo. Public Culture, 24(2), 385-419.

Caldeira, T. (2011). Worlds set apart. Living in the endless city: the Urban Age project by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society (pp. 168-175, 262-3). London: Phaidon Press Ltd.

Hanoi Grapevine. “Snapshots of Zone 9 – the new art hub in Hanoi.” Hanoi Grapevine. N.p., 7 Aug. 2013. Web. 24 Nov. 2013. <;.

Harvey, D. (2000). Chapter 12: “The insurgent architect at work”. Spaces of hope (pp. 233-255). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Harvey, D. (2003). Debates and development: The right to the city. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 27(4), 939-941.

Hoa, Quynh. “History and Urban Planning of Hanoi.” IHP. National Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, Hanoi. November 18, 2013.

Holston, James. (2008). Insurgent citizenship: Disjunctions of democracy and modernity in Brazil. Princeton University Press.

Lemanski, C. (2004). A new Apartheid? The spatial implications of fear of crime in Cape Town, South Africa. Environment and urbanization, 6(2), 101-111.

Low, S. M. (2011). Claiming space for an engaged anthropology: spatial inequality and social exclusion. American Anthropologist, 113(3), 389-407.

Miraftab, F., & Wills, S. (2005). Insurgency And Spaces Of Active Citizenship: The Story Of Western Cape Anti-eviction Campaign In South Africa. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 25(2), 200-217.

Moura, Leandro. “Historical overview of Brazil and São Paulo.” IHP. IHP. Mackenzie University, São Paulo. 2 Sept. 2013. Lecture

“Polizei gegen Pixação-Attacke!.” Freundeskreis Street Art Berlin. N.p., 12 June 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2013. <;.

“Word Ha Noi June 2013.” Issuu. N.p., 1 June 2013. Web. 23 Nov. 2013. (p. 36-51).

Yu, S. (2011). Reclaiming The Personal: Personal Narratives Of Third-Wave Feminists. Women’s Studies, 40(7), 873-889. Retrieved November 16, 2013, from the Academic Search Premier database.



My study abroad program ended ten days ago, but I’m still traveling. Back in June I decided to postpone my flight to Germany (the next leg of my journey to see my family) by two weeks so that I could travel around in Southeast asia a bit. I decided to go to Cambodia for one week and then to Thailand for the second week, which is where I am now. With a friend from my program, I flew down to Ho Chi Minh City (previously known as Saigon). From there we took a bus for 7 hours to cross the border into Cambodia to the capital city, Phnom Penh. We stayed there for one night in a hostel and took a bus for another eight hours the next morning to Siem Reap, a smaller touristy town in northern Cambodia that’s located right next to the famous ancient temples of Angkor. For two days we rode bikes from our hostel to the temples and spent the entire day there riding from temple to temple. I knew that they acted as a spiritual place for Buddhists today but I didn’t realize that some of the temples were also a place of Hindu worship at one point. After exploring the temples and Siem Reap, we took another bus for eight hours to cross the border into Thailand and get to Bangkok. Thailand is much more developed than Cambodia. There are far more cars, better roads so the cars can drive faster, and Bangkok is a very busy and built up city. But has lovely curving roads that go every which direction, making easy to get lost if you’re trying to bike through the city. The next day after two delicious meals, my friend and I headed for southern Thailand to a place called Krabi. We’ve been here for three days now enjoying the spectacular and world-famous beaches, as well as great pad-thai and curries at the night market. Here are just a few images from a few moments of this great buffer zone vacation I’ve gotten to have before I re-enter the familiar worlds to me and fully begin to process the impacts of this four month long journey I have been on.

234_1008 IMG_8408 DSCN7808 IMG_8653 IMG_8659 IMG_8726 IMG_8846 IMG_8886 IMG_8855

This past weekend, I rented a boat with the majority of my study abroad group for one night in the UNESCO World Heritage site on the coast of Vietnam, just a four hour drive from Hanoi. We had a great time on our beautiful and luxurious boat in Halong Bay, where we were served meals, taken on a tour of a large cave, learned how to make spring rolls, and got to go kayaking! It was one of the most magical places I’ve ever been and one if the best weekends of my life! We were all so happy to be with each other and to be done with all of our final papers but already getting a little sad that we will all be apart from each other too soon.









This past Saturday, our host brother Phuc (10 years old) and his second cousin Charlie (26 years old) took me and Zoe on a bike ride through Hanoi. In addition to seeing a couple lakes (past post) they also took us to the First National University of Vietnam (first picture) where lucky students got to take their final exam from the King. It’s no longer a functioning school but now acts as a popular photographing location for graduating students.

We also went to the Ethnographic Museum where I learned more about the 54 different ethnic groups that live in Vietnam. Outside, I got to see a traditional water puppet show and some traditional architecture from different ethnic groups such as the tall community building below.

And the last picture is of Phuc’s cousin Thanh (12 years old). Last night we all made drawings in my sketchbook together!









Everywhere you go in Hanoi, the streets are being used for something whether its a little pho shop or a fresh veggies stand. Here are a few snippets of things I’ve come across during my first week here, including live chickens on the streets, fruits of all kinds like the beautiful and exotic looking dragon fruit with its little black seeds and mild floral taste, a night market in the old quarter where I got a pair of cartoon overalls and many gifts for under $3, and Vietnamese masks hanging in a side shop.












This past weekend, I biked around Hanoi to visit some of the many lakes in Hanoi.




Typhoon Hyain has already hit central Vietnam, so Hanoi is beginning to feel some of the effects today although so far it’s only been light rain. Tomorrow class is cancelled because there might be heavy rain, wind and flooding so ill be snuggling up inside (although its still 80 degrees) probably watching a Harry Potter movie.

This picture is of the street I live on. I’m currently waiting on my doorstep for someone to open the door. Unfortunately my host parents only have one key for the front door, so it’s been challenging to leave the house on our own when they’re not around.


The night before our first day of class here in Hanoi, my host dad took me on the back of his motorbike to show me where our class was going to meet. So I hopped on, and experienced being in the crazy ocean of motorbikes at night.



After 4 flights and almost 30 hours of traveling, we finally made it to Vietnam! I’m now at a hotel relaxing and excited for dinner. I am so excited for tasty Vietnamese food!! From my room, I hear a constant buzzing and honking from all the mopeds. Hanoi is busy, but there is also so much green space and beautiful parks with lakes and the river is also close-by. So, I’m looking forward to an awesome 5 weeks in Vietnam! Tomorrow I will move to a home stay and I will be rooming with my friend Zoe (with whom I stayed in Rio)!!! More pics to come!


Braai means BBQ for South Africans, and they do it big! This place that we went to called Mzoli’s is becoming a hot spot on Sundays when people come from around the city to eat and hang out. The last image below shows where we first had to buy the raw meat that we wanted so that they can then grill it for us with a tasty sauce. We got lots of chicken and sausage, both juicy and delicious. Then there’s an outdoor seating area where you can try to find a table, but if you’re not there early enough it can be hard to find room. So, we ended up dancing more instead since there were any seats! Below is an image of my friend Abi and I in front of Mzoli’s and below that an image of Abi, Allegra and I soaking in the fun atmosphere.