urban art haven
Ever since watching Banksy’s documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, we’ve tried to keep our eyes peeled for some of the pioneer urban artists whose surreptitious stencils, tags, and paste-ups add vibrancy to sometimes drab city neighborhoods. We still have not come upon any of Space Invader’s tile work or the once ubiquitous Obey posters — the brainchild of Shepard Fairey, who prior to creating the Obama Hope design dedicated himself to plastering innumerable city walls the world over with posters of André the Giant. Though the names of the artists who have applied their skills to Lisbon’s walls are less well known, the city is the most graffiti-friendly metropolis we have ever visited, and some of the artwork is nothing short of brilliant.
Of course, we did not know this beforehand, nor did we wander the streets specifically looking for interesting graffiti, so the artwork we saw were pieces upon which we stumbled accidentally and whose history we researched later. For example, we took a peek up the Escadinhas de São Cristóvão, which are layered with graffiti, but Munchkin was asleep in the stroller as we made our way up Alfama’s narrow streets to the old castle, so we did not ascend the steps, which meant missing the famous fado mural at the top of this staircase alleyway.
We did walk up and down the Calçada da Glória, a steep, narrow street that connects the heights of Bairro Alto with Baxia down below. There is a funicular trolley car, appropriately covered in graffiti, that ferries passengers between the two neighborhoods, but for the itinerant visitor the street is better seen on foot. It doubles as the Urban Art Gallery, an ever-changing landscape of spray-painted murals where graffiti artists can paint legally, without the fear of being hassled by the cops.
We spent a week in Lisbon, mostly in the three historic neighborhoods — Alfama, Baxia, and Bairro Alto — that typically draw tourists. Much of the city’s best urban art, of course, is located in the modern, working-class neighborhoods — artwork one is unlikely to stumble upon without specifically looking for it. On our way to the airport for our return flight to Moldova, just outside the radius of the historical city center, we glimpsed Lisbon’s most iconic urban art pieces.
A crocodile stretched across the facade of a four-story building along a major avenue, seeming to look up at the nearly full moon. A dark figure, also four stories tall, stalked across the nightscape of a neighboring building. Other massive paintings, too intricate in detail to discern well from the backseat of a passing cab, adorned the facade of a third adjacent building on this stretch of Avenida Fontes Pereira de Melo.
The trio of buildings, which stood abandoned with their windows bricked over for years until the local government ceded them to renowned street artists to use as a giant canvas, are at the heart of the debate about the value of urban art. On the one side are those who view the graffiti as a scourge, a tangible and very visible reminder of Lisbon’s decline and ongoing socio-economic challenges.
To a certain degree these stodgy critics have a point: Portugal was one of the countries that felt the greatest impact of the Euro crisis, and unemployment — which is still in the double digits — is particularly high among young people. Once the capital of an empire that boasted the world’s most successful explorers and merchants, modern-day Lisbon feels a lot grungier. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It gives the city character, though fending off pushy drug dealers in broad daylight does get a bit tiring. D found that pretty much the only way he could avoid being accosted by someone trying to sell hashish, marijuana, and cocaine was by pushing the baby stroller.
On the other hand, it’s hard to argue that the colorful artwork is not an improvement on these buildings’ previous dilapidated state. Graffiti may at times blur the line between art and vandalism, but when municipalities partner with artists to rehabilitate rundown buildings by creating murals of such impressive scale and detail, it is a win-win for the community. In fact, the makeover of Avenida Fontes Pereira de Melo fits into a larger renaissance that saw the revival of various Lisbon neighborhoods. Cais do Sodré, where we went out one night, is a prime example. It was once Lisbon’s seedy red light district, but since 2011 has been transformed into a cute neighborhood of trendy cafes, bohemian bars, and alternative art spaces.
From a tourist perspective, Lisbon’s urban art explosion is an unalloyed good. The cityscape practically pops with multicolored eye candy.