A Street Art Enthusiast's Guide to Lisbon
A stroll through Lisbon’s hilly streets immediately reveals why the capital has recently become a social media darling: It offers a delicious visual feast that does very well on Instagram. Colorful azulejo tiles that decorate most walls as well as the stone mosaic pavements, known in Portuguese as Calçada Portuguesa (both distinctly embedded in the country’s cultural heritage), have captivated jets-etting aesthetes. But scrolling through the Lisbon hashtag on Instagram, which at the moment features nearly 8.5 million posts, another artistic style is not only making its fair share of appearances but also adding a contemporary layer to the open-air museum that is Lisbon: street art.
It might not yet have the reputation of Berlin, São Paulo, or Melbourne — cities that are specifically traveled to because of its street art landscape, but Lisbon is massively invested in becoming such a destination. In fact, from now until Oct. 27th, the Cordoaria Nacional in Belém is home to the traveling “Banksy: Genius or Vandal” exhibit, which has installed an exhaustive look at the British artist’s body of work, including an original silkscreen from the iconic Girl with Balloon series.
But the city’s commitment to becoming a premier street art destination started back in 2008 when its municipal office launched Galeria de Arte Urbana (or GAU) to identify partnerships with global artists on mural projects. When it began, it was a way to build up the Lisbon’s visual narrative through dedicated public art while simultaneously discouraging random acts of vandalism. Since GAU has been in place, it’s estimated that at least 1,500 pieces have been registered through the activation — featuring artists like Spanish duo PichiAv and EAJ from France.
But Portugal also has an incredible pool of homegrown talent. Alexandre Farto, who was raised across the river from Lisbon in Seixal, has become one of the art world’s premier figures under the name Vhils. He is particularly renowned for his style of physically etching his work into the surface he’s using, whether a concrete wall or a piece of wood. You can find his murals all over the capital (but also in fancy restaurants in cities like Vegas and New York). One of the most visible is on Rua de São Tomé in Alfama — a tribute to Fado singer Amália Rodrigues which combines his unique etching process with the traditional Portuguese pavement patterns.
In 2010, Vhils co-founded Underdogs, a street art platform that commissions its own large-scale collaborations with creatives from all corners of the planet — from Pixelpancho to Sainer. One of the most easily accessible is located in Cais do Sodre: old riverfront warehouse buildings cloaked with a colorful mural by Brazilian outfit Bicicleta Sem Freio. But because many of the other pieces are not in central Lisbon, by-appointment-only private guided tours to various murals can be organized. Underdogs also operates a gallery in the northeastern neighborhood of Marvila that showcases works by the likes of André Saraiva, Shepard Fairey, and, of course, Vhils himself. Recently, musician Fatboy Slim was invited to curate an exhibition inspired by his trademark, the smiley face.
There are many other outfitters in Lisbon dedicated to the art form. The YesYouCan.Spray Collective, for instance, leads street art tours around town and hosts all sorts of workshops, from stenciling walls to spray painting your own tote bags. And if you think that the graffiti world is a young person's game, consider reaching out to Mistaker Maker. In addition to organizing public art festivals all over Portugal, the organization also invites seniors (65 and older) to get into the world of street art through its LATA65 program, where they learn all about the art of tagging.
And for travelers who really want a holistic street art experience, consider staying at the 1908 Lisboa Hotel (from $247/night) in the up-and-coming district of Intendente — located across the street from the iconic seafood hotspot Ramiro. Named after the year the original building was erected, this Art Nouveau gem (one of the very best examples of the style in the country) has been brought to life with fabulous street elements, including a dragonfly installation in the lobby by Lisbon-native Bordallo II, who created it using — among other materials – scraps found during the renovation. The elevator chute, too, has been given an artsy twist by Supervan, who painted a three-floor black-and-white mural telling the history of this colorful neighborhood.