“I write graffiti because my head and my heart demands me to write. Because I wake up and I go to bed with graffiti in my mind. Because it’s the only thing that makes me forget my problems and my sadness completely. Because it makes me happy.” -Mister Dheo, Portuguese Graffiti Writer.
LISBON, Portugal- Portugal: home to ancient ports, ornate cathedrals, old-time cobblestone streets, and some of the most amazing graffiti in the world today. I stepped off of the bus into Lisbon on a sunny day in autumn, and I was immediately absorbed into the grandiose scene that spread out all around me. I felt as if I had stepped back in time, everywhere I turned I saw the amenities of an ancient stone world, but covering it all, was the luminous shout of the modern age- bright, bold, and extremely well done- graffiti.
All through Lisbon, bright tags emblazon 400 year old porticos, magnificent contorted faces dance upon the high white walls of ancient ports, and highly artistic three dimensional action scenes are spray-painted within the ebb and flow of old-time Portugal. As I walked through this living museum- which concurrently had on display historic relics and modern street art- I realized that I wanted to dig deeper into this contradiction and excavate the world of the Portuguese graffiti artist. I wished to learn how they transformed a cold, stone city into a living, breathing work of art, as well as discover the inner motivation which drives the graffiti artists to risk liberty and limb to display their art so publicly. My mission was to find these silent painters of the night, so that I could hear- in their own words- what graffiti means.
To hear the unspoken messages which scream inaudibly from every piece of graffiti in Lisbon, I met with a writer who goes by the name of Odeith on a brisk Saturday afternoon. He picked me up at the front gate of a giant shopping mall in a shiny black BMW. We were able to identify each other without difficulty, as we both have tattoos that creep out from our clothing and cover our hands, fingers, and necks. We shook hands jovially, and I immediately chided him about his seemingly prestigious choice of vehicle. He laughed and then quickly assured me that his BMW was over 15 years old and worth more separated into spare parts than in its present drive-able condition.
“So, what are you doing? What do you want to know about graffiti?” he then asked me as we jumped into his car and right into the content of my interview.
“I want to know about the philosophy behind graffiti; I want to know what it means and what it communicates.”
“Alright, man,” Odeith then said with a deep smile and a nod of his head, “I will show you my Hall of Fame.”
At this, we turned a corner and drove on through the outskirts of Lisbon. As we rode passed a few middle class neighborhoods, Odeith taught me a little about the social circumstances that he grew up in. “I live in the ghetto,” he said, and then continued to tell me how he had to leave school when he was fifteen to help his father with his furniture business. Odeith told me that his neighborhood, called Cova Moura, is similar to the slums of Rio de Janeiro. I had a difficult time accepting this, as my previous travels in Portugal did not reveal many abject signs of economic disparity to me. But as I listened to Odeith speak, I got the feeling that I was being taken through a gate to the other, darker side of Portugal.
I then asked Odeith how he began doing graffiti, and he told me that his first tastes of the art was, like most graffiti artist, through bombing- illegally painting in various public spaces. “Every weekend we just painted three, four cans on the lines [corridors where the trains run], you know. . . For two years I was dedicated to the silver . . . Then I began thinking about bigger pieces.” And likewise, Odeith’s Hall of Fame- a collection of graffiti murals on a large wall- was born.
As we approached the area of his Hall of Fame, which is on a towering stone wall that surrounds a grade school, Odeith explained that we had entered the frontier between middle class Lisbon and the slums. On one side of this colorfully painted barrier was a pleasant seeming urban suburb, and on the other side was the hill that harbors the infamous ghetto of Cova Moura. Odeith’s graffiti wall- his Hall of Fame- essentially acts as the gateway into the under-side of Lisbon; a warning sign and bold declaration of the horrors that you will find on the inside.
Odeith parked his car on the brink of this frontier, and we approached his masterpiece on foot. The shear magnitude of this stone canvas was behemoth; it was more than 12 ft high and stretched for over 150ft in one direction just to turn a corner and go on for at least 150 more. Most impressive of all, was the fact that this mammoth structure was covered from bow to stern in bright, highly detailed, and immaculately well-done graffiti. I was overcome with shock as I got closer to this surreal monstrosity. It was alive, the paintings moved and breathed harsh tales about the daily struggle for existence. There were wildly painted, cris-crossing letters, realistic faces of women crying and men with big cigars, and illustrations seemed to jump off the concrete to pull you into the stories that are perpetually acted out upon the wall. Odeith was proud of his creation, and he excitedly explained to me how he painted it and what it all means:
“What I like about graffiti is the message. If you enter into the ghetto you see things that most of the people do not see. They are just roaches. Most of the people are just roaches. I try to give a message. If an MC can say something into a mic to the people, you can paint it on a wall. You paint on a wall to show something.”
