I zoom around Lisbon thanks to my AirBNB guide Igor (@street.buddha) and Google Earth at 9 am EDT. While most people are still spending a lazy morning in bed or taking the dog out for his walk, my niece Karen and I sit in front of our computers. At precisely 9 am, Igor opens a virtual door to take us inside his world of street art in Lisbon. For the next 90 minutes, I can reach up and pet a 3D fox created by Artur Bordao, hear the fado music ringing in the streets, taste the ginjinha (spicy cherry liquor) and smell the cinnamon wafting off the custard tarts (pastel de natal) in Belem. I also discover one of the most unique birthday gifts to bestow during the pandemic—sharing a virtual experience with a loved one.
Karen and I have been traveling together for the last 12 years. We have explored the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Portugal. Our latest vacation occurred in January 2020 where we trekked in the mountains of Madeira. We ended this trip with a whirlwind two-day tour of Lisbon before catching our flight back to Washington DC. And while we experienced so much—hopping on street cars, climbing hills, walking along the river, petting street cats and getting occasionally lost—somehow we missed its vibrant street art.
So Karen and I went on a magical mystery tour of Lisboa with Igor today, eager to get up close and personal with this burgeoning art scene. Igor bills himself as a guide of “one of the first graffiti walks in Lisbon” (circa 2015). He tells us that we have to “train our eyes” to see street art—which is paradoxically larger than life and yet true to the tiniest detail. “You need to look up and look down and always be in the present moment. Put down your mobile phone,” urges Igor. SEE.
To start our tour, he introduces us to the 3D street art of Bordalo II who creates animal street art from trash. He calls them “Big Trash Animals.” Igor explains how he uses everyday items—grills from cars and old tires—to represent animals on a large scale. Born in 1987, “Artur Bardolo is only 31 years old. I am 32. What was I doing? Sleeping? He is famous,” jokes Igor.
Bardolo is a native of Lisbon. His grandfather (Real Bordolo) was a famous painter known for his watercolors and handcrafted ceramics. He spent his youth hanging out in his grandfather’s studio. I want to go on a safari and hunt down all Bardalo’s animals, including two pelicans in Lisbon and “Owl Eyes.” My personal favorite is his soulful fox, who huddles on the street. His golden eyes penetrate. I want to stroke his brown fur and white muff. A crazy quilt of dissimilar objects covers his back.
Next up we visit the art of Jacqueline de Montaigne, a Lisbon-based painter and muralist born in 1980, who was inspired by the androgyny movement. Her trademark is the incorporation of blue, visually representing melancholy. She paints female twins which look out on the neighborhood. The outlines of their eyes, noses and lips are painted a smokey blue. Life is reduced to black and blue. But a punch of color—bright red—frames their heads. And a bluebird l(which symbolizes happiness and joy) lands on one girl’s forehead.
“In a society obsessed with aesthetic perfection, superficial happiness and clear gender identity, Jacqueline consistently deconstructs these stereotypes in her work, striking to provoke . . .”
From Jacqueline’s art, we travel to Popville. The graffiti “Vive with glitter” is painted across the oversized heads. The artist Sumo Double Devil is known for his embrace of pop culture and superheroes. “His walls are talking to you if you can decode the message,” explains Igor.
Igor says back in 2008 a municipality in Lisbon decided that painting street art “could change the vibe of the place. We used art for change!” says Igor. The Galeria de Arte Urbana (GAU) is dedicated to several exhibition spaces in Lisbon dedicated to urban art. “There are spaces where any artist can freely access and others to which artists can apply, presenting their portfolio/project,” according to the GAU website. The community came alive walking the streets and feeling pride in its home. The next step was to organize street art festivals to attract artists who would share their vision. “Now Porto is following Lisbon’s example,” said Igor. “Give the people a different consciousness.”
As an artist, Igor helps us to understand the work ethic of the urban artist. The rule is you need to let the street artist finish his work, without stealing his space. “If someone takes it over 1 hour later, it is okay. ‘I turn my back to the wall. I take my picture. It is part of the ephemeral life,” says Igor. He shows us multiple examples of street art that was painted over.
“Street art is free on the streets. It doesn’t belong to the galleries,” says Igor. It can shock, cajole and nurture, often simultaneously.
One example pains me. This urban art didn’t last even two days before it was painted over. Luckily Igor photographed it before it was erased. The wildly colorful mural was created by a group of seniors living in a derelict old neighborhood in Lisbon. They were guided by a street artist. It shows two women and a dark blue dove. I believe I see the red carnation, symbol of the 25 April Revolution, superimposed. The sign reads Lisboa, Cidade de Todas as Idades (City of All Ages).
Igor documents the street art through his Lisbon Street Art video documentaries on YouTube because they can disappear overnight. He knows because he is the street artist known as Morpheus II. He helps us to see that like a gallery that urban art must constantly recycle and change to keep interest high.
One of my favorite artists is UtOPiA, a Brazilian artist. Igor tells us that he now lives in Lisbon. He works at Double Trouble Studio in Carcavelos. He is part of an artist consortium that includes pioneer graffiti artist and street art in Portugal Nomen and Ram.
UtOPia’s signature is the ladybug. His painting is surreal. Think Japanese animae meets pop art. There is a closeup of a section of a young girl’s face, focusing on her eyes and cutting off her lips. “To the right side is blue and the moon, to the left side is the yellow sun. It is ying and yang. Everyone belongs to a utopia, a community,” says Igor.
I can imagine the young girl’s eyes following me as I roam the streets of Lisbon. She reminds of photos of refugees begging to cross borders. A ribbon of turquoise crosses her face. The galaxy of stars imprinted on a velvet blue sky steers our thoughts toward the heavens.
Igor surprises us by showing his own “paste up” street art, “Wake Up Humans.” It shows a woman in a gas mask in the year 2039. “I made it in November to save the earth.” He didn’t fathom that just four months later, Lisboa and the world would be putting on masks to fight the invisible enemy lurking on the streets.
You have to take Igor’s Lisbon Street Art Virtual Adventure to truly appreciate his knowledge about his city and the burgeoning street art scene. The 90-minute tour reveals dozens of street paintings that define this city and its people. As Igor says, “Lisbon is old” yet being reinvented. I feel a passion for artists who help us to see our world in new ways, whether through words, paint, musical notes or recitations. We can learn so much if we can only listen and feel other’s pain and joy.
P.S. A special thanks to Karen’s boyfriend Robert who managed to find a restaurant in Silver Spring, Maryland who sells pastel de nata for takeout during this pandemic. Robert surprised Karen with this treat before our virtual street art adventure. (I was also the lucky recipient of this delicious Portuguese custard tarts!)
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