Lisbon, Portugal - Run-of-the-mill graffiti started to cover Lisbon in the 1970s, with taggers emboldened by the democratic revolution.
These days, the street art has moved from the background to front and centre as the Portuguese capital has transformed itself into an open-air museum, proudly awash in eye-catching murals, with much of the art sanctioned by the city.
During a springtime visit, my wife and I arranged a tour with one of the street scene's top curators, Underdogs, a private organisation devoted to public art and education. Underdogs recently expanded its outreach program to include more tours and opened a lively retail outpost fronting the Tagus River. Most tours begin and end there.
For our first stop, in the Marvila parish 10 minutes northeast of the city centre, we needed binoculars.
“That's a really cool one,” our guide, Marina Rei, said, pointing up to a tall building in the distance with a splash of red, yellow and blue at the top. “It's by Spanish artist Okuda. He loves strong colours and always includes a fat lady and a flag of America.”
If you say so, I thought, squinting and hoping other art would be closer. Fortunately, the maps Rei had given us did show details of 22 installations, including the one by Okuda and other artists that Underdogs has commissioned since it started in 2010.
A quick drive took us to a weedy courtyard behind Fábrica Braço de Prata, a former munitions factory partly transformed into a cultural centre. At this stop, the art was so close that we could trace the lines with our fingers. Images covered the concrete panels of the inner wall, especially those by Underdogs founder Vhils, otherwise known as Alexandre Farto.
With his creative reductive techniques, Vhils helped push the boundaries of outdoor art in Lisbon and internationally. Instead of adding layers to walls, Vhils chisels them away with electric hammers, drills and sometimes even explosives, exposing bits of brick, concrete and construction materials.
His trademark images - carved portraits of everyday people - filled several walls here. Vhils's faces also are sprinkled across greater Lisbon, sending art-loving visitors on a treasure hunt to locate them. The artist's work can be found around the world, and he has opened a second studio in Hong Kong.
We drove past the Underdogs Gallery, located in an old warehouse in an industrial part of town, miles from the retail spot in an area more frequented by tourists. Underdogs also uses the gallery space, which was closed between exhibits when we visited, for concerts, readings and performances.
The art at our next location, just around the corner, was unexpectedly warm and gentle.
The French artist Olivier Kosta-Théfaine had covered a home on a city street with light blue and white tiles, a nod to the gorgeous Portuguese patterned tiles that remain on many of Lisbon's centuries-old buildings. The artist included paintings of a species of flowering ivy that commonly grows from wall and pavement crevices, a reminder of nature's persistence in urban environments.
“This is one of my favourite ones,” Rei said. “It's really important for us to show more than graffiti. This was part of a program where we ask people to donate their wall for art and we give the art as a public service.”
When Underdogs commissions artwork, it provides space and materials, hosts a gallery show and offers limited-edition prints for sale. The artist roster is international and include Los Angeles collective Cyrcle as well as How and Nosm, German twins who grew up in Spain and are now based in New York City.
The city of Lisbon has its own public-art program, called Galeria de Arte Urbana, or Gallery of Urban Art, started in 2008. While it has no permanent gallery space, it sponsors special events and makes surfaces available to artists, including walls, buildings and even recycling bins.
Ironically, one mural Rei took us to - a tongue-in-cheek political piece by Brazilian artist Nunca showing famed navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral asking for a handout - had been “graffiti-bombed,” tagged in clashing colours by another street artist.
“My first reaction when I saw it was, really?” Rei said. “But then I thought, it is what it is. Everything you do on the street in the end could be gone. It's all ephemeral.”
Our visit coincided with the city-sponsored Festival de Arte Urbana LX (Festival of Urban Art). To save time for that, we bypassed the famed Crono Project, which Vhils hatched in 2010, convincing the city to invite artists to transform neglected buildings in the business district. Arte Urbana was staged in the Padre Cruz neighbourhood, several miles from Lisbon's centre, in part to draw people to a multicultural neighbourhood that some perceive as dangerous, Rei said, making its mission social as well as artistic.
We arrived early in the two-week event, and only a few murals were up, but they were impressive. One, by Portuguese artist AKACorleone, whom Underdogs represents, scaled a six-story building with a bold dance of colour, large angular faces and thick, clean typography. Nearby, Goncalo Mar had painted a glowing giant half-man, half-sea-turtle and could be seen on scaffolding starting another piece. Up the street, Vanessa Teodoro, one of the few women on the scene, sketched out on a wall a design she would later fill in with colour.
We chatted with Robert Panda, whose “Stupid” series offers another kind of public art - sculpture - as he cleaned residual paint around the sleek form of a human sitting slumped on a walkway.
“I usually make them with papier-mâché, but someone stole the last one, so this time I'm using concrete,” Panda explained, giving the bald head a hard knock for emphasis.
We ended the tour at the Underdogs store, which that evening was buzzing before an opening exhibit featuring a 10-year retrospective of Vhils's work. The store carries limited-edition prints from its roster of artists, as well as clever artsy objects and T-shirts. The shop, opposite the busy Cais do Sodré transit hub, shares space with the Lisbon outlet of Montana, a German spray-paint company affiliated with street art. Also at the site is a cafe with a waterfront patio, offering a perfect rest stop.
The next day, Underdogs maps in hand, we went on a self-guided art hunt. At Rei's suggestion, we took the metro to the Alcântara-Mar stop, whose gritty underground doubles as a miniature museum packed with Lisbon-themed images. At street level, we tracked down a popping geometric piece by How and Nosm, painted in the duo's distinctive red, pink, black and white palette; as well as two punctured portraits from Vhils.
All were near the landmark rust-red 25 de Abril Bridge and the LX Factory, a former manufacturing complex artfully rehabbed to house boutiques, cafes and creative industries. Next door is the Village Underground, a shared work space area using creatively stacked shipping containers, decorated on the back side with a sprawling AKACorleone mural and sporting a “Stupid” guy perched on a container, looking pretty smart.
We managed to squeeze in one final Vhils the next day as we rolled our luggage from the centuries-old Alfama section on the way to the airport.
The river-facing mural, a collaboration with Italian artist PixelPancho, depicts a figure blowing good fortune onto a beat-up boat, a nod to Portugal's seafaring past. A few dozen yards away sat a huge cruise ship berthed for the day, delivering a few thousand more viewers to Lisbon's public gallery.
* Daniel is a writer based in the Netherlands. Her website is bydianedaniel.com.
If you go...
What to do
Underdogs Public Art Store
Rua da Cintura do Porto de Lisboa
Armazém A, 3-20, 1200-450, Lisbon
Tours by appointment, from $34 to $168 (about R480 to R2 300) per person, depending on size of group and method of transportation. Tours, which includes a map, last three hours with an option to customize. Self-guided street-art maps cost $4.50.
Lisbon Street Art Tours
Summer tours on Sunday and Wednesday, reservations required. Payment on donation basis; $12-$17 suggested.
Lisbon Destination Tours: Street Art Tour
Tours throughout the week, reservations required; $23.50 per person for a three-hour tour.
Pancho Tours: Street Art Walking Tour
Tours daily, reservations required; $25 per person for two to four people for a 2.5-hour tour.