Street art shows ‘outward expression of feelings’ in Lisbon

May 4, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-05-22 at 2.18.24 PMGraffiti meets the eyes everywhere in Lisbon where color and symbolism are splashed on the walls in
a startling display. From the city’s iconic yellow trams to the facades of centuries old buildings, this art
from a spray cans adds a unique vibe to Portugal’s capital city.

Helma Geerlings, who is originally from the Netherlands but fell in love with Lisbon, shows locals and
tourists around town in a unique tour of street art and graffiti. Since October of 2012, she has been
sharing her passion of street art with countless visitors.

The two-hour tour leads through different parts of the city: down alleyways, past the trolleys, up some
of the seven hills the city was built on, and through both busy and deserted parts of town.

Geerlings said that a lot of street art is an outward expression of many people’s feelings in Lisbon.

“Young people feel rebellious, get bored or angry, and then spray,” Geerlings said. “Young people don’t
have jobs, and it’s difficult to survive.”

Geerlings explained that some artists do what is called “tagging” and simply scrawl their name or
group’s name and move on. When she passed by a quickly scrawled name in black paint on a tile-
covered facade, Geerlings shook her head. She explained that this is why the locals don’t like graffiti
sometimes, because it destroys history. More eye-catching is the elaborate graffiti that covers whole
walls and obviously took many hours to complete.

Geerlings said that the graffiti can be seen as a way to reclaim public space by the people.

“It’s a political statement: a game about power. Who owns who and what?” Geerlings said. “But it’s also
aesthetical: just to make the world a little bit more colorful and happy.”Screen Shot 2013-05-22 at 2.18.42 PM

She said Lisbon has so much graffiti because the risk of police intervention is very small. Though it is
illegal to spray in Lisbon, the city and artists are collaborating to allot certain legal spaces for painting.
For example, the Urban Art Gallery project was started in 2008 as part of a rehabilitation plan for the
Bairro Alto neighborhood, initiated by the Lisbon City Council. The city council felt the need to create a
place dedicated to street art and graffiti, said Inês Machado, who works in Lisbon City Hall’s Department
of Cultural Heritage.

Machada said the Urban Art Gallery understands the importance of promoting graffiti and street art for
the city’s artistic scene, while firmly refusing vandalism of artistic manifestations such as architecture,
sculpture, painting and tiles.

“The Urban Art Gallery thinks that all these artistic languages can co-exist in the urban landscape, in a
democratic way, always highlighting the importance of cultural heritage preservation, conservation and
restoration,” Machada said.

This collaboration between the city and the artists makes the art less politically driven and more
respected, said Geerlings.

Screen Shot 2013-05-22 at 2.18.02 PM“If I can tell someone put a lot of energy into the piece, than I can respect it,” Geerlings said.

Geerlings herself is a part of the street art scene. After becoming interested in learning all there is to
know about graffiti, and having a background in art, she couldn’t help but try her hand at it.

Geerlings stood surveying a legalized wall where many artists could practice their craft. In the scene,
some art gets drawn over by other artists, but only art that is respected by many is allowed to remain.
She pointed out a flower she had sprayed the night before and then gasped when she realized a brand
new creation had been painted on the same wall, probably in the early hours of the morning.

“They could have painted over mine but they didn’t,” Geerlings said. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”