Lisbon’s street-smart art

A thriving graffiti scene is revitalizing rundown districts

Graffiti artist Jaime in front of a mural outside Lisbon's Júlio de Matos psychiatric hospital.
Graffiti artist Jaime in front of a mural outside Lisbon's Júlio de Matos psychiatric hospital. francisco seco

In Lisbon's Mouraria neighborhood, the painter and anthropologist Lorenzo Bordonaro has decorated some of the streets with artistic compositions revolving around keys and locks that have lain abandoned for over 20 years. It is a kind of everyday archeology: Bordonaro has also rescued plates, spoons, old photographs and glass bottles from a disused local factory, and with them managed to save entire walls of this rundown district.

It is one of the many examples of a strong artistic discipline in the Portuguese capital: street art, which, occurring away from the museums, goes in search of its public instead of waiting for them to come to it.

In the case of Bordonaro, City Hall is also helping him out - not just by providing funds, but also by giving the necessary permission for him to work. He says he found some of the objects in lockers abandoned by the factory workers: "It is unsettling to learn that they were everyday objects that were used on a daily basis. Who used them? When?"

Not far away lies the studio of Camilla Watson, a British photographer in love with Lisbon who is the author of a series of photographs of Mouraria's elderly residents. These, too, have been hung along the area's streets — the very same walls against which they were photographed — and the result is a moving artistic tribute to a unique neighborhood via its inhabitants.

But the frenzy to fill the city with artworks goes beyond Mouraria. Since May several trains on the Lisbon-Cascais light-rail network have also become picture galleries. Covering the train windows without blocking out the light are prints by artist Alexandre Farto, aka Vhils, famous here for his impressive murals that make use of cracks and breaks in walls.

At the same time Lisbon City Hall's dynamic cultural heritage department is on the lookout for the optimum sites for street artists to fill with their paintings. Thus there are now whole buildings, façades, walls and sidewalks that are legally decorated with creations by some of the world's leading graffiti artists, all brought here by city authorities. Right now work is underway on the two kilometers of wall that surrounds the Lisbon Psychiatric Hospital. Over 30 artists have participated in the project and the results are simply spectacular: pictures come one after the other, like an enormous comic, along the highway, with some guidebooks already including it as one of the must-see spots for street art in the city.

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