The Politics Behind Portugal’s Art Scene
You may have seen pictures of Lisbon with the walls of the city covered in graffiti. It’s true, there’s street art almost everywhere you look. Maybe at first glance, it seems like artistic vandalism. But looks are not always as they seem…
Street art was once considered pollution and highly illegal in Lisbon. Now, murals around the city depict strong messages supported by the community. In order to give this story justice, I need to take it back to 1974, when there was a military coup to oust the Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.
Lisbon before and after this dictatorship was a completely different city than you see today. There was a massive drug problem, prostitution was rampant, as was street crimes & vandalism.
On April 25, 1974 the Revolução dos Cravo or Carnation Revolution began as a military coup in Lisbon. It’s named the carnation revolution because it was a peaceful revolution. Almost no shots were fired during the revolution which ended the dictatorship and brought democracy to Portugal. It’s during this revolution that carnations were placed in the guns of soldiers around the city to symbolize peace. The carnation being one of the most powerful images of the 1974 revolution and a solid reminder to this day. You’ll notice the carnation represented in various murals across the city.
Taking back the city…
After the downfall of Portugal’s dictator, Salazar, many of his properties laid in disarray, until slowly the people began reclaiming the city spaces for their own. My favorite – Panorâmico de Monsanto.
What was once a high society restaurant with a private area for Salazar turned into an abandoned shell of a building. Boasting absolutely incredible views of Lisbon below, it’s no wonder why this was once an exclusive place.
This former exclusive restaurant is covered in graffiti. There are many political markings and works by popular artists, such as Vhils. As well as an annual hip-hop festival taking place here. This is probably one of my favorite places in Lisbon that I didn’t know existed! I missed out on it the first time but thanks to We Hate Tourism Tours I got a unique look at places like these!
A Community United…
Street art in Lisbon is usually closely related to the community it adorns. This is especially true in the neighborhood of Mouraria in Lisbon. This neighborhood was once a run-down, drug infested slum. Now, the neighborhood is full of life by the many murals adorning its walls.
It is said that the music genre Fado originated in Mouraria, and Fado is now part of UNESCO’s World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. This proud claim to fame is present in the art along the neighborhood.
Residents were very much opposed to the “vandalism” they saw taking over the neighborhood, but street artists wanted to make them feel comfortable. Residents are depicted in a lot of the artwork adorning the neighborhood. This factor, as well as powerful symbols such as the carnation which run present in these murals, has created unique pieces that are ingrained in the history of these communities.
There are also great organizations like Lisbon Street Art Tours which showed us around the Mouraria and Alfama neighborhoods, explaining the historic and cultural significance of these murals. This organization promotes art initiatives within Lisbon, and works within the communities in which they operate.
One of my favorite murals depicted a young brown girl building a wall. The bricks of this wall were made up of the European Union flag, and in the reflection of her glasses you could see people approaching in a boat. This spoke volumes about the refugee crisis that affected much of Europe. How could a young person of color want to close off Europe to those that needed refuge? Many powerful statements like this one line the walls of the Mouraria and Alfama neighborhoods of Lisbon.
One of the interesting things about the street art in these neighborhoods, is that nothing is permanent. Artists continue to paint over and paint new murals, depending on the cultural and political climate of the time. That’s the beauty of street art, here today but gone tomorrow. To be enjoyed now and then make room for more art, more creativity, and more voices to share the same space.
Lisbon is the perfect city to ditch your map and explore. You will be surprised what symbols you will find throughout this eclectic city, as there is art on every street you explore. Just don’t forget to look around and look up! Whether legal (commissioned) works or illegal, they tell a story. A powerful message of Portugal’s history, politics, or social dynamics written on the city’s walls.
Lisbon’s street artists have turned the negative idea that graffiti was vandalism into powerful messages about community and culture. The history of Lisbon is (literally) written on the walls for all to see; a unique dynamic not found in many capital cities of the world. What other city do you know that has legal graffiti, a city that embraces street art to express the ever changing values of its citizens. So go, get lost through the hills of Lisbon and tell me what you find, I promise you will not regret it!
A big thank you to Traverse Journeys, We Hate Tourism Tours, & Lisbon Street Art Tours for the opportunity to travel responsibly and learn the history of Portugal in such a unique way.