Lisbon, Tattooed City
A stroll with VHILS
Oh, graffiti. Like pigeons, it is found in urban centres all over the world. And, as with pigeons in a town square, an expanse of graffiti emits an overall appearance that reads as a mass of similarity and muchness. There are the occasional stunning ones that command attention, and should you stop to examine each of the others individually, you can usually find something of interest. Lisbon has accumulated a particularly potent array of accomplished urban artwork that warrants inspection. DAMN° perambulated through the streets of the city with VHILS, one of its master urban artists, who lent his perspective.
VHILS’s own 3D crew recently finished a piece on another, not-yet-legally-tolerated wall in front of the biggest shopping mall in the city centre. The wall is covered in a variety of old and new, Portuguese and international masterpieces, most of them quite critical, some merely artistic. “You’ll probably get more from the walls in a city than from television and other media… People write what they want on a wall. And that’s the good thing about graffiti, too: people can get their word out, without having to sign their message. Which means freedom of speech still exists on walls. Urban art makes the public space interesting again in a time when it’s losing importance due to social media – thus, it reanimates the public space as an environment where people can discuss things: abandoned buildings, for instance, are overlooked until there’s graffiti on them... Then, all of a sudden, people start to notice and to discuss what should happen with the abandoned heritage. It’s important that with modern technology and so on, real public space gets as interesting as virtual environments on the internet, and urban art can help a great deal in doing that job. And hey, if you have space for advertising in a city, just for the sake of selling things, you should also have space for artists in the public domain, just for the sake of art”, concludes VHILS, reluctant to show his face – “the message, not the messenger”.
When Alexandre Farto was born in Lisbon some 26 years ago, the city was still recovering from over 40 years of dictatorship and poverty. On the walls of the city were the remnants of revolutionary graffiti. “Unfortunately, only very few examples were kept. That’s the fate of graffiti: “It’s ephemeral”, says VHILS, the moniker adopted by the Portuguese urban artist who was launched by Banksy. We meet him at his brand new studio, from where we embark on an extended walk along the many ‘worked’ walls of Lisbon, a much-tattooed entity stretched-out along the sunny banks of the river Tejo. Some of the surfaces bear his own work, while many others feature the work of fellow urban artists.
After a couple of years as a London resident, VHILS – who excavates layers of paint, graffiti, and billboards with the dedication of an archaeologist, while creating his signature carved portraits in cities all over the world – is now back in his hometown. “The decaying beauty and many layers of history make Lisbon a nostalgic city – a capital full of crumbling buildings and, due to Portugal’s colonial heritage, of many different faces from various continents. And now that so many young people are leaving the country because of the harsh economic crisis and defaulting government, I have decided to come back and set up a studio here.” Not that he suddenly became sedentary – on the contrary, VHILS and his team regularly fly to Shanghai, Rio, New York, and everywhere in-between. “We use the streets to bring a message.”
“With the crisis, artists started to do more political pieces, which is quite interesting. Some Portuguese urban artists get really critical, like MAISMENOS”, VHILS says, showing us some of his work at Underdogs Gallery, the venue for urban art he launched last summer in a part of Lisbon once destined to become the creative district, but which was scuttled when the crisis hit in 2008. Now there is an atmosphere particular to dying neighbourhoods, where urban art flourishes. MAISMENOS or + , aka Miguel Januário, is an emerging talent. "He’s vetting society, which is increasingly becoming a supermarket", VHILS explains while pointing to another work that states ‘Until debt tear us apart’ at LX Factory, a 23,000 square-metre former industrial complex that was transformed into an arts centre and has now become so gentrified that the first occupants cannot afford it anymore and have to move out – to places like the Underdogs hood.
VHILS, who declares that gentrification is an unavoidable urban development – Lisbon is increasingly sold-out to foreign real estate groups, to be transformed into yet another Barcelona-like mass tourism paradise – turns out to be no-less-than an urban activist when carving out portraits of the inhabitants who had been evicted in Providência – the oldest favela in Rio – on the sides of what remained of their homes. He did the same kind of socially engaged work in Shanghai, and he’s planning more such projects. A book about these and other ‘social’ projects will be published by Gallimard in March 2014. “I’m not against gentrification when it comes naturally. But if it’s top-down and if it comes with the extinction of the inhabitants, like because of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Brazil, it can’t be tolerated. We drew attention from the world press to the cause of these poor, powerless locals, and gave them a face – the result is that they can now stay and the government will finally provide the services they should have provided years ago.” It proves that urban artists can do slightly more than just tag trains – in Lisbon, it’s hard to find walls, trains, or street furniture without signature tags. VHILS defends this as being a necessary evil: “Every great urban artist once started by tagging. And by handling trains you learn to work fast, organise yourself, and perform under pressure (if the police catch you, it’ll cost you a fortune). This offers excellent informal learning opportunities.”
Portuguese architectural historian António Sérgio Rosa de Carvalho nevertheless thinks it a shame, even if buildings are covered with masterpieces like the ones from the Brazilian twin brothers, Os Gêmeos, and the Italian urban artists in Lisbon’s business district. “That kind of graffiti, however beautiful, shouldn’t be on the only four remaining historic buildings in that neighbourhood. Those precious buildings should be renovated, not painted. Even a masterpiece like the one by Os Gêmeos denotes that this heritage is worth nothing and is ready for demolition. Governments pretend to be modern by inviting artists, but they’re actually using them to demolish the city’s heritage!” Lisbon City Hall recently launched a campaign against graffiti, consisting of an abundant cleaning programme in the city centre (so tourists who don’t leave the beaten track won’t see any disturbing tags), huge fines for those who are caught, and legal urban galleries for ‘artistic graffiti’. VHILS seems to have inspired the authors of the new law, since they explicitly mention ‘carving´ as a practice to be eradicated. If it’s up to the city government, urban artists will only be allowed to work at spots like the wall of fame near the 25 de Abril Bridge, named after the revolution, where we halt for a moment to look at a carved portrait by VHILS and many other works by fellow urban artists. “Places like these are important, where artists can work steadily without fear of the police catching them. But it can’t only be this…”