In his Hall of Fame, Odeith shows us a window into his life on the other side of the wall; of life in the desperate, covered up and ignored ghetto of Lisbon. He then directed my attention to a section of the wall that stands directly above the path up the hill to the Cova Moura ghetto.
“As Baratas Alimentam-se Dos Nossos Restos Nós Dos Restos Do Planeta”- The Cockroaches feed themselves on our leftovers, we on the leftovers of the planet- was written in big letters above a scene of frightening urban decay. “The roaches feed on our leftovers, we feed on the leftovers of the earth. What makes us less disgusting than the roaches?” Odeith ominously restated. He then told me how he wants to paint a large cemetery in the middle of his Hall of Fame, “because no matter what side of the wall you are from, we all end up in the same place.” Odeith then reflected for a moment before continuing,“You know what is a shame, man, for most of the people they only see the corner and what colors I use; they don’t see my feelings, they don’t see the ghetto, they don’t see the kids with drugs.”
So I asked Odeith if we could walk together through the ghetto, so I could get a better idea of what he was talking about and where he came from. He seemed pleased with my interest in his neighborhood, and led the way passed his wall and into the world on the other side. Here the streets were merely dirt-paths, and were lined with shabbily made, discordant houses, broken down cars, and drug-addicts buying fodder for their maniacal habits. Odeith took me around this beaten down community and showed me a few of his graffiti pieces. One was a mural of the rapper Tupac, and served as a memorial to nine kids from his neighborhood who were either shot by the police or other kids. This truly was a world apart from the clean and orderly city of Lisbon, which stretched out in all directions below us. Odeith’s wall was really the gate between two separate realities, and he, the gate-keeper, was treated here as the King of this gutter.
But many people in the city have a difficult time realizing the beauty of graffiti, and it is illegal in Portugal. In lieu of this fact, artists either have to do hurried, quickly-done bombed pieces in the cloister of night, find obscure places to paint where they will not attract attention, or work with the communities that they wish to display their art to obtain permission from land-owners. The Porto based writer, Mr. Dheo, says that, “In Portugal, city councils don’t support graffiti, they don’t care about graffiti artists, they just want to stop graffiti vandalism. So the only way for you to grow up as an artist and have opportunity to work is to try to legalize walls for your own. I use to knock on doors with my portfolio and try my luck.” Odeith’s Hall of Fame was also done with the permission of the land-owner and the enthusiastic support of the local community. “The people love it,” Odeith says in reference to his masterpiece, and this sentiment is reflected by that fact that the people who live immediately adjacent to his wall donated over $350 so that he could purchase paint and supplies. Eskema, another Portuguese graffiti artist, would often take a different route to finding space to paint, and says that, “Most of them [his murals] are illegal, but I always manage to find a quiet, semi-abandoned place where I probably won’t be bothered.”
There are obviously very mixed feelings in Portugal about graffiti. The old Lisbon neighborhood of Barrio Alto is almost 100% covered with bombed, illegal graffiti, and many people in the city want to clean it up. “Graffiti is considered vandalism and destruction of property,” Eskema explains. To this point, Mr. Dheo adds that “. . . it’s obvious that a lot of people don’t like it [graffiti]. Those are the older ones, who don’t understand it, who are not open minded and can’t even separate art from vandalism.”
I pondered these points as I was talking with Odeith, and I asked him what the common people of Portugal think about graffiti. “Do you know Barrio Alto?” he asked me, “Everybody hates it [graffiti] there. But to me it is a newspaper on the walls. Most of the people hate that bullshit. ‘That graffiti, that graffiti’ [they say] . . . To me it is a newspaper. I am reading right now who is in the town, who is more up, who is down. . .if I go to drink some beer in Barrio Alto, people there are talking about football or soccer or something on the TV and I am reading . . .you can tell who is more patient, who is more crazy, it is like a newspaper.”
As I returned to my room in Barrio Alto later that night, I took a detour so I could walk through the graffiti strewn streets and really think about what it all means. I tried to read the walls as if they were a newspaper, and I found that there are hidden stories told through each piece of graffiti that the general populous- who only sees scribbled lines and vandalism- could only conjecture. These are the stories of a people without a voice, and a can of spray paint is the only way they can make their feelings known. Their shouts cannot be heard, but the potent images of their art is forever thrown into the face and scrawled upon the city walls of the status quo that keeps them entrapped in the nameless gutters of society.
Portuguese graffiti is a deep form of art that serves as an ominous reminder that we are walking in the dawning days of the twenty first century- a reminder that we live in a world that is still full of problems and disparities. Graffiti is a message that cries out for us to venture through the gates to the other side of the wall: to realize that we live in a world that is raw, unpolished, and beautiful. Graffiti also delivers potent messages which rise up from the gutters of Portugal and demands to be heard. In essence, graffiti is the voice of the of the streets.
For more information on Portuguese Graffiti and the artists mentioned above, please visit the follow websites:
Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
December 3, 2007