There is a staggering amount of paint on Porto's walls. Its presence started at least 500 years ago with the Azulejo, the painted tiles that are present on countless building facades throughout Portugal. The mosaics and grids of patterned color are found on everything from interior foyers in modest apartment buildings to huge walls on the sides of grand cathedrals. They can be simple, individual tiles above a doorway, or ornate scenes with religious significance that rival some of the most complex paintings from the Renaissance era.
One of my favorite parts about living in Richmond was the public support of street art. I loved walking through the town and watching artists from around the world and Richmond itself, including some friends, transform aging city walls into objects of beauty. Every day was a new layer. During the projects, I first saw Pixel Pancho's fallen Captain America appear in Shockoe Bottom as the artist painted from a lift in the late afternoon sun on my walk home down Main Street. It was complete in just a few days. After many months ivy crept up over his face and throat, so that nature became part of art, and vice versa.
There has been a lot of debate back home about where to draw the line between art and blight. My old friend Berk got into a pretty heated disagreement with the Norfolk City leadership for a while in the aughts about just that subject. In a few short years, attitudes in Virginia have evolved dramatically, to the point that even Norfolk is supporting street art as "public art," at least in a limited capacity.
There isn't much apparent effort here to cover or remove the paint that appears on walls, fences, old telephone booths, and stairs. There is so much subjectivity involved in determining what is art and what is degradation that most of it is allowed to remain untouched, from the childish scrawl of "FUCK FIFA" on a ledge (apparently someone was a sore loser in the World Cup...) to masterpieces such as this:
We had been walking down a dirt road alongside the river from a high hill surrounded by infinite walls of bright purple morning glories. We wanted to get to the edge of the city walls near the water so that we could cross a foot bridge over into Gaia. Occasional scrappy stray dogs and cats crossed our path, and Shane discouraged me from trying to make friends with them. My internal voyeur was fascinated by our ability to peer down the hillside into families' backyards and gardens, and I imagined what lives were led under the tin roofs draped with wires and suspended shirts, pillowcases, underwear and nightgowns. The people aired their secrets to dry in the summer sun.
I was immersed in the scenery and my own daydreams when we came across that mural. It was about 7 feet high, and on the side of some kind of ramshackle outbuilding. It rendered me breathless. I felt like I was being warned - those lives I watched as though I was a theater patron were real lives, with real people, and real secrets they wanted to keep. The simple image kicked me in the gut.
I wondered why that place was chosen for that picture - did the artist live nearby, under rusted metal and among the scattered corn plots? Did he know about the Americans who would wander through his world on some July day and objectify the local lives in a way that only outsiders can?
None of the other pieces I have seen have had as much of an impact, but I love finding the gems, both hidden and open, and capturing what I can. I wonder if the Portuguese have a more open attitude to "unauthorized" public art because of the centuries of walls being used as templates for painted decoration and expression, or if this tolerance is a recent evolution like what I have witnessed at home.
Hazul is an artist who has matured from a young kid who snuck around tagging in alleys to someone with legitimacy and renown. According to a 2012 article, much of his work is still unauthorized. (Thank you, Google Translate.) His style is unmmistakable and his work is everywhere in this town.
I haven't been able to figure out who all of the artists are, even with the help of an informal index. Here are a few pieces across the spectrum that have caught my eye - more to come as the journey continues, I am sure.
"If we do not have equality for the poor, there is no peace for the rich."
words + pictures by Kara