It was a mild July evening when the two men entered an apartment building in the midst of São Paulo’s urban sprawl and headed for the roof.
Alex Dalla Vechia Costa, 32, and Ailton dos Santos, 33, were pixadores – graffiti taggers who cover the grey buildings of South America’s biggest city with their hieroglyphic scrawl.
Relatives say the two men bluffed their way into the building so they could tag it. But a suspicious caretaker called the police, and after a confrontation, the two men were shot dead.
The case prompted an outcry when five officers were twice held in custody, charged with murder – and then released.
The accused officers were eventually cleared of involvement in their killing last November by a São Paulo judge, who tried the case without a jury.
But according to court documents, the same five officers have been involved in 17 incidents in which civilians were killed. São Paulo state public prosecutors are now appealing the verdict, arguing that the officers “sentenced the two pixador individuals to death and executed them”.
Four years after the killings on 31 July 2014, Costa and dos Santos’s families and friends say they are still waiting for justice in a case which threw a spotlight on São Paulo’s risky graffiti culture – and on the lethality of Brazilian police.
Pixação – as the city’s tagging style is known – has many opponents in São Paulo, who draw a distinction between its barely-intelligible scrawls and more conventional graffiti art.
But pixadores say their designs are a cry of protest from the city’s marginalised communities.
Fabio Vieira, 33, a photographer and pixador who knew Costa, described pixação as a protest against the social alienation and abandonment of a divided city.
Its practitioners relish the challenge of reaching places where their tags will be most visible – often breaking into abandoned buildings or tricking their way past caretakers. “We know it is a crime but we occupy the city,” he said.
In an open letter following the court decision, a group of the city’s pixadores wrote: “What is the bigger crime? To tag your name or to execute someone and hide the evidence?”
In their testimony, the officers said they had been told the building was being robbed, and that the two men had shot first before they returned fire.
Police said they found a revolver and a pistol on the men, as well as stolen goods. Prosecutors argued that that evidence was falsified and the guns had been planted.
Judge Débora Faitarone discounted evidence from two other officers who had testified that they had seen two men being held alive on another floor because of what she said was inconsistencies in their testimonies.
The judge also noted that both victims had criminal records, for stealing and criminal damage. “It is absolutely believable that the victims were armed,” she said in her ruling.
Lawyers for the officers recently said in a statement that no spray paints were found with the dead men, nor was any part of the building painted. “It was another important victory for the police family,” it said.
But relatives said the two victims entered the building to tag not to steal.
On the night of their death Costa had sent WhatsApp messages to friends asking who wanted to go tagging, later published by the human rights website Ponte. Once inside the building, the two men took a selfie in the elevator – standard pixador practice.
“What bandit would do that?” asked Vieira, who later took a photo of Dalla Vechia’s dead hand with paint on it – more proof, he argued, that the men had been tagging before their deaths.
Costa had even appeared in a TV report in which he and other taggers were seen tricking their way into an apartment building before spraying their names from the roof.
The two men’s tags – JETS for Alex Dalla Vechia Costa and ANORMAL for Ailton dos Santos – can still be seen emblazoned across São Paulo.
For their families, the pain continues. Alex Della Vachia Costa worked cutting and polishing marble and had two young sons, Alex Júnior and Lucas with his former partner Erika Ferreira de Sá – also a pixadora – and he also had children with other women.
“He was a great person,” De Sá said. “He went out every night to paint.”
The night he died, he promised to meet her at around 11.30pm but failed to turn up. Police called to tell her he had been killed in a shootout.
“I knew it wasn’t an exchange of fire because he did not go around armed,” she said.
Ailton dos Santos had given up pixação, according to his wife Eliete dos Santos, 33, but, after running into Costa – a childhood friend he took it up again a few months before his death. He left behind a nine-year-old daughter, Stefany.
“The pain that we feel gets worse with time,” said Eliete dos Santos, who has joined support groups with other women whose partners and children have been shot by law enforcement officials.
Brazilian police kill more than 11 people a day, according to 2016 figures from the Brazilian Forum on Public Security, and are often accused of falsifying evidence.
Major Sérgio Olímpio Gomes, a São Paulo lawmaker and police officer, said officers regularly face dangerous armed criminals and suffer exceptionally high mortality rates – 453 were murdered in 2016.
“It is not that police in Brazil are killers,” he said. “We are a dangerous country where the criminals are dangerous.”
Violent crime and police killings are all too common in the periferia – São Paulo’s grim, low-income suburbs which are home to most of the city’s pixadores, said Vieira.
“Pixação is from the periferia. Rich people don’t do pixação,” he said. “It will never end.”