Taking in the streets in Lisbon and Porto, the two largest cities in Portugal, can often feel like strolling through any one of the world’s great art museums. Amongst the cobblestone alleyways, one can discover eye-popping tags, murals, sculptures and statuary that rival some of the most celebrated art neighborhoods of the world. The spotlight of street art has so far been pointed elsewhere in the minds of art tourists–New York, Berlin, Mexico City, and beyond–but a turbulent national history in the small European country has given way to a modern culture of devotion to art and artists. This devotion stretches back some two hundred years, and solidifies Portugal’s place amongst the global centers for creative expression, and you’re totally missing out.
Centuries of empire brought Portugal to the world. At its height in 1815, The Portuguese empire covered 4 million square miles and included Angola, Goa, Macau, and Brazil among others. It comes as little surprise that the art in present-day Portuguese cities is as diverse in its offerings as the distant lands the country once claimed dominion to. But all this vibrance is on the whole, something new.
From 1928-74, Portugal suffered a string of oppressive totalitarian dictators. The puritanical António de Oliveira Salazar spent much of the country’s economic and human resources trying to hang onto the vestiges of a colonial empire long gone and drove Portugal to ruin before suffering a stroke in 1968. His successor, Marcello Caetano, would be overthrown a few years later in the Carnation Revolution of 1974 for following in Salazar’s onerous footsteps.
It was during those years of political upheaval in the 1970s that the artists of Portugal, inspired by revolutionary art in Maoist China and Castro’s Cuba, found their voice on the walls of Lisbon and Porto. The decades since have seen a bloom of art influenced largely by the countries the Portuguese empire came into contact with. The import of mural art from Brazil and graffiti from Western Europe has become integral to the Portuguese street scene.
I met Justin Phame and Bella Risorio, the artist couple behind BellaPhame, at the Sao Bento Station in Porto, Portugal. São Bento is a grand old railway station from the turn of the twentieth century, made famous by a sprawling work of 20,000 azulejos tiles by the master tile artist Jorge Coaço. The tiles at São Bento – each painted on a dichromatic scale of blue to white – are considered by the Portuguese to be one of the best examples of the Azulejos style, which itself epitomizes the Portuguese aesthetic. Azulejos began as an importation of the Moorish rulers of the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century. Since then, the artform has gone through several periods, being deeply affected by the many nations Portugal interacted with in the centuries of its past colonialism and the wealth the tiny nation amassed as a result.
Anywhere you go throughout Portugal, the azulejos seem to find their way comfortably into the lived environment; from farmhouses to statehouses, from alleyways to the sides of the highways. In the same way one might feel attracted to a familiar cultural habit, such as gardens are familiar to the British, or how Americans are drawn to the familiarity of tire swing on a front lawn, or having a well-maintained place of offering in the home for elders and ancestors is in East Asian cultures, the tiles of Portugal create a uniquely recognizable footprint on the public spaces of the country.
Justin born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and Bella, a former dancer from Rio De Janeiro, have created their own dichromatic motif of a deep purple and verdant green. Since they began painting together in 2015, they have not deviated from this on more than a few occasions. Their street art is emblemized by a single image: two arms clasped in a hug, taking the shape of a heart. “We wanted something that brought people together and gave them a moment to stop and just think about kindness. Like, radical acceptance” Justin said. “If you have one image out there speaking for you everywhere, wall after wall and street after street, it better be a part of who you are.”
“We wanted something that brought people together and gave them a moment to stop and just think about kindness. Like, radical acceptance. If you have one image out there speaking for you everywhere, wall after wall and street after street, it better be a part of who you are.”
My girlfriend and I spent an evening with Justin and Bella walking through Porto. As the sun gradually cast long rays of orange light over the streets, you could see the rich mosaic of the colorful houses on the hills above the Douro River. Justin pointed out numerous gems amongst the bluffs of the city–a giant face mural here, and hub of street art waiting to be discovered there– over a few cold beers one evening in November.
They developed this new cross-pollination after coming to Portugal in 2017. The two-color collaborations were suddenly their best known work, and most sought after. “Just after we got settled [in Porto], and really got things going, we received several large contracts in the US” Bella says, “people were reaching out and asking us to come paint the entire sides of buildings.”
About one in five buildings in Porto are condemned. Some are boarded up tight, with plywood and barbed wiring, while others are hollow shells, slowly crumbling inwards. Many homes are visibly unoccupied in neighborhoods adjacent to tourist scenters. Rent in Porto is exceedingly cheap. Now, an apartment with two bedrooms in the city’s most central neighborhoods runs around 800 euro a month. Nestled on the Iberian coast, Porto enjoys a steady and temperate four seasons, and is never truly too cold to paint.
Much of the same can be said for the capital, Lisbon, another city by the sea. Ever since the wealthy kings of Portugal raised a colonial empire that stretched to the far corners of the known world, the port and surrounding hills of Lisbon have been a hotspot for artists, poets, and musicians. More recently, it has been one of the best places in Europe to see top-tier graffiti and street art. “It’s thanks to the rules here,” Justin says, “that we can go out into the street and make our art so long as it’s not an eyesore. If someone is just doing a tag, an officer may come along and give them a hard time, but when it’s obvious that you’re putting in more effort, you can usually talk your way out of any trouble [interactions with police] you might run into.”
“It’s thanks to the rules here that we can go out into the street and make our art so long as it’s not an eyesore. If someone is just doing a tag, an officer may come along and give them a hard time, but when it’s obvious that you’re putting in more effort, you can usually talk your way out of any trouble [interactions with police] you might run into.”
The other reason for the massive presence of street art is thanks to the culture of urban planning and incremental beautification in places like Lisbon and Porto. Many of the oldest neighborhoods in both cities have remained virtually unchanged for the past four-hundred years (since a great earthquake rocked Lisbon and the surrounding areas in 1755), and the recent economic hardships facing much of the European Union have caused an immense housing surplus. Even in the tourist-ready areas, buildings can be found in disrepair; slowly fading into the background of the . Street art has become a way for Portugal to reclaim these spaces, and attract new streams of tourism.
Walking around Lisbon, one notes a distinctive mixture of messy tags and more expressive works of paint and paper. In the past, there was a consensus of anger amongst residents that the graffiti in the city had gotten out of control, and in the early 2000’s, numerous cleanup efforts were made by the city government, but with little success. Then, in 2008, the City Council of Lisbon made a compromise that would transform Lisbon into a gathering place for street artists of all kinds.
After yet another failed building cleanup campaign in Barrio Alto, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, the Lisbon City Council and local arts advocates hatched a plan to erect several panels along the Calçada da Glória, the famed street in Barrio Alto that is home to one of the six trolley lines, that have been in operation since 1873. The body that manages this space, dubbed the Galeria de Arte Urbana (or “GAU”), wanted to create a template for artists who truly wished to contribute to the culture of their city, and that template has since become a funnel for supplying Lisbon’s walls with one of the most diverse displays of street art anywhere in the world.
Apart from the spaces like the Calçada da Glória, which GAU directly maintains, the now fourteen-year-old offshoot of the Department of Cultural Heritage of the Lisbon City Council has successfully launched projects ranging from youth and elderly education programs, recycling initiatives, and even ran an annual art magazine from 2012-2018. GAU developed the first codified system for any artists seeking to put up work in Lisbon. With an official review process, both residents and artists feel vindicated. The city wins in the long run with new streams of tourists coming to see the art, but even the art that is unsanctioned is subject to court of public opinion. Any artists who do thoughtful work (that is, most anything beyond a mostly illegible subway bomb-tag) are able to work unmolested by law enforcement. Those that don’t meet muster are painted over by the city in short order.
In the years since the GAU’s inception, globally recognizable names like Shepard Fairey, Shiro, and even Banksy have made pit stops in Portugal. These days, the Internet is heavy with travelers’ blog posts highlighting some of the notable works in Lisbon and in Porto, but perhaps the greatest sign of success for the GAU and the art scene in Portugal as a whole is that it’s virtually impossible to capture the diversity of work in either city.
“If I go out there and just scribble a tag, I might get harassed and ticketed,” Justin Phame tells me, “but if it’s clear that there’s some artistic value, even with something abstract, I won’t be bothered. At most, I’ll have to explain what I’m doing.”
Perhaps, there is a lesson for other cosmopolitan cities in the policies being adopted in Lisbon and Porto. When public spaces are not allowed to be colonized by artists, they don’t truly feel public. One artist collective, Radical Playground, paid a visit to both cities during the summer of last year (2021). The group focuses exclusively on paste-ups–paper art that can be applied anywhere as stickers or with glue, and their characters are often wearing old-school blue and red 3-D glasses, as if watching the world that is watching them.
One of Radical Playground’s pieces was just outside my AirBNB: a small image of a young man pasting a “No Violence” poster on the wall as he is assaulted by a police officer in riot gear. “Our art isn’t directed at one topic,” says Antoine [last name withheld], founder and chief creator at Radical Playground ”we want these images to make people think generally about the world we live in and the space we are all meant to share.”
For a couple of artists who are used to harassment from local authorities, Antoine and his team were welcomed warmly in Portugal. “After the first few days, I had all sorts of walking tour groups, local artists, and others reaching out to me, inviting me to join them here or there, and even a few offers to do more work. It was a very special feeling.”
“After the first few days, I had all sorts of walking tour groups, local artists, and others reaching out to me, inviting me to join them here or there, and even a few offers to do more work. It was a very special feeling.”
To paraphrase the words of the GAU, the preservation of a city’s identity and aesthetic is made possible through the realization of urban art. Even as a country mired in economic downturn, Portugal is a street artist’s paradise. It is a relatively cheap answer to the would-be tourist or the eager artist seeking the sprawl of a European city with heritage that can be felt on every street corner. Since the recent break in the global pandemic, Portugal has seen a slight resurgence in tourism, and the artists, both native and expat, have ushered in an exciting new wave of revitalization to one of the world’s lesser-known artistic gems